Jeff Bezos has survived the iPad.
Predictions that Apple’s bright tablet computer would be a Kindle-killer haven’t quite come to pass: Amazon CEO Bezos says that the growth rate in sales of his e-reading device has tripled since June, when he dropped the Kindle price to $189. (Clearly increased competition from other e-readers, like Sony Reader and the Barnes and Noble Nook, hasn’t dampened the Kindle fire, either.) And he’s still kvelling over last week’s announcement that e-book sales on Amazon exceed the number of hardback books sold by the e-commerce site. “And that’s with a device at the end of its product life cycle,” he says.
The cycle of life resets on Aug. 27, when Amazon will ship the third-generation Kindle. Judging from a brief hands-on demo, the new Kindle — which still costs $189 — isn’t a drastic makeover but a canny evolution that enhances the device’s raison d’etre: reading.
But by also releasing a lower-cost ($139) version of the Kindle without 3G wireless connectivity, Bezos anticipates millions of new customers who can live with waiting for a Wi-Fi hot spot to replenish their content. He says that the introduction of the Wi-Fi version is purely a price play, a way to sell Kindles to families and couples who already have one in the house.
“At $139, you’re going to have multiple Kindles, not just one,” Bezos says.
Consistent with Amazon’s past practice, Bezos revealed no specifics about Kindle sales to date, other than to say that “millions” have already been sold.
This year’s Kindle comes in either the classic ivory or an earthier graphite hue. The most significant improvement — perhaps as a “sez you” to the crisp iPad screen — is a sharper e-ink display than previous Kindles. Bezos claims that the contrast is 50 percent better, due in part to a proprietary technology involving “font hinting” which more skillfully manipulates the electronic ink that forms the letters.
Also, as Apple’s CEO has been known to say, “It’s really thin!” The new Kindle is a svelte 1/3 of an inch thick and weighs 8.7 ounces, making it 21 percent smaller than the 2G Kindle. This makes Kindle lighter than a paperback, while the iPad is heavier than Infinite Jest. (Eventually, Bezos says, he’d like to make the Kindle so light “you’d need a paperweight to hold it down.”)
The pages turn 20 percent faster than on the previous Kindle, and Amazon has even tamped down the clicking sound of the buttons, so readers are less likely to disturb a slumbering companion. Those page-turning buttons, by the way, are longer and slimmer — almost like bumpers on the edge of the device. This may be the first Kindle that finally prevents you from turning a page by mistake.
The long-anticipated Kindle touchscreen is … still not there. “From an engineering point of view, it would have been very easy to put a touchscreen on it,” says Bezos. “But it would hurt the reading experience.” He says that e-ink touchscreens degrade display quality and add glare. Instead, the Kindle revamps its interface by replacing its stubby joystick with a “five way” arrangement where a thumbnail-sized selection button is surrounded by a thin band of compass-point directional buttons. The home and the menu button are now placed on the keyboard array. Maybe third time’s the charm for the Kindle, which has changed navigational controls on each version.
Other improvements include expanded battery life: a full month if the radio’s off, and 10 days if you leave the 3G turned on. There’s twice as much storage, enough for 3,500 books. And though Bezos didn’t show it to me, Amazon is offering a cover with a built-in LED reading light that works off the device’s battery. It’s $60, which seems pricey for a book light, but Amazon explains that it uses gold-plated conducive hinges. Maybe when you’re done reading you can use it as jewelry.
Citing competitive reasons, Bezos does not reveal Kindle sales figures, only saying the numbers are in the millions. “We’re starting to see evidence that at the $189 price point that this may be a mass product,” he says. “Even though we’re designing it for readers, it seems to be breaking out.” With a Kindle now selling at $139, he expects the tipping point to tip even more.
What’s more, the revelation that Amazon sells more Kindle books than hardcovers is only the beginning of what now looks like an inevitable mass migration to e-books.
“Our best estimate is that Kindle books will outsell paperbacks at Amazon sometime in the next nine to twelve months,” Bezos says. “And then at some point after that they’ll overtake the combination.”
As for the iPad? Bezos is a fan. “My first thought when I saw the iPad is that it will be great for our mobile commerce business — the more internet-connected devices the better, from Amazon’s point of view.” But if people thought the iPad would be a challenger to Kindle’s e-reading throne, “it hasn’t happened that way,” says Bezos with his trademark laugh. He tried reading a bit on an iPad but didn’t get far because “if I have to read a long document on an LCD display, the first thing I do is print it out.”
He thinks that people will be fine with carrying multiple devices — tablet, laptop and, of course, “purpose-built reading devices that are extremely light, let you read outside in bright daylight, a whole bunch of things.” Like the one he’s now selling for $139.