Ten years of the Kindle

Amazon Kindle & Sony eBook

Amazon is celebrating 10 years of the Kindle so it makes sense to reflect on the device and the service.

Rather like Apple products Kindle is a combination of hardware, software (including content), payment infrastructure and the Whispernet global mobile virtual network.

Like Apple, Amazon came in and refined an existing business model. Companies like Sony made very nice e-readers, but they didn’t have the publisher relationships and market access that Amazon had.

Context rather than convergence

In a time where consumer electronics thinking was all about convergence, from the newly launched iPhone to the Symbian eco-system Amazon were determined to come up with a single purpose device.

Amazon resisted the trend and created a dedicated device for reading. That is why you have a black-and-white e-ink screen and an experience exclusively focused on seamless content downloads.

Yes, they’ve rolled out tablets since, but even the latest range stick to the original Kindle playbook. Some of their decisions were quite prescient. The Kindle was deliberately designed so that it didn’t require content to be side loaded from personal computer like an iPod.

The Kindle has survived the smartphone and the tablet device as a reading experience.

Using the U.S. legal system to clear the field

Amazon was helped out by the US government prosecuting Apple under the Sherman Act. Wikipedia has a good summary of this case. On the face of it Apple was doing a similar structured deal with publishers on book pricing to what it had done previously with record companies for iTunes music.

This case effectively stalled Apple book store momentum and lumbered Apple with overzealous US government overwatch. The consumer benefit has been minimal – more on that later. The irony of all this is the way Amazon has leveraged its monopolistic position to decimate entire sectors of the retail economy.

The interesting thing about this case, say compared to the Apple | Qualcomm dispute is that Apple still kept Audible audio book sales in iTunes throughout this dispute and didn’t look at ways to bounce the iPad Kindle app from the app store. Audible is an Amazon-owned company.

By comparison, Amazon bounced Apple’s TV from its own e-commerce platform and has taken a long time to support the AppleTV app eco-system – long after the likes of Netflix.

Piracy in China

Amazon hasn’t had it all its own way. China had a burgeoning e-book market prior to the Kindle and Chinese consumers used to read these books on their laptops.  Depending which store you used; it might have more books at a cheaper price because intellectual property wasn’t ironed out.

A cottage industry sprang up that saw Kindles acquired in the US and Japan shipped back to China and reflashed with software that made them compatible with the local app stores.

The Kindle brain phenomenon

I moved from the UK to Hong Kong to take up a role and tried to lighten my burden by moving my reading from books to the Kindle. I found that I didn’t retain the content I read. I enjoyed the process of reading less and did it less often. I wasn’t an e-book neophyte I had enjoyed reading vintage pulp fiction novels as ebooks on Palm devices and Nokia phones in the early 2000s as a way of passing them time on my commute.

Talking to friends their experience was similar. I now read on the Kindle or listen to audio books only for pleasure. I tend to buy my reference books in the dead tree format. There is something more immediate about the process of reading from a ‘real book’ rather than an e-book.

It seems that digital natives aren’t ready to give up books just yet. Studies about the use of digital technology and e-books in education are mixed and anecdotal evidence suggests that technology industry leaders liked to keep the level of digital content in their children’s lives at a low threshold.

The Kindle hasn’t replaced the bookshelf and the printing press yet.

Pricing

Disposing of the medium didn’t mean that we got cheaper e-books. On Amazon it is worth looking carefully to see what is the cheapest format on a case by case basis. Kindle competes against print books and secondhand books.

Secondhand books win hands down when you are looking at materials beyond bestsellers. A real-world book is easier to gift and Amazon Prime allows for almost instant gratification. The Kindle starts to look like Amazon covering all the bases rather than the future of publishing. This may change over time, a decade into online news was a more mixed media environment than it is now – but Kindle feels as if it has reached a balance at the moment.

More information
New study suggests ebooks could negatively affect how we comprehend what we read | USA Today
Shelve paperbacks in favour of E-books in schools? | BBC
Study challenges popular beliefs on e-reading | The Educator
Are Digital Textbooks Finally Taking Hold? | Good eReader – makes the case for a heterogenous book environment of standard textbooks, e-books and used books
Do ‘Digital Natives’ Prefer Paper Books to E-Books? | Education Week
Our love affair with digital is over | New York Times (paywall)

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Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo & Doug McMillon, Walmart talk about the intersection between brand and product

This is from last year and there is a lot of filler but interesting discussion about the intersection between brand and product.

Throwback gadget: Sony Walkman WM-R202

sony wmr202
Back when I started work I was obliged to do night classes in chemistry. It was tough going (partly because I wasn’t that focused) and my existing Walkman WM-24 whilst good had given up the ghost.  I decided to put what money I had towards a Sony WM-R202.

Why that model:

  • It could record reasonably well which I convinced myself would be handy for lectures. It was not up to a Pro Walkman standard as the Dolby circuit fitted was for playback only. (I couldn’t afford the professional grade WM-D6C at the time and they weren’t the kind of device that you could easily fit in a pocket either. They were big and substantial.)
  • It had a good reputation for playback. Not only did it have Dolby B noise reduction and auto reverse on cassette playback, but it held the cassette really well to its metal construction. I learned the benefits of good tape cassette fit in a rigid mechanism the hard way. I had got hold of a WM-36 which on paper looked better than my previous Walkman with Dolby NR and and a graphic equaliser, but hand to keep the door closed with an elastic band. It was a sheep dressed up as a wolf
  • Probably the biggest reason was that it intrigued me being not much larger than an early iPod and was crafted with a jeweller’s precision. It was powered by a single AA battery or a NiCd battery about the size of a couple of sticks of chewing gum. It looked sexy as hell in in a brushed silver metal finish.

Whilst the buttons on the device might seem busy in comparison to software driven smartphones it was a surprisingly well designed user experience. None of them caught on clothing, the main controls fell easily to hand and I can’t remember ever having to use the manual.

What soon became apparent is that you needed to handle it very carefully to get cassettes in and out. I used to carefully tease the cassettes in and out. Despite my care one day it stopped working.  Given that mine lasted about two weeks, I am guessing that mine was a lemon and that the build quality must have been generally high as you can still see them on eBay and Yahoo! Auctions in Japan.

Since mine gave out well within a warranty period, I look it back to the shop and put the money towards a Sony D-250 Discman instead.

Here’s a video in Japanese done by someone selling a vintage WMR-202 on Yahoo! Auctions which shows you all the features in more depth.

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Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

Things that made my day this week:

Pretty much everything that you really need to know about fake news.

Scott Galloway framed these questions as the ones that politicians should be asking of Facebook et al; I also think that smart shareholders should be putting these questions on the table as well

Air France Music – via our Matt

I love this tour though the history of the Honda Civic

“Tup-e-Tung”, or the Afghan War Rug – The Firearm BlogThe Firearm Blog – really nice article on how the series of wars that regularly punctuate the country’s modern history have impacted traditional carpet design

Out and about: Blade Runner 2049

*** No plot spoilers*** Where do you start when talking about the most hyped film of the year?

Blade Runner 2049 starts up some 20 years after the original film. It captures the visuals of the original film, moving it onwards.  The plot has a series of recursive sweeps that tightly knit both films together which at times feels a little forced, a bit like the devices used to join Jeremy Renner’s Bourne Legacy to the Matt Damon canon.

Blade Runner 2049

The 1982 film took the neon, rain and high density living of Hong Kong in the late summer and packaged it up for a western audience.  Ever since I first saw  it represented a darker, but more colourful future. I felt inspired, ready to embrace the future warts and all after seeing it for the first time.

The new film is a darker greyer vision largely devoid of hope. You still see the Pan Am and Atari buildings of the first film, now joined with brands like Diageo. The police cars are now made by Peugeot. It also captures the visual language of the book, something that Scott hadn’t done in the original to the same extent. In the book, Dick (and the Dekkard character) obsess on how the depopulated world’s crumbling ephemera is rapidly becoming dust.

Visually the film dials down its influences from Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore and instead borrows from the crumbling industrial relics of the west and third world scrap driven scavenging from e-waste in China and Ghana to the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh. The filthy smog and snow is like a lurid tabloid exposé of northern China’s choking pollution during the winter. It paints a vision more in tune with today. Automation and technology have disrupted society, but orphans are still exploited for unskilled labour and vice is rampant.

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford do very capable performances. And they are supported by a great ensemble of cast members of great character actors at the top of their game. Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Barkhad Abdi (Eye in The Sky) and David Dastmalchian (MacGyver, Antman, and The Dark Knight). The one let down is Jared Leto – who now seems to play the same character in every film since his career high point of Dallas Buyer’s Club – I suspect that this is as much a problem with casting as performance. I think he needs to be cast against type more.

For a three-hour film it still manages to hold your attention and draw you in to its universe without feeling tired. It’s also a film that forces you to think, so if you are looking for visual wallpaper for the mind a la Marvel’s Avengers series of films it won’t be for you.

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