Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

Summary: As we absorb the iPad into the pantheon of technology toys, are there lessons Apple could teach Amazon?


Special Report: Apple iPad

Last week, in a flurry of pre-iPad editorial, I wrote how Amazon could teach Apple five lessons about treating customers with respect. But as we absorb the iPad into the pantheon of technology toys, are there lessons Apple could teach Amazon?

You betcha!

Given how unpredictable Apple is, and how important it is that our access to media not be "gated" by one company or one ideology, having companies that can compete with Apple is essential. Hopefully, Amazon will learn from the following lessons and give Apple a run for their considerable money.

Lesson 1: Hardware fit and finish

Let's face it, the Kindle (especially the original Kindle) looks like something that escaped from an East German factory in the mid-1980s. With page-turning toggles located right under where you have to hold the device, it's as if Amazon never heard of the concept of usability.

And even though the second generation Kindle, with its teeny-weeny chicklet keys, looks a little more like a 2001-vintage iPod than a 1986-vintage Yugo, it's still a long way from the seamless, jewel-like pleasure one gets from holding any iPod model, an iPhone, or -- now -- the iPad.

Even if you don't like Apple or Apple hardware, everyone who ever looks at, touches, or holds an Apple product gets a slightly naughty tingle. Credit where credit is due. It's as if Apple's industrial design somehow manages to tap lightly into the very pleasure centers of the brain.

Amazon (and most consumer electronics manufacturers) can learn from this. Geeks will often go for function over form (if they can't have both), but the mainstream consumer -- if he or she can afford it -- always goes for the sexier product.

If Amazon isn't going to kill and bury the Kindle this month, they're going to need to produce much sexier hardware. I'm not just talking lipstick on a pig here. I'm talking about hardware, designed from the ground up, that makes your toes curl.

Lesson 2: Software fit and finish

Last week, we beat up on Apple for their draconian and completely unpredictable App store policies. Even though the iPhone and iPad have some significant functionality limitations, the software is beautiful and works just as you'd expect.

Also read iPad: Some Lingering Questions

By contrast, the Kindle's software looks like it was designed by a hardware designer ripped straight from his 1994-based gig designing the most obtuse and ugliest cable TV set-top box he could come up with.

Put another way, if the iPad and the Kindle were foods, the iPad would be a succulent steak or a perfect ice cream sundae, and the Kindle would be lima beans or liver.

I'm not saying this because I'm an Apple fanboy. I'm clearly not. But if you were to line up the Kindle's user interface next to the Palm OS, the iPhone, the old Newton, Windows 7, Windows Mobile, or even Windows 3, any one of those interfaces would win out over that of the Kindle.

If Amazon expects to ever sell Kindle hardware for more than $50 (some people will put up with anything for fifty bucks), Amazon has to do a vastly better job with its UI. Probably the best move would be to license a more attractive user interface from a company that employs actual designers and not just cranky hardware engineers who think user interfaces are just marketing-driven to-do items to check off as quickly as possible.

Lesson 3: Backlighting

Amazon has been all about their horrid "electronic paper" grayscale interface. Their claim is that it's easier on the eyes. Since the iPad has launched, Amazon has also been promoting how much easier it is to use the Kindle in direct sunlight at the beach.

After seeing the iPad, most Kindle users will want to fling their Kindle into the ocean.

Let's first deal with the beach issue, then I'll move on to the sun. Taking electronics to the beach is a bad idea. These are expensive devices and sand is likely to scratch the display. Unless you really don't care much about how your device survives the elements (or unless you paid $50 and it just doesn't matter), you're probably not going to want to chance it.

Besides, the beach. Ugh. Disclosure: I live in Florida near the beach. I've been there twice. I don't see the point. Oh, well. My wife likes it here.

Next, let's talk about the sun. If it shines on you, you'll burst into flame and die. Besides, being in the sun would involve being outside, in the blue room, where it's sunny. Once again, ugh.

Geek nightmares aside, most people read their books inside and as long as the device is somewhat readable outside, that's all that matters. But the Kindle doesn't have any backlighting at all, so reading a book at night is impossible, without some kludge hacked onto the device.

I bought a Kindle last year. I like to read before bed. I found that the Kindle was unusable, because it's dark at night. Instead, I transferred my Kindle books to my iPhone and read the books there.

While I whine and complain about how much the iPhone annoys me, the Kindle reading experience on the iPhone was vastly, vastly better than the Kindle reading experience on the Kindle. Frankly, it was also pretty much better than using the iPhone for much of anything else.

The lesson for Amazon is this: while only some of us need to read in direct sunlight, a full 100% of us experience night. Oh, and I returned the Kindle for a full refund.

Lesson 4: Color

With its Kindle app for the iPad, Amazon has clearly discovered color. That app alone almost makes me want to buy an iPad. I said almost!

Anyway, color on the iPad makes the Kindle's gray-on-gray look so last decade. Not only is the interface more appealing, the actual content is much more readable. Obviously, not all books published have color images, but even just seeing the covers in color makes for a more enjoyable reading experience.

Print publishers are fighting for their companies' lives and they're doing all they can to distinguish themselves and still remain relevant to potential customers. Color on the iPad is a way of standing out, and you can be sure they're going to tailor their books to be more appealing for that platform.

The lesson for Amazon is that publishers will be gravitating to a color environment. If the only thing a Kindle offers is bland gray, consumers will go for the color.

Lesson 5: iPad differentiation

No sane technology journalist wants to see more raving Apple fans. Except, of course, for the Web traffic they bring every time the word "Apple" is mentioned.

As I mentioned, Amazon is doing one thing very right: running Kindle software on any platform that'll take it. This means that even if the Kindle hardware fails, the Kindle marketplace can win.

Even so, if Amazon wants to remain in the hardware business, the company is going to need to find a way to differentiate Kindle from iPad (and in a good way). Price is an obvious approach. Convenience is another. Capabilities and expansive feature set is another approach.

The lesson here for Amazon is they're either going to have go above or below the iPad. One approach would be to offer a really cheap Kindle that customers don't mind taking to the beach or into the bathroom, a Kindle so inexpensive that customers might buy three or four and just leave them around the house to use as convenient. With Whispernet and dynamic syncing, this is actually practical.

The other approach is to go after the higher-end market, modeling Android or even the HP Slate and making the Kindle into an unrestricted, general-purpose computing device that happens to be perfect for books.

The thing is, while Apple has become the 600-pound gorilla, lions and elephants can also live and thrive in the jungle. Jeff Bezos can either be Steve Jobs' pet monkey, or he can innovate and take his rightful place among the big cats of consumer electronics.

Disclaimer: As far as I can tell in the five minutes of research I did, I think lions, gorillas, and elephants live in the same part of the world, but if I'm wrong, remember I'm an engineer, not some kind of zoo guy. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, you should know I derive a small income from both Apple and Amazon.

Topics: iPad, Amazon, Apple, Hardware, Mobility


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • "horrid"?


    I wouldn't go that far, especially in sunlight.
    Why is it [b]so hard[/b] to develop a glare
    free LCD screen????

    "while only some of us need to read in direct
    sunlight, a full 100% of us experience night."

    A full 100% of us experience daylight too. Last
    I checked, the sun rises as many times as it
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    Can we please dispense with all these silly lists? It really seems very lazy, if not sloppy piece of journalism, to me at least, whenever 'tech writers' produce another 5, 7, 10, 11, 13 things that Apple and other companies can do/learn/copy from each other etc.
    I would prefer that someone takes the effort to write an article of substance without these silly superfluous lists and see if it might actually be worthy of everyone's time. If I were a writer, I think that would make me proud instead of having to joust for unmemorable quick hits.
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    My Kindle is keeping its rightful place in my pantheon of devices even though I've bought an iPad. It reads to me. It has Whispernet. It fits in my jacket pocket. It's a pleasure to read. It does what it does well without distraction. It plays nice with all of my other devices so my book is always wherever I am. With respect to the Kindle, the iPad is just one more of those devices.
    • We need more posts like yours

      people who actually own both, and can do an honest comparison between the two to the effect of what does what much better.

      It appears that many of the blogs here are from people who either own just one, or the other.
  • Point by point ...

    <b>Lesson 1:</b>

    Yes, Apple makes beautiful - no <i><b>sexy-looking</b></i> products. And sell them at premium price-points. No doubt that if the Kindle looked prettier it would attract more Gen X and Millenians. Provided that they have money to burn.

    <b>Lesson 2:</b>

    The Kindle was designed to be a dedicated eBook reader. Nothing more. No need to own a computer to "sync" the device. No need to even know how to use a computer.

    Dedicated eBook readers, and eReader software for computers have been around for nearly two decades yet, these were relegated ot the "toys for geeks" category until the Kindle, with its intergrated book store abd free wireless connection came along and offered the non-geek a real alternative at not too high a price. Oh, and if you have a smartphone the eReader software is FREE.

    <b>Lesson 3:</b>

    Ah yes, backlighting. The solution for those who never set foot in sunlight. Reading on the beach isn't the issues. Its reading for extended periods in any daylight - period.

    The geeks among us can stare in awe at the beautiful images which can be produced on a high-quality backlit screen but ask a college student to read a book or paper on-line instead of printing and they will tell you <i><b>"Its too hard to read on a computer screen!"</b></i>

    You pundits cannot have it both ways. Reading text (the purpsoe of the kindle) requires different technology than looking at photographs and playing games.

    The iPad may be able to read eBooks (as can just about every electronic device available today) but that is not its primary purpose - nor the primary goal of the iPad buyer.

    <b>Lesson 4:</b>

    You are correct here. A significant theme of the Kindle model is access to periodicals (newspapers and magazines). Today, this content is fill of color images.

    Amazon has had color under develpment almost since the beginning. Now that Apple has set a new HIGHER price-point, perhaps Amazon can bring it to market - at least for those willing to pay the uptick in price.

    <b>Lesson 5:</b>

    Most ironic of all is the very fact that Apple is positioning the iPad as a Kindle killer. Aside from the fact that the iPad can read eBooks (like just about every computer and smartphne on the planet) these machines offer very different things.

    The iPad is little more than an oversized (and some might say overpriced) iPod Touch with a larger screen. Sure it does more than today's iPdo Touch - but the next iPod Touch (if there is one) will be as featrue-rich as the iPad.

    The iPad is a game machine and an eReader. It is a web-browser and thin-client - yet it requires a computer to set up. Thus, the first time buyer has to be somewhat IT literate. This makes them more than just a consumer product, like a Kindle, or a smartphone, or a game machine.

    <b><i>What the iPad is NOT:</i></b> It is not a netbook, a notebook, or a tablet computer. Any of these will do more than the iPad can do and can be had for as little as $350.

    There is no doubt that Apple makes remarkble products and, as long as Steve Jobs is at the helm, they will be able to market them successfully to comsumers willing to embrace the Apple universe. Consumers who will gladly pay a premium for <i>sexy-looking</i> products.

    Good for Apple. And good for consumers. But let's not pretend that Amazon is competing against Apple - any more than Microsoft is.

    Apple doesn't want Amazon's customers, they just don't want to lose their own customers to Amazon.
    M Wagner
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    Whatever reasons exist to ditch a Kindle device to get
    an Ipad they don't have to do with the center of the
    matter: the reading experience.

    After the paper book, the Kindle device is the best
    thing to get to read contents intended for print like
    books. It is the most efficient channel to buy books
    as well. If reading is the central question then the
    IPAD is no competition to Kindle.

    If reading is not the absolute question then yes
    Kindle is no computer and it is no good for: browsing
    internet, consuming audio and video, sending and
    receiving emails and so on and the like. It's is the
    comparison between a fork and a blender. Sure you can
    blend your dinner and then drink it but the fork will
    give you the chance to enjoy a piece of your steak.
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    The Ipad and Kindle are completely different devices.
    One is for reading only and the other is mainly for
    playing games, watching TV and surfing (with reading as
    an add-on). Have you REALLY tried to read a whole book
    on the Ipad? The kindle is great for traveling because
    it is smaller and cheaper. You can read on subway in
    bright light with no glare.

    You are right on. My first generation Kindle's
    screen crapped out 6 weeks after the one year
    warranty ended (there was no extended warranty
    available at the time.) Mind you, it had traveled no
    further than my nightstand, so hard use wasn't the
    issue. So Amazon offeres me a refurbished Kindle
    for $100 and a 90 day warranty. I was shocked
    that this was the best they could/would do. I said
    "No thanks." I figured that I spent roughly $20-25
    per book that I downloaded during that 13 1/2
    months. Not a bargain. And why would I want to
    give them ANY more of my money after that

    My Kindle customer service experience stunk (not
    the person on the phone, but the company policy
    that created this proposed "solution".) Apple, in
    contrast, has great customer service combined
    with well-designed and reliable products. Apple
    understands that a little flexibility goes a long

    Like you, I have migrated my books to my iPhone
    and find it easy to read, even on that small scale,
    and appreciate that I don't have to have a
    secondary lights source. Plus now, I can actually
    thumb back through a few pages with ease--
    something I never did on the Kindle (way too slow
    and clunky). I also always felt that I was back in
    the dark ages of computers (remember DOS) when
    using the Kindle. The iPhone feels almost like
    relief, inspite of the small size. So what the
    screen is shiny on the iPad--doesn't seem to be a
    big deal for me on my iPhone.

    Plus look at what else the iPad can do! No
    contest. I'll wait till I can afford the iPad and will
    continue to use my iPhone in the meantime. I
    think a little competition might be good for
    Amazon Kindle--if it doesn't kill them. Which I
    think is likely.
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    I love the ipad, but I still prefer the Kindle for reading for the following reasons:
    1. Kindle battery lasts a week or more, ipad a day maybe
    2. ipad has a glare in in any kind of light that is hard on eys. (better in the dark, though)
    3. I have already purchased hundreds or boooks on kindle.
    4. Kndle is a better size and feel for readig. Ipad is heaviers and often more awkward to hold for long periods.

    The Kindle's electronic ink system makes for the longer battery life and less glare, but has no color, backlight, or touch screen. That's the tradeoff and for me Kindle works best for reading. I take my kindle everywhere. I am not yet ready to give up my laptop for the ipad and I don't want to drag 2 big devices around. I agree kindle 1.0 wasn't worth using, 2.0 is much better, but design is certainly not as good as Apple.
  • ipad is an iphone killer

    the Iphone is not a great telephone. Dropped calls are the iphone's fault not ATT. My backberry on att rarely drops calls.
    Many people have the iphone mostly for the apps, not the phone. the ipad has much better apps. so get an ipad and a real phone
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    If e-ink was such a terrible idea, EXPLAIN TO ME why people could have bought ebooks to read on their computer any time after about 1990, and NO ONE DID.

    Explain to me why ebooks were a nowhere product with a nothing market until Amazon brought out the Kindle, with its e-ink screen.

    And I am pretty sure you aren't a reader from your description of the two interfaces. You are, in fact, just a quasi-literate Apple fanboy who has never picked up or bought a book in your life. Know how I know this? Because your article doesn't mention the horrific abortion that is the interface for the iBooks Store.

    Anyone who has actually used an online bookstore in their lives [to make purchases, and not just long enough to write a review about it] can recognize Apple's complete failure with the iBooks Store. Hello, Apple! I want to sort the available books in a genre by price. Hello, Apple! How about showing me ALL THE BOOKS in a genre, so I can browse through them? Is that too complicated a concept for people running an online bookstore to understand?
    • Because...

      "If e-ink was such a terrible idea, EXPLAIN TO ME why people could have bought ebooks to read on their computer any time after about 1990, and NO ONE DID."

      Answer: Because CRTs that were around in 1990 were terrible for the eyes and laptops were of such low resolution they weren't much better. Because reading ebooks on desktop monitors or hot laptops is a pain.

      "Explain to me why ebooks were a nowhere product with a nothing market until Amazon brought out the Kindle, with its e-ink screen."

      Answer: Because the tablet form factor of the Kindle or iPad was too expensive for consumers until recently. It's the form factor, not the technology.
  • eBook Reading (Sci-Fi/Fantasy books)

    I am an avid Sci-Fi/Fantasy reader (over 500 actual books in my library) as well as a tech geek and gamer. I work in IT and stare at LCDs both at home and at work, so 14+ hours of my day are spent in front of an LCD screen of somesort (TV, smartphone, monitor). While I don't own a Kindle, I have had every Sony Reader (an e-Ink device) since it was first available (Nov 2006). I do own an iPad and have read 4 full-length Sci-fi/Fantasy books on it so far.

    The Sony Reader (Touch model or higher) has LEDs shining from the edge of the screen onto the screen for backlight. The iPad is a standard LCD-type screen with the light shining straight from it. After my eyes start to hurt due to eye strain from LCDs, the e-Ink technology is very nice as it doesn't increase the pain.

    The Sony Reader Touch has a touch screen as well as buttons for next/previous pages. The iPad is obviously touch as well, but lacks the physical buttons (not much a detractor). The iPad is a lot more responsive to page turning and the iBook reading app has very cool page turning effects.

    Both actually have issues reading in direct sunlight, no matter what is said by their companies, but the Sony Reader <i>is</i> better.

    At the end of a long day, I prefer my dedicated device for reading books and my iPad for everything else.
  • Kindle beats iPad hands down for reading

    I felt so strongly about this article that it has formed todays blog post for me.

    This is not an attempt to plug my blog, it's just to long a response to put in the comments here.

    The long and the short of it is though that I totally disagree with what this article is saying and feel the Kindle is by and far the superior device when it comes to reading books.

    Link to blog post here with my reasons why I think this:

    • re: Kindle beats iPad hands down for reading

      Excellent post. I read your blog entry and it's well written and reasoned.

      I disagree with you on a few points. First, beach and sun. Just say no. You'll thank me when your body doesn't burst into flames. Safety tip.

      Second, I bought the Kindle 2 with the expectation of a good reading environment, but found it to be just awful. Dark gray on medium gray was an almost instant recipe for eyestrain. I wanted to like the device (in fact, I [i]really[/i] wanted to like the device), but found it effectively unusable.

      Friends with Kindle 1s told me the Kindle 2 screen was far worse than they had, and I believe them. I don't think Kindle could have made the progress it has with this screen.
      David Gewirtz
      • re: Kindle beats iPad hands down for reading

        Hey thanks for the kind words David.

        Truth be told I am not a sun worshipper but once a year I like to expose my skin to the rays and lounge around a pool in Bali with cocktails :-)

  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    I'm still amazed none of the geeks "gets" the iPad. Compare
    it to a Kindle, netbook, notebook, whatever...the iPad is a
    different digital device. One which can easily evolve with new
    apps & OS software. In the Apple store yesterday I saw
    people pick it up and get it. Not "fanboys" (there is no such
    thing anymore). Moms, children, older people. They picked
    it up and without any help from an employee they operated it
    with ease. Pure genius! (my opinion)
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    You are completely wrong about E-Ink. I own a Kindle and a Sony E-book reader and I would never trade the e-ink display for an LCD. Remember, this is a replacement for a physical book, NOT for a laptop. If you need more light to read, turn on a lamp. I would much rather have a display that gets easier to read as I add more light, than one that gets harder to read as I add light.

    I agree with you about the software. The Kindle and Sony both have dreadful software. At the very least, they should make it possible for you to organize your e-books on the device in some logical fashion. Fortunately, in both cases, these flaws don't affect me when I am actually reading a book. While I am reading, I lose myself in the book and the device just disappears (as it should).
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    I wonder if a Google Chrome OS will run a similar $300
    device in 2011?
  • RE: Five iPad lessons Apple could teach Amazon to save the Kindle

    The Kindle is 8x5.5 and Amazon's sold millions as a book reader. I find the Pad too heavy as a book reader, more than 2x Kindle. I believe a Pad about the size of a Kindle with WiFi and color and and an OLED screen would be great for book reading if Apple can keep the weight closer to Kindle's 10 ounces. The smaller screen should allow Apple to keep the battery life in the 10 hour range. And the Kindle size allows it to fit into a large coat pocket. In the meantime I still love my Kindle and read almost all my books that way, even in bed. And, oh by the way, I use a light for reading at night.