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?
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.
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.