Amazon Kindle: steps forward, steps backward

Today, Amazon officially announced the Kindle eBook reader and associated services. This has already produced a flurry of blog posts all over the place. The device is not yet available, but it already has 248 customer reviews on (mostly negative so far but again almost nobody actually got their hands on it).

So what did Amazon get right?
  • The Kindle features an "electronic paper" display from E-Ink, the same company that makes the Sony reader screen. This means crisp black text on almost-white-but-kind-of-gray background, 180 degree viewing angle, and ability to read in broad daylight. You can take this on the beach or on your mountain hike, but you will need a reading light in the dark.
  • It doesn't require a PC to synchronize. Instead it uses a Sprint EVDO connection and you buy your books directly from the device. There are no fees for the connection, everything is included when you buy the Kindle.
  • About 80,000 books and magazines are available for download from Amazon.
  • Free wireless access to Wikipedia.
  • Built-in search and dictionary functionality.
On the negative side:
  • As everybody has pointed out, it is a dead-ugly, uncool, device. Compare it with the beautiful second-generation Sony reader. Amazon should really learn from Sony and Apple.
  • If you loose or break the Kindle, USD 400 go down the drain. This today buys you two OLPC XO-1 laptops. I thought that the Sony reader, at USD 300, was already too expensive and beyond what I would pay for such a device.
  • Your only option to get content seems to be through EVDO and Amazon. There is no Wi-Fi or bluetooth transfer. Besides obvious coverage limitations in the US itself, this also means there is no coverage at all outside the US, which alone makes this a poor choice for a device you may want to carry all over the place.
  • Free Wikipedia is better than nothing, but what about the thousands of free books from the Gutenberg project or Creative Commons books?
  • Apparently, you can email Word documents to the Kindle for 10 cents a pop. There is no mention of PDF support, or other open formats so far. But paying for uploading your own documents to your own device sounds quite ridiculous. Even the Sony reader allows you to load PDF and RTF files (although it seems that the result is less than satisfactory for PDF files).
I think that some form of electronic book reader is bound to succeed, and that soon enough paper books and magazines will be largely a thing of the past.

However, I doubt that as is, the Amazon solution will be successful. To succeed, you need a cheap, cool device, and a good degree of openness so that a healthy ecosystem develops.

So far, the electronic book business has followed the same path as the music industry: strong DRM and no sign of openness. We all know the result: after years of painful struggle, DRM for music is being phased out. It seems that instead of learning from this experience, book publishers want to go through the same process instead of embracing the future right away.

Anyway, you may want to read what's Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's take on the whole thing.