First, let me say I very much like Amazon, and about 90% or more of my online shopping goes through them, in virtually every category. Used books, new games, my soon-to-be-replaced 32″ Olevia LCD, baby apparel, rechargable Xbox controllers, and even Kangaroo Ribs – all from Amazon (sorry, the kangaroo meat vendor seems to have disappeared, but its hopefully temporary. tastes like chicken). But no matter how much I may like them doesn’t change my belief that their new electronic book reader device will fail, and fail terribly.
Electronic readers are one of those categories that sound really great in a boardroom. They demo great, and technologists tend to love them (yup, that includes my friends). I’m sure they even test well in focus groups, and will rapidly admit that there is *some* market for them. But that market isn’t the masses, it’s a small niche. And unfortunately, small niches are hard to sustain if you are a gadget maker.
The way I like to look at a new gadget is generally inspired by the language Pip Coburn uses in The Change Function. Is the market today “in crisis” when it comes to books? No. Next, is there a perceived pain in adopting electronic book readers? Absolutely. Now that’s not enough to completely rule out the category, but it certainly is a quick and dirty way to see why it’s not quite a slam dunk either.
In my eyes this is one of those technologies that is still searching for a problem. At $399 + $9.99 per book, it’s certainly not a cost-competitive solution to purchasing books, unless you are comparing solely against new, hardcover prints. Further, it’s not exactly a challenge to find and buy books, whether online or offline, new or used. In fact, it’s pretty hard to argue that an electronic reader will vastly improve the book discovery, purchase, and consumption experience (unlike how much an MP3 player was able to do that exact thing). The only really viable argument against physical books is they are bigger and bulkier, but that really only applies to hardcover books.
I can go on at length about all the different use-cases for why an electronic reader can’t win, but then I think this would become one of those all-too-wordy posts I tend to use. So, I’ll jump into quick bulleted list format for the rest:
- Unlike newspapers and magazines, the content of books isn’t about timeliness, so digital versions do not offer an advantage. While those industries are in a change-or-die crisis, books aren’t.
- Book consumption is unlike any other form of media, and cannot be compared to music, videos, news articles, blog posts, etc.
- The “barriers” to buying a book today involve knowing where to buy a book. Anyone savvy enough to buy Kindle knows where to buy books, and it is highly unlikely they are in massive dissatisfaction with that process. Compare this to the perceived barriers about an electronic reader.
- Most positive comments on e-readers have tons of “ifs” in them. IF it has good battery life. IF the screen looks good. IF buying books is easy. IF its very “booklike”. This isn’t a sound argument for a product, it’s instead presenting a very narrow window and how to look through it in order to see the light.
- For the most part, consumers do not buy technology products because of technology. They buy products for the services they provide, and the experiences that go along with them. Kindle would have to literally knock it out of the park to pass this criteria, not to mention everything I’ve mentioned above. The reality is the mass market of consumes tends to resent most new technology, since it tends to be overly hyped and well-marketed, yet do little more than frustrate and fail to deliver on expectations (much like the Sony Vaio VGN-SZ460N, an utter failure of a laptop).
Lastly, it’s most prudent to think about the real-world use case for reading books. How many people are really in a position where they need a mobile library of 200 books with them to choose from? Few. In my years of experience designing products for consumers, they routinely react to new device categories extremely poorly. I obviously don’t know how much money Bezos & Co is willing to throw at the Kindle, so I can’t possibly predict how long until it disappears from the catalog, but I’m definitely willing to predict it doesn’t go the distance.
UPDATE: I just read Seth Godin’s thoughts on Kindle. One of the marketing blogs I definitely enjoy, and his post on the topic is pretty good. But he mentions something that again shows me how off the mark even “industry experts” can be. He writes “The challenge that my hero Jeff Bezos has is that if he’s really really lucky, he’ll sell a million of these things in a year.” I think he’s missing about 5+ “really”s here. If he’s lucky he’ll sell 50,000 in a year, really lucky is 100,000, and really really lucky is about 200K. Moving 7 figures worth of hardware per year is VERY VERY hard! VERY hard. And that’s in an established category, let alone a speculative one.