Kindle: What about the readers?
(Seattle Times, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) I'm fascinated by Amazon.com's new Kindle electronic reading device, but I've got more questions than answers _ even after interviewing Charlie Tritschler, director of Kindle.
Tritschler was one of the product specialists Amazon started recruiting in late 2004 from Apple, Palm, Philips, Sony, Research in Motion, Microsoft and other companies.
In early 2005, it hired Tritschler from PalmSource. Before that he was at Liberate Technologies and Apple, where he spent 10 years and worked on the PowerBook line.
Tritschler answered some questions about Kindle on Monday in an interview from New York.
He wouldn't say exactly how many people are working on the project, which buildings it emanated from in Seattle (turns out it was also developed in Cupertino, Calif.) or how they camouflaged Kindles when testing them. Nor would he discuss future directions or details of the internal hardware.
On other topics, though, he provided some interesting details.
Is Kindle hackable? "It's not something we're opening up, but all devices can be hacked. That's something people can do."
Will there be APIs for software developers to write Kindle applications? "That's an important future direction for us."
Tritschler noted that Amazon also announced a "digital-text platform" for authors to create content for Kindle.
Will this also be used as a music player? Kindle supports MP3, has headphone jacks and "the sound quality is really nice." Amazon will see what users want from Kindle, but "we really designed it to be a single-purpose device" for reading.
I've seen a lot of similar reading technologies over the years, from companies such as Microsoft and Sony, so it seems to me that while the device may be better than predecessors', Kindle's real advances are in its business model.
When Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos refers to Kindle as the "iPod of reading" in the glowing Newsweek story where Amazon chose to debut the product, he's referring not just to a device for playing digital content but an iPod-like ecosystem with device, service, store and content partnerships.
For one thing, it comes bundled with free wireless service and its own unique e-mail address. There are no monthly fees to pay and renew with wireless providers; you just turn it on and connect, just like a radio or a TV.
Amazon covers the service cost with Kindle's price and content sales, although it must have been able to get a deal on wireless service because the device uses minimal bandwidth.
Novels in the Kindle format are typically 500 to 800 kilobytes, Tritschler said, explaining why they download in 10 to 15 seconds.
Can Amazon provide this free service forever, especially on future versions with color screens and video that use more bandwidth? Has it figured out a way to wrap bandwidth and access costs into the content? If so, why can't we get phones, computers or TiVos like this?
Amazon has made deals with book publishers and it's now selling digital "Kindle editions" of 90,000-plus books, but digital books have been around for a while.
More intriguing (from my perspective) are the deals it forged with periodical publishers. It offered newspapers, magazines, blogs and wire services a new opportunity to sell digital subscriptions. Even though you can already get their content online, usually for free and in full color, they're hoping that people will pay for the convenience of their content arriving on Kindles.
Maybe I don't have all the details, but it seems that for Kindle to become the iPod of books, Amazon will have to let people put free content on the device. Can it do that and sustain the free services?
Will people really pay $399 for a device that won't let them load content they already own or acquire content from sources other than Amazon?
Remember that less than 3 percent of the content on the average iPod was purchased from iTunes, according to Steve Jobs, who argued that a big reason for the iPod's success was the system's openness. The openness of iPod and iTunes is pretty debatable, but for digital-content consumers, it set the expectations of flexibility.
If Kindle doesn't have similar flexibility, and digital-reading devices really are the books of tomorrow, maybe someone will have to come up with a gateless, open-source/public-access version.
Update: I caught up with Steve Kessel, senior vice president of worldwide digital media at Amazon, who oversees the product and Lab 126, an Amazon subsidiary developing gadgets in Cupertino.
When I asked if people will be able to load their own content, he noted you can e-mail personal documents such as Word documents and JPEG images to Kindles. It also accepts PDF documents as part of the experimental section.
Can people load their own books onto Kindle? "Books are purchased from the Kindle store."
But you can load your own music onto an iPod, I said.
"All the books for purchasing are from the Amazon store, because to create this seamless experience of being able to download over the air, it would have to be built as an end-to-end experience," he said.
Kessel left the door open a crack, though:
"I think we're open to different ideas in the future."
(Brier Dudley is a technology columnist and blogger for The Seattle Times. This commentary was excerpted from his blog, www.seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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