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.
But loading up the kindle with so many appealing and convenient features was expensive, so the Kindle ended up priced at $300-$400. And while many people are willing to pay a couple hundred dollars for an iPod without giving it much thought, that’s because music lovers expect to rely on a device to play their music—whether it’s a portable CD player, a Walkman tape player, or a home stereo. Readers, on the other hand, are not accustomed to having to buy a device in order to read their books. Paying $300 or more for a device to read books, in other words, is highly inconvenient.
On the reading experience side, the Kindle ended up on shaky ground, too. For people who love books, there are quite a few intangibles that an electronic device will never quite be able to replicate. For example, the Kindle lets readers down with respect to one subtle but powerful element of the traditional book’s appeal: its role as an identity marker. Pulling out a particular book on an airline flight or in a doctor’s office can mean staking a claim to being a particular kind of person. Likewise, the books lining your living room or office can tell others about your interests and background. But on the Kindle, no matter what you’re reading, all anyone else will see is an unchanging plastic device.