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Amazon's Kindle: Can it make its technology invisible?

Amazon on Monday officially rolled out its Kindle e-book, which downloads books, blogs, magazines and newspapers via a wireless connection.The Kindle (view our Kindle unboxing gallery), which looks a lot less clunky in person than via pictures, features 90,000 books via the Kindle Store.

Amazon on Monday officially rolled out its Kindle e-book, which downloads books, blogs, magazines and newspapers via a wireless connection.

The Kindle (view our Kindle unboxing gallery), which looks a lot less clunky in person than via

pictures, features 90,000 books via the Kindle Store. New releases will cost you $9.99. The Kindle costs $399.

At a press event in New York City, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walked through the history of the book and made his case for the Kindle evolution.

"This is a 500 year technology and we forget that it's a technology. As readers we don't think about this too often," said Bezos. "An interesting question is why are books the last bastion of analog."

The answer: Books disappear when you read them. They fill their role and get out of the way. "What remains is the author's world," said Bezos, referring to the reader "flow state."

"The one thing you'll notice about the Kindle is that it does disappear when you read it," said Bezos.

The big question is whether the Kindle can replicate Bezos flow state where you forget the technology. It's a bit ironic that Amazon is throwing technology at a device just so you'll forget it.

Among the notable points about the Kindle (most have already leaked out):

  • Downloads are done via Amazon Whispernet, using the EVDO network;
  • Books can be downloaded in minutes without a PC;
  • The display claims to be as good as paper even in sunlight. Bezos said during the press event that Kindle uses the E-Ink technology;
  • There are a bunch of content partners, including ZDNet, TechCrunch, The New York Times and others;
  • The Kindle is 10.3 ounces, about the size of a paperback, I must admit it looks less clunky live than it does in pictures;
  • Battery life is expected to last a week or more;
  • Personal documents are available on the Kindle;
  • Fonts adjust. In a demo, Bezos noted that blowing up the fonts "is useful for the treadmill."
  • Your books are archived in Amazon's cloud. You can't lose a book.

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Amazon is trying to walk a line here. Bezos couldn't help but talk up the technology. He said the Kindle is the most advanced EVDO radio, with advanced display technology and no wireless contract. The big question: Can that technology "get out of the way"?

Bezos said:

"Can you improve on something as well suited to its task and highly as evolved as a book? How? You have to have the key feature of a book be that it disappear. It has to get out of the way so you can enjoy your reading."

Bezos noted that you can't "out book a book," but you can make it do things a book can't. "We can use this new medium to go beyond certain dimensions," said Bezos, adding that the Kindle has been in development for three years.

That's a high standard. The Kindle's biggest hurdle will be making technology disappear. Here's how Bezos said the Kindle will make technology disappear:

  • No PC involved and synching.
  • Shopping from the device. "The store is on the device," said Bezos.
  • No Wi-Fi dependence. Bezos said the idea to use EVDO for access and downloading was to find something that was widely deployed. On the surface, this EVDO raises concerns about a data plan. "We didn't like that either," said Bezos. The solution: Amazon Whispernet, which is built on top of Sprint's network. Bezos foots the bill for the access. "We foot the bill for all of that so you can just read," said Bezos.

Meanwhile, here are a few random thoughts from the event:

Is this thing ugly? I wonder where the colors are, but I don't know if I'd call it ugly right out of the box. It certainly isn't the prettiest device I've ever seen. But it's designed to go into the background. The Kindle does fade into the background and it's not flashy by any stretch.

These fees can add up. Sure, a consumer will get a free wireless connection to download content. But all of this content costs you dough. As Matthew Miller notes these fees can add up.

There is a DRM scheme. Amazon has a DRM system with the Kindle. In a nutshell, each Kindle is affiliated to an Amazon account. That means books you purchase are available only to your Kindle. It is possible that a family account could be registered to multiple Kindles. So if you want to share a book with your neighbor stick to print--or let her borrow your Kindle.

Technical details were kept quiet. Here's the short version of what runs the Kindle. It's Linux based and it is manufactured by an unnamed manufacturer in China. Will this replace books? Bezos walked us through the history of the book including scripts from the first century, the printing press and laid out his case for the Kindle. Will this replace a book? No. But if Kindle can disappear into the background it could find an audience doing things books can't. "This is a 500 year technology and we forget that it's a technology. As readers we don't think about this too often," said Bezos. In a demo, Bezos showed a device that was bookish. It's meant to be read.

Can the Kindle save the newspaper industry? Downloading a paper, or two, every night in full with the actual newspaper experience could accomplish a few goals. First, it would cut distribution costs dramatically. Second, it could be a bridge between young and older newspaper audiences. For instance, I prefer the paper-based newspaper. The Web can't replace the feel of ink and newsprint. To someone younger the news on paper is just silly. If the Kindle bridges those two audiences, it may just help newspapers.

How will this drive Amazon revenue? With this device, Amazon becomes a gadget retailer. And this gadget drives more incremental sales for Amazon. Meanwhile, Amazon saves on shipping costs. Add this up and it all sounds sort of iPod/iTunes-ish. Is the Kindle to reading what the iPod was to music. That's a helluva a leap, but if it plays out Amazon could actually get those margins up beyond the retail zone (also known as low single digits).

See the full statement from Amazon and the Kindle store. I'll have more updates shortly.