Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon's Shiny New Thing: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This year in tech started with Steve Jobs eclipsing all the news from CES by cranking up the reality distortion field in a rocking demo of the iPhone at Macworld. Result: instant off-the-charts technolust, teaser ad at the Oscars, anticipation, brilliant PR and advertising buildup, lines around the block, and last week's cover in Time as Invention of the Year. (Yes, and a healthy dose of carping about closed-system, locking to AT&T, bricking, etc.)

As the window for this year's new products closes, Jeff Bezos snags the cover of Newsweek with a Steven Levy exclusive that goes ga-ga for Amazon's new electronic book reader, Kindle. (That's, of course, the gold ring in the tech PR game: offer an exclusive to an A-list mainstream writer in exchange for a cover and hope for a gushing preview.)

But if Bezos is checking Techmeme or his opening share price this morning, he may be disappointed. The shiny-new-toy crowd is raining skepticism and scorn (Scoble calls it "hate") on the product even before it's official announcement. Jeremy Toeman predicts failure in a well-argued piece, calling it a solution in search of a problem. Many folks pronounce it ugly. (Levy blogs that it doesn't really look as bad as the photos suggest. File that under faint praise.)

Here's my take on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good:
  1. The Amazon brand will put the category of ebooks into play more effectively than any other current player. It's already interrupting us on the way to buy books the old-fashioned way. You can't buy that much exposure.
  2. The always-on networking (they call it Whispernet, in honor of the stereotypical shushing that librarians are lampooned for in cartoons?) makes it ideal for subscriptions to newspapers, periodicals, and blogs—and impulsive shoppers who need instant access to books. (I need a couple right now, and Kindle would save me a trip to the library or the local Barnes & Noble). It's an on-demand world.
  3. The hygiene factors seen about right: size, weight, screen brightness, battery life.
  4. If you rely on a suite of specialized reference books, you can have them always at hand.
  5. Another thoughtful and practical instantiation of concepts from Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and Alan Kay can make books more useful with personal annotations, cross-referencing, and community commentary.

The Bad:
  1. DRM will lock your purchases to the device. Can you share books with family members? Pass them on to friends? Re-sell them?
  2. With the New York Times dropping the pay wall and Wall Street Journal about to, isn't it swimming upstream to sell newspaper subscriptions for an ebook?
  3. Where iTunes and iPod made it easy (if a bit tedious) for me to capture the music from my CD collection, I cant digitize my existing library. The only way to get books into the Kindle is to buy them again from Amazon. Publishers will love this. Amazon will love this. I won't.
  4. The price ($399) is high. And this unecessary object falls pretty low on the list of unecessary toys that I lust for–especially for an object whose main purpose is to insert another siphon into my bank account.
  5. That name. Kindle? Books and Kindle don't go together. Sorry.
The Ugly
  1. An iPhone, it's not.
UPDATE:  Joel Johnson offers some useful information on Boing Boing. The system isn't as closed as I feared. There are a number of ways to get files onto it besides just buying them from Amazon.

In the mid-nineties, The Voyager Company (progenitor of The Criterion Collection) offered a series of Expanded Books for the Apple PowerBook—distributed on floppies. Among their titles, The Annotated Alice, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Jurassic Park. The time wasn't right. The hardware was too heavy. The fonts were hard on the eyes. We're a lot closer now to delivering a good experience with the technologies available to Amazon.

But books—physical, dead-tree books—are just fine. And very hard to beat.

Mickeleh's Take: Ebook readers are inevitable. But they will be slow in coming. Most of the early Kindle-bashing (including mine) is just hypothetical. The proof will be in the U-I and the experience. Ignore everything you read today about Kindle—including this. Tune in again next week for real experience. But not here—I'm sitting this round out.

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