The Amazon Kindle is being marketed as the latest e-book, but I would imagine it will have a tough go of it on that basis. As Steven Levy observes in Newsweek, what could be a more perfect content-delivery system than the book? Instead, what I find intriguing is that it can be used as a portable, always-on virtual newspaper with — get this — paid subscriptions. If the Kindle succeeds, we may finally have a solution to the devastating revenue problem that newspaper and magazine publishers have created for themselves in giving away their content for free.
The Kindle strikes me as the purest realization to date of a vision I first heard articulated at a conference at Columbia University in the early 1990s. At that time, news executives fully understood that digital was the future. The idea was that content would be distributed on high-resolution digital tablets that would be so cheap they’d be given away. At night, you’d plug your tablet into the cable box on your television so that it could download newspapers, magazines and other content that you’d paid for. In the morning, you’d unplug it and take it with you. A wireless connection would allow for interactive advertising so that you could, say, make a reservation by clicking on a restaurant ad.
What we all missed, of course, was the rise of the Web, which made closed systems like that envisioned at Columbia impossible. Content quickly became free and ubiquitous. And you know the rest of the story. Yet even at a time when the idea of paying for content online is at a low ebb (the New York Times has gone entirely free, and the Wall Street Journal will soon follow suit), there remain considerable doubts that online advertising alone will ever fully support the public-service journalism we need. Just yesterday, the Times ran an intriguing op-ed by Discover columnist Jared Lanier, who argued that advertising will never add up to enough to pay the bills.
Enter the Kindle. Unlike the device we talked about at Columbia some 15 years ago, it’s not so cheap that publishers will give them away (indeed, it’s $400), and the e-ink resolution, though better than that of a typical computer screen, isn’t nearly as nice as a glossy magazine’s — a Kindle reportedly gives you 150 dots per inch, whereas even a cheap ink-jet printer will give you 600. But there are some features that are really appealing for news executives and consumers alike. For instance:
- It’s small, portable and light, about the size of a thin paperback book. Yes, it easily passes the classic test: you can take it to the bathroom with you.
- You don’t have to plug it in to a computer, and, because it’s connected to a cellular network, you don’t have to find a WiFi hot spot, either.
- You can subscribe to newspapers such as the Times, the Journal and the Washington Post for considerably less than it would cost to get the print editions. The Kindle automatically downloads the entire paper, which means you are untethered from the Web. (Here is the list. The Boston Globe isn’t there, at least not yet.)
From the little bit that I’ve seen of the Kindle online, the newspapers look rather ugly. Obviously the Kindle will have to become enough of a success for newspaper designers to come up with something specifically optimized for a paperback-size vertical screen. Color would be nice, too.
The Kindle is hardly the only experiment in paid online content. The Times has something called TimesReader, which costs $15 per month and which, according to Jack Shafer, is much easier on the eyes than the Web site. (No Mac version, so I haven’t been able to test it.) But TimesReader requires you to lug your laptop around, which makes the Kindle a much more portable solution.
I do have doubts about the Kindle. It’s easy to imagine a Kindle-killer — a similar device that lets you browse the free Web via a WiFi connection and download content so that you can read it even when you’re disconnected. (We can already catch a glimmer of such devices with Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, though I don’t want to read on a screen that small.) The free-content paradigm is powerful, and may prove too difficult to overcome.
But the Kindle does offer a possible alternative to the free, Web-based regime that has been such a boon to consumers and a bane to publishers. I hope the Kindle is at least enough of a success so that we can arrive at some judgments over the next few years.
Update: Peter Kafka of Silicon Alley Insider thinks I’m full of it, writing, “The existence of the plan has made at least gulled at least [sic! sic! sic!] one blogger, MediaNation’s Dan Kennedy, into imagining that the Kindle will help save the newspaper industry.”
Kafka notes that the Kindle has a built-in Web browser, which means you could read newspapers for free. But he fails to acknowledge that the paid versions of those papers might make for a much better reading experience, especially since you can download them ahead of time.
Update II: Actually, I’m not sure the Kindle does include a Web browser. I can’t find anything here. I would also note that Amazon touts “free built-in access” to Wikipedia, which suggests that there is no generalized browser. Otherwise, why make a big deal about Wikipedia?
Update III: It does, but not a very good one. From Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch:
In addition to being a book reader, the Kindle has some experimental features. One is a limited Web browser customized for the device with some preselected bookmarks including Amazon.com (in case you want to buy a digital camera instead of a book, which you can do just fine from the main Kindle shopping page), Wikipedia, Google, BBC News, Yahoo Finance, Weather Underground, and the Yellow Pages.
We’ll have to wait and see.