Will Kindle Catch Fire?

The latest hot gadget is the Kindle from Amazon.com. It's an electronic book reader that allows owners to purchase books wirelessly from Amazon for $9.99 (unless differently priced), as well as receive online subscriptions for certain magazines and newspapers automatically; currently Amazon has 90,000 titles available for the Kindle to download. It's a bit pricey at $399.99, but I expect that the price will drop somewhat over the next few months. The Kindle is so hot that you can't even get one right now -- they're sold out, but they'll have more coming. The Kindle will allow people to store about 200 books worth of content and carry it around in a portable gadget that weighs less than a pound. And you don't even need to have a computer, since it downloads the content via third-generation EVDO wireless, meaning you wouldn't have to look for a wireless "hot spot" for it to work. It only takes about a minute to download a book.

So is this the wave of the future for reading? I suspect for many people, it may well be. Some technophobes may not like it, however, preferring the feel of a real book in their hands to a soulless electronic device. Then again, I'm sure that scribes felt the same way when printed books replaced illuminated hand-copied manuscripts in the Middle Ages.

A device like the Kindle could certainly be a boon to students, if they were able to download all of their textbooks onto one. In the future, they probably will, and they'll hear horror stories from their parents about lugging heavy backpacks full of books from home to school and back again. The kid will just nod his head at the old fogies, then put his electronic reader and his micro-notebook computer into his ultralight backpack. That is, if they don't end up becoming one and the same device.

The reason that I think that the price will come down is that Amazon will want the device to become ubiquitous, like the iPod. The real profit will come from selling content for the device. Unlike dead-tree books, there will be no printing costs involved and no unsold returned books to write off. Nothing will be sent to the customer except for several megabytes of information. Other than the cost of electronic storage, maintaining the network and sending the data, the income will be almost pure profit.

Unlike dead-tree books, customers would be less likely to share them with friends, because sharing would involve lending out your Kindle, with your whole book collection on it. And because the downloads aren't going through a computer but directly to the device wirelessly as files in a proprietary format, and will have DRM built into it, there will be less of a piracy problem than the music business has. While it won't be impossible, it is likely to be much more difficult to do. You probably won't see a Bookster site arise for readers to share book files.

This is just a first-generation electronic reader, of course. You can expect to see added functions in the future, perhaps a built-in web browser, built-in voice recognition software as input for e-mail, etc. The Kindle supposedly can play MP3 files, although they come up randomly; expect more user control in future releases. Ultimately, I expect that we'll end up with some kind of a tablet computer that will be an all-in-one device with a few terabytes of memory onboard and EVDO wireless access to scoop up both free and premium content, in print, audio and video, and probably act as a video phone as well. At that point, it will be the ultimate killer application.