Dispatch September 2009

The Kindle Problem

Successful products need to offer great experience or great convenience. Amazon’s e-reader falls short on both.

Life, it turns out, is a series of tradeoffs between great experience and high convenience. McDonalds:  convenient, but not such a great experience. Disney World: ah, there’s a great experience, but not so convenient. Most successful products and services aim for one or the other, but not both. Products and services that offer neither tend to fail.

That’s why, despite all the great press it’s gotten, Amazon.com’s Kindle may be in trouble: in aiming to provide both a great experience and supreme convenience, it has achieved neither. And unless it can be revamped to truly distinguish itself, either as the best reading experience around (superior to the old-fashioned book), or as the cheapest and most convenient reading outlet available, it may be doomed to fail.

A year ago—six months after the Kindle hit the market—I talked with Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, for a book I was writing. He told me sales of the Kindle were sizzling. But that’s not quite the case if you really look at numbers. While Amazon did sell out of Kindles in 2008, it hadn’t actually made that many of them. In fact, according to the market research firm In-Stat, the entire e-reader market consisted of just 1 million units in all of 2008, and Amazon nabbed only a slice of it. By contrast, Microsoft sold about 1 million Zune music players from mid-2007 to mid-2008, though the product was widely considered to be a failure.

Given the careful study and expertise that went into it, the Kindle should have been a tremendous success. Bezos and his core team devoted months, beginning in 2004, to analyzing the appeal of the book and to understanding why books have dominated the delivery of long-form narratives, stories, and information for 550 years. “We even got into how books smell,” Bezos told me. “We did research, and found that the smell is mostly glue – glue and maybe mildew. We joked that maybe we should have a spritzer on the [Kindle] that would send out that smell.” All in all, Bezos said, the team found that trying to improve on the book “was one of the most absurd challenges.”

After months of meetings, the team agreed on one particular concept that they felt rang true: the best thing about a book is that it disappears. You start reading, and you don’t notice the physical book itself, just the words and ideas on the page. “So three years ago, we said we have to make sure the device gets out of the way just like a physical book so you can lose yourself, but at the same time you’ve got to find some things that you could never do with a physical book and we have to do those things amazingly well,” Bezos said.

To beat the book – to be better than the book—Amazon also drove the Kindle toward convenience. It built in wireless communications so that a Kindle could download e-books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs anywhere, anytime. When Kindle launched, it had access to about 90,000 books (now it’s more than 300,000), nearly all priced at $9.99. That’s far less than hardcover list prices (though only somewhat better than Amazon’s discount prices). Bezos’ eventual goal was to make millions of titles available from Kindle at the touch of a button.

Presented by

Kevin Maney, a journalist who has written about technology for 25 years, is the author of Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don't, published this month.

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