Amazon Kindle: do we need it?

The Kindle is a new e-book reader, this time being marketed by Amazon. While I am a fan of all things Amazon, I don’t feel they read the market (or lack thereof) correctly on this one. Basically, it’s another e-book reader, a product that has not exactly flown off of shelves in past iterations. And it has other restrictions, which make it a dubious purchase at best.

Maybe I’m old fashioned at heart, but I just don’t get the idea of an electronic book reader.  True, you can carry dozens, even hundreds of books around in electronic form in this device, but as many people have been saying, who reads more than one book at a time?  One argument is that music listeners carry around thousands of tunes in their MP3 players, but music is more of a short-lived random access experience in comparison to a book.   You could listen to a dozen songs picked at random, or play through an album or two over the course of an hour.  A book is a more linear epxerience and, in the case of many books, they’ll take days if not weeks to read.

Well, at least books read for pleasure.  One situation where the Kindle makes sense is for reference books.  How handy would it be to have an electronic encyclopedia, a couple dozen cookbooks and a dictionary, four almanacs and a handful of travel guides at your fingertips?  It would be nice!  Or what if you are working in the field on repairs, and have the ability to look up schematics, parts listings in numerous catalogs and reference guides while you are on the job site?  How about schoolbooks?  Wouldn’t it be neat to download the current semester’s textbooks to your Kindle, and take a small device into your classes rather than lug around a backpack full of heavy books?  As for reading books or other publications (magazines, newspapers, etc.), it may not be as convenient.  A book is cheap in comparison, and it’s also easy to use and access.  But if you ever had a need to carry a small library of material around with you for reference purposes, the Kindle may provide this for just such a niche.  If such material were available.

Unfortunately, everything you purchase has to be available through Amazon’s own Whispernet wireless network.  This is not WiFi, but instead is based on cellular 3G network technology, so you do not have to locate a WiFi hot spot in order to connect.  And herein lies a weakness of the Kindle:  it has no way to connect to the internet.   With all of the technology packed into this little device, you would think it natural to allow it to connect to the web and bring you all kinds of other information.  WiFi is easy enough to implement, and it could have been added to enable this kind of usage for the Kindle.   There is a way to load your own content into the Kindle, but you have to pay for that privilege as well.  You do get free wireless access to Wikipedia, but as we all know, it is not exactly the font of wisdom that it’s cracked up to be.

And that brings us to the price.  The Kindle is priced at $399.  As if that weren’t enough, all books are priced at $9.99 each.  While Amazon claims it to be a cost savings over the in-print version, if you wait long enough, most books come out in paperback at less (often far less) than the $9.99 electronic price…and you don’t need a $399 reader to read them with.

The Kindle is a slick little device.  The resolution and contrast of the screen are good enough that the display has been referred to as “electronic paper”.  The battery life is excellent–a week or more if you leave the wireless access off.  The packaging itself is very small and trim, not much larger than a paperback book.  Any gadget freak, and avid readers, may indeed find a lot to like about the Kindle.  For the rest of us, though, it’s just an expensive “thing” that we really have no use for, especially given its limitations.  If you could load your own documents (Word, Powerpoint and PDF files) and photos for no charge from your own computer, it would make more sense, as would having internet access.

A device such as the Kindle does have promise, but the Amazon architecture is just a little bit too “closed” for it to be a wise investment at this point.  Especially for the price.  If it weren’t so expensive to produce, Amazon should sell the Kindle cheap, or give it away, similar to the way razor companies give away the razor, but keep you coming back to buy the blade refills.  The Kindle might do well in that business model.  But until then, it will be nothing more than a really cool gadget that only a few with deep pockets can justify purchasing.

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