Amazon's Kindle May Not Be About Books Alone - InformationWeek

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11/20/2007
10:53 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
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Amazon's Kindle May Not Be About Books Alone

The more I read about Amazon's Kindle device, the more I realize Amazon's managed to sell one thing and call it another. It's not an "electronic book" -- it's a portable vending machine for syndicated content and EVDO access. And if it works, it might hint at a new way to sell high-speed wireless access to the Internet as a whole, albeit in a heavily closed-ended way.

The more I read about Amazon's Kindle device, the more I realize Amazon's managed to sell one thing and call it another. It's not an "electronic book" -- it's a portable vending machine for syndicated content and EVDO access. And if it works, it might hint at a new way to sell high-speed wireless access to the Internet as a whole, albeit in a heavily closed-ended way.

The single smartest thing about Kindle is not the device itself -- which is as closed-ended as any cell phone currently made -- but how the network access costs are diffused through the cost of the device and the material you buy for it. The device uses the EVDO network for connectivity, but Amazon eats the connection costs: It assumes that you'll buy enough content for the device (and that enough devices will be sold) that the transmission fees will be more than paid for.

Therefore, you're not just buying the books -- you're buying wireless, go-anywhere access to a whole slew of content that Amazon is providing for you in that form. Aside from the books and periodicals available through Kindle, Amazon also has made it possible to read Wikipedia articles. Not only can you look up terms such as eudaemonism and Shinsengumi on the go, but you have a taster of how the device could provide access to any number of other sites further down the line. It almost makes irrelevant the fact that the device is a closed ecosystem akin to the Zune -- not in the sense that you can't download your own content to the device, but in terms of how its most useful functionality is rigidly and scrupulously controlled.

My guess, then, is that's one of the long-term goals with Kindle -- not just to sell books, but to use the selling of certain media as a way to finance Internet access. Perhaps over time the user could add a generic Internet access "tier" to the device for X dollars a month, or they could subscribe to any other 10 sites for $2 a month, or some variation on that pricing scheme. It sounds great on the surface of it, but I worry that, like most any other content-control scheme, it could get hairy. Suppose you subscribe to a site that has a lot of external linking not covered by the plan? Would they charge you $1 per "unsubscribed" domain? (How about ad banners?)

Customer reviews of the device have been mixed, with most of the criticisms focusing on whether paying $400 for something like this was worth it. I partly agree about the hardware, "electronic paper" or not, especially when you can get a far more open device like the Asus Eee for about the same amount of money. The Eee deals with more types of media, too: the Kindle apparently doesn't even handle .PDFs yet out of the box, but I'd bank on that being something that can be fixed with a firmware upgrade.

(Update: As a reader pointed out, the Newsweek piece on the device mentions: "if you or a friend sends a word document or PDF file to your private Kindle e-mail address, it appears in your Kindle library, just as a book does." I'd rather have the ability to just copy PDFs directly to the device, but this is not too bad, and it is possible to copy other files onto the device as well -- like Word documents.)

(And finally, there's the whole question of whether any device can replace a paper book, which I don't feel is the case, but is worth a post on its own.)

But Amazon's selling more than books here. It is selling controlled access to the Internet in a wholly novel -- pardon the pun -- way. And closed-ended as it is, it might actually be more valuable to some people than a go-anywhere-do-anything plan.

Do you see a Kindle in your future? Let me know why or why not.

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