Whither the Kindle Killer?

Broken-KindleFound via Slashdot: Larry Press plaintively wonders why nobody’s come up with a “Kindle Killer” yet. He notes a whole host of ways the Kindle falls short of perfection—lack of voice recognition or full interface capability with a computer, for example—and thinks such a device really should be a “low-hanging fruit” for one of the big device makers.

I’ll tell you why, Larry. The demand isn’t there. Maybe folks like you who like to get the most out of their devices would want such a thing, but the vast majority of the lowest-common-denominator general public—the ones who actually buy the devices in bulk—are happy as hogs in a trough with their Kindles the way they are, or else they wouldn’t be as popular as they are.

I don’t think Amazon gets nearly enough credit for the amazing thing it did with the Kindle. It’s one of those things that looks easy, because it made e-reading easy. But how many of you remember what e-reading used to be like before Amazon came along? You had to piddle around with side-loading stuff onto PDAs or e-ink readers, hooking them up to the computer, using conduit software to pipe the stuff on, and so on and so forth.

That was fine for computer nerds and early adopters, but the average person doesn’t even understand what all the buttons on his TV remote do. He might know how to turn his computer on, send email, write letters, and surf the web, but anything beyond that might as well be a Masonic secret mystery.

(You might find that hard to believe; if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably clued in enough about computers and e-books to be able to do most of that in your sleep. The thing is that a lot of people tend to overestimate how easy it is for other people to do things that are easy for them. This is why the ability to do tech support is such a rare skill. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might not be able to figure out where the proverbial “any” key is. Trust me: you have no idea how exceptional your computer skills make you compared to most people in the world.)

And then Amazon came along, built cellular connectivity into its Kindles so you didn’t even have to figure out how to connect them to wi-fi, and made it so you click a button, you get a book. Boom. Dead simple. Anyone can do it. And Amazon was the first to make that possible. Anybody else could have done it, if they’d thought of it, but they didn’t think of it. Jeff Bezos did, and the first-mover advantage was enormous.

And that, more than DRM, is what keeps Amazon at the top of the heap, with the huge market share it has. Baen has never used DRM, and has always sold its e-books in a Kindle-compatible format. It even posted instructions to its web site about how to load the books onto the Kindle, and made it so people could use a web form to email books they bought directly to their devices without ever having to hook the Kindle to their computer.

They still got complaint after complaint from Kindle users that their e-books “aren’t on Kindle.” Because for so many of that lowest common denominator crowd, if they can’t click on Amazon’s built-in Kindle store to get it, it doesn’t exist, no matter how DRM-free it might be.

Eventually, it got to where Baen recognized it was losing more money by not being in Amazon (and other one-click convenience spots B&N, Kobo, Apple, Google), even with the chunk of revenue Amazon would take for its margin, than it was gaining from selling to just those computer nerds and early adopters who were willing to do more than just click a button. So they changed the way their entire Webscription store worked to get their books there.

So, no, it’s not DRM that keeps users locked into the Kindle store. It’s a contributing factor, but it’s not the only factor. (Indeed, many Amazon customers might not even know or care whether any given book is DRM’d at all. Either way, they download it, they read it on their approved Kindle devices or apps, and they’re happy.) If all the publishers stopped using DRM tomorrow and set up stores of their own to bypass Amazon, I’ll bet the vast majority of Kindle-owning customers would still buy from Amazon anyway. And if a given publisher dropped Amazon in favor of its own DRM-free store (or for that matter Amazon dropped them), those readers would complain to the publisher that they’re “not on Kindle” and just wouldn’t buy those e-books.

(It is worth noting that the one-click convenience isn’t the only perk the Kindle offers, either; it also includes value-added gimmicks like the “Whispersync” function that keeps track of reading position from device to device, and even from text version to audiobook version if one owns both, for books and audiobooks bought from Amazon. But those are just the icing on the rich, moist, one-click-convenience-shopping cake.)

Of course, that also suggests that the best way to “kill” the Kindle—get customers to abandon the platform—might just be for all the Big Five publishers to pull all of their books out of Amazon altogether. If customers couldn’t buy any of the Big Five e-books from their Kindle, how long would it be until they migrated to some other platform?

But given how much of Big Five sales Amazon accounts for (to the point where they can throw a publisher into a tizzy just by removing pre-order buttons because the publisher actually has no way of compensating for that in its demand calculations), it doesn’t seem likely they’d be willing to risk the effects of going cold turkey.

14 Comments on Whither the Kindle Killer?

  1. Sitting in the same room with someone using voice input with their Kindle would have to be one of the most annoying experiences in life. Right up there with cell phone users on an airplane.

  2. Jack Tingle // May 29, 2014 at 8:35 am //

    I’ll believe the big publishers are serious when they:
    1) Open their own stores; many still don’t have one. Until they do that, why would anyone take their Amazon complaints seriously?
    2) Offer some premium for shopping there–Buy 10 get 1 free, etc. Since they would be distributing directly, they could afford it. Baen offered non-DRM books at low prices. That’s a big incentive. I still buy Baen books from their store, not Amazon, just out of habit.
    3) Eliminate DRM so people don’t have to lock into a device. After all, Amazon didn’t demand DRM, the publishers did. (See your story on Tor; see also Baen still being in business.) Amazon just grabbed the reins and rode like hell, thanking its lucky stars that the publishers gave them captive customers.

    Regards,
    Jack Tingle

  3. Chris, this time I agree with you. If someone wants the multi-featured device he describes, it’s readily available as an iPad on Kindle Fire. Those capabilities come at a price, both in price and in battery consumption. You can’t put them in an $80 epaper reader.

    Amazon could easily make one improvement to their ePaper readers that’d help many readers, particularly those with accessibility issues. All they’d need to do is turn on the Bluetooth features of the WiFi chip they already have inside.

    * Clumsy test entry, as in searches and note-taking, would be made much easier with a Bluetooth keyboard. That’d be great for students and researchers. Cursor keys could be used to mark text too.

    * Even more important, those with disabilities could use the two primary buttons on a Bluetooth mouse to page through a book with either a $10 mouse or some other device adapted for their particular needs.

    ——-

    It’d also be great if Amazon (or someone) would come out with a pocket-sized ePaper reader. The smallest current models barely fit into coat pockets, and then only if you don’t have a protective case.

    While that Kindle Pocket might be sold to almost everyone, Amazon might want to pad and liquid-proof it to the point where it’d be more kid-safe than existing models. Parents would love that and the small size would make it easier for small kids to hold or carry with them on trips. The UI could also be adapted to be more kid-friendly and it could include child-safe book browsing features.

  4. The reason no one has created a Kindle killer might be because they always want to add features. I love my Kindle because it let me just read. I don’t want voice control, internet access, social media posting, badges, or any other addon.

    There are plenty of tablets out there that give more than just the reading function, but as long as the kindle allows me to just read, I’m happy.

  5. What eInk eBook reader has voice input? What do you say to it, “Turn the page?”.

    (It sure seems to me that this is talking about eReaders and not table based Kindles).

  6. I’m certainly technically savvy enough to be able to deal with putting books on my Kindle from other places, but Whispersync makes me unwilling to make the effort. Being able to seamlessly switch between my Paperwhite, my phone, and my iPad is wonderful.

  7. Absolutely spot-on analysis for the most part — Amazon has made being an Amazon customer easy while Kobo and B&N have made their customer experience painful. The Kindle is a device that does a small number of tasks very well and customers love it for that reason — while the various Kindle apps keep Amazon at the forefront of tablet and PC owners who want a multi-purpose device that can do everything.

    I disagree with his assertion that side-loading is hard and only for geeks while using the historic example of Palm Pilots. Palm Pilots had proprietary dongle-accessories and software.

    Sideloading is no more difficult than attaching an MP3 player and copying an MP3 file from your hard drive to your MP3 player … or moving digital photos to and from a memory card. That is EASY, EASY, EASY.

    I have come to believe that the ONLY tactic the Big 5 could use to maintain agency pricing is to completely pull out of Amazon and either push readers to B&N, Kobo and Apple and/or set up their own store and sell direct — but that would mean going DRM-free, which is such a common sense solution that it gives Big 5 executives fits just thinking about it.

    So they have to learn to love the Amazon they hate because they are afraid to make the right decision — go DRM free and make it easy for consumers to support them through all channels.

  8. Sure, sideloading is easy for you or me. My Mom—an extremely intelligent woman, retired school teacher and librarian—had no clue how to do it (when she wanted to put some Gutenberg stuff on her Kindle). I ended up having to talk her through it using the phone and Chrome remote desktop and it still took half an hour.

    The vast, vast majority of Kindle users aren’t like you or me. They’re like my Mom.

  9. Buying books for a kindle is like shopping online, people get that.

    Sideloading is hard, people still get stuck on ejecting USB devices.

    Plasm needed to be side loaded (and where are they?). FYI, I loved my Palm!!!!

    Look at all the people who never sync their iPhone / iPad. Or back up their camera photos. People do not like to sync…

  10. Amazon’s dominated digital publishing so far because Kindle is two things, neither of which is a device; it’s a platform and a service. Both of which make it an experience. There have now been a dozen (more?) actual gadgets, some with great technology and screens, others with awkward interfaces and amateur design, but they’re all about access to what Kindle is (even as they’re Kindles themselves). Kindle is software available for almost every platform (I’m not sure there’s a Linux version), so no matter what device you have, you can use it. Buy an Apple tablet or a PC or something that runs Android–even a Nook–and you can read Kindle books, and often without having to hack the device.

    But it’s also a reading service, and Amazon’s done everything it can to make that, as an experience, compelling. It made shopping easy, both in terms of paying (much to the chagrin of my wife, and my wallet) and in terms of browsing. It made finding new content to read simple, and refined its recommendations so that I look forward to receiving them, and never see them as simply another marketing email trying to get me to buy more.

    There’s no Kindle killer because nobody’s focused on the experience of digital reading like Amazon has. And there won’t be until someone does so. There won’t even be competition until someone figures out how to match Amazon in terms of browsing, recommendation, and flexibility of platform, and even if someone does manage to compete with Amazon on those things, they’d still have to do so on price, and that’s likely impossible, too.

  11. I suspect most of the older generation in my family has no clue what DRM is. It is definitely the convenience and Amazon’s customer service that keeps my family tied to the kindle store.

    If the big 5 pulled their books or even opened their stores, I suspect most of my family members would just move to other books rather than leave Amazon. That is what they did when agency pricing went into effect and I think they would just adjust once again.

  12. I started reading ebooks on my Palm. I had it set up so I could easily sync between my desktop and my PDA, but I was trained as a systems analyst and a programmer. Even so, my ereading didn’t take off until my husband ordered an Original Kindle which he bought because he was bored in a hotel room while watching Oprah. (I didn’t even know he watched Oprah.) I was all “you spent three hundred dollars on what!” Then I started reading a hardcover book in a store that I really didn’t want to buy at hardcover prices. I came home, checked to see the ebook price from Amazon, bought it through Whispersync, and finished reading it that day. Then it became My Kindle. It stayed My Kindle until two years later when I bought a later gen e-ink Kindle. I graciously gave the other one back to my husband.

    We live in a rural area about twenty minutes away from a B&N. Depending on the price of gas, it is about $3 to $5 round trip. I can download a new book the day of its release, spending a minute or so in the process, rather than spend an hour traveling to a book store where I am likely to have to shake an associate down because the book has not yet been put on the shelves. I am rather shy and I really hated having to buttonhole an associate to get a book.

    Because I am fanatical about backups, I download everything from my Kindle account and manage it with Calibre on my desktop. I rarely do anything via sideloading since I have setup Calibre as a server so the books are available on our LAN.

    I also like that I can read my ebooks on my Nexus 7 tablet. I spend a lot of time taking my elderly mother to her medical appointments, and I can seamlessly read using the Kindle app when traveling, though I really prefer the eink method.

  13. Yes, you are correct when you talk about the lowest common denominator. I had a bookstore, the only English language store in this Central Mexico city. Should have been a great success. People would come in and wave their Kindle and proudly say “I don’t read books anymore. I have a Kindle”. I would ask them about some of the functions and they didn’t have a clue that they could load a book from somewhere other than Amazon. They were in love. Don’t know why I was always polite since they were never going to be customers anyway. Now the store is closed and I read on a tablet pc and get books from places other then Amazon. I also have a Nook HD and tho it’s a good “reader”, the awful way that B&N tries to control my internet access and is constantly trying to sell me books means I won’t be buying from them either. Didn’t even go to their store on the last trip to the US. It is amazing that so many people who are intelligent, just don’t know how to do anything with a computer besides send email and read, and don’t want to learn. So many people bring their e-readers over to me and ask for help. Showing them and having them do the work while I explain doesn’t work too well. I can’t imagine them calling for tech assistance.

    Thanks. And keep up the good work and info sharing.

  14. colleen: Great to hear from you! That’s an interesting story about the bookstore.

    If you were willing to divorce yourself from the Barnes & Noble content ecosystem, you could flash that Nook HD to Jelly Bean or Kit Kat Android with Cyanogenmod. It takes a little bit of doing, and you have to use a sideloading workaround to put the Nook Reader app back on it if you want it, but it makes a great little generic Android tablet that way (and B&N will no longer be trying to control your Internet access).

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