I'd not given Amazon's Kindle ebook reader much chance of succeeding given the stratospheric price tag combined with DRM, but then I started reading the customer reviews for it and just realized that the Kindle has already amassed quite a considerable cult following, and this could be crucial to its success.
When I look at the Kindle I see a device that holds a lot of promise, but this has been true for every other ebook reader that's entered the market. And history is littered with the tombstones of failed ebook readers. And for every pro feature of the Kindle (nice screen, wireless download, and good battery life) there are some serious negatives to contend with (price, DRM, Sprint network coverage). It's also ugly. I don't usually judge things by how they look but this thing, in my opinion, is ugly in a way that I thought was exclusive to the Zune. Weighing up the pros and cons, I'd come to the conclusion that the Kindle has already hit the peak of popularity and the only way for it to go was down.
But then I realized that the Kindle had a cult. The Cult of Kindle. A group of people willing to give it a five star rating just because someone else didn't, willing to back up every design, engineering and marketing decision that Amazon made, willing to defend the Kindle with their last dying breath. The Kindle doesn't cost money, it saves money. Why only buy one! That 0.75 second flash as the pages turn isn't a downside, it gives you an opportunity to absorb the previous page and admire the Kindle's prefection. It doesn't harm your eyes, in fact, it fixes them. Ergonomic issues that other reviewers have bought up are dismissed by the Cult of Kindle as flaws with the reviewer, not the device. The Kindle is perfect, and the Kindle 2.0 will be a little more perfect.
When I look at the Kindle what I see is a $400 blank book. Sure, it has features that go beyond being an electronic book reader, but these are vague and lacking is specifics. Really the features of the Kindle boil down to three things - click, buy, and read, with extra emphasis on the second step. For a blank book, the price is high. I had an exchange with David Berlind over on his blog yesterday (my three comments can be found here, here and here) and when I mentioned price he tried to counter my argument this way:
But if cost is still bugging you, I can remember a lot of people laughing at the premium that Starbucks was charging for a cup of coffee.
My counter to this point is that to make use of Starbucks you don't have to buy a $400 cup.
The DRM issue also bothers me. Well, not the DRM so much but the feeling that if this service did tank, you'd end up with a $400 paperweight and no access to the books you bought. Those who think that this can't happen then it's worth bearing in mind what happened to services such as Virgin Digital and Google Video. I'm always wary of the investment I have tied up in Audible.com, but at least there I didn't have to buy a $400 reader to take advantage of the service. Remember, what DRM giveth, DRM can taketh away.
The real test for the Kindle will ultimately be the test of time. Will people who've bought one continue to buy books, will Amazon continue to be able to generate enough buzz to keep them selling (and drop the price), will people who've made an investment in books for the Kindle buy another when their first Kindle dies or becomes obsolete? Also, and crucially, will the service last? I'm sure that Amazon will be able to count on the Cult of Kindle to do their part.
Looking at the Kindle service as a whole and the areas where Amazon have got it right are areas where the company already excel at - and that's adopting the path of least resistance to online commerce. In a single iteration Amazon has bettered what Apple have been trying to acheive for years with the iTunes store.
Would I buy one now? No. Would I buy one in a year's time? Hmmm ... maybe.
Before I close, I'll leave you with the first act of The Future of Reading (a Play in Six Acts):
When someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.
Jeff Bezos, Open letter to Author’s Guild, 2002You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.
Amazon, Kindle Terms of Service, 2007