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Can the Kindle Do For eBooks What iPods Have Done For Music?

Next in a long series of thoughts about electronic books an the Amazon Kindle: can the Kindle have the same kind of huge, mainstream success, and become embedded in our culture like the iPod has?

You can read my previous posts on the Kindle, including my Two Month Review (and Washington Times interview), Why eBooks are a Great Entertainment Value, my Rebuttal to Kindle Critics, and my video Kindle Unboxing and First Impressions. Each of those posts has some great discussion in the comments, and I’d advise you to read them if you’re interested in the topics. Now, on to the topic at hand!

Comparisons between the Kindle and the iPod are inevitable. Some say (and I’m among them) It could do for books and reading what the iPod has done for music and listening – make it a very digital, customizable, personal experience. Part of the draw of iPods, I think, is the ability to bring your whole music library with you, and mix it up and listen to it in whatever way you feel like moment to moment. The Kindle seems similar on the surface – they even use some of the same terminology (“library”, etc.). The terms of the DRM (Digital Rights Management) restrictions on Kindle books and iTunes music files are also very similar – you can only use the digital files on devices from the manufacturer from whom you purchased the iPod/Kindle, you can authorize up to 5 devices to share the files within your family, but not with thousands of your closest friends on the internet, etc. You are permitted to load up free files that you’ve obtained from elsewhere. The promise of the Kindle seems to be the same as that of the iPod – you can bring all of your digital books with you, and read them however and whenever you want.

This is certainly part of the appeal of the Kindle, and ebooks in general. But there are some differences – places where direct comparisons between the Kindle and the iPod break down. I think the linear nature of books and reading means that people won’t be shuffling through their books on random, like we do with music on our iPods. And there’s the attention issue – you can listen to music or podcasts or other audio content on your iPod while you’re doing something else – driving, working out, even reading. You can’t really do much else while you’re reading a book. In the end, though, I think there’s one big issue that will prevent the Kindle from obtaining the same level of commercial and popular success that we’ve seen the iPod soar to:

Lots of people just don’t like to read.

Steve Job said as much when he was asked if Apple was working on a Kindle competitor (though many took that to be tacit acknowledgement that Apple IS planning such a device – just like when Jobs said “no one wants to watch video on an iPod” years ago). Speaking as an avid reader, and lover of words and books in all their forms, it saddens me to admit this. But I know lots of people who just don’t enjoy reading. And it’s going to be almost impossible to convince that set of people that they should buy a Kindle.

So why do people love their iPods so much? Most of us like music, and even if you’re not a full blown music lover, listening is a passive activity – it doesn’t take much effort – so it makes a nice background filler. Personally, I love listening to podcasts – they make me smarter. Plus there’s the “cool” factor – wanting to be seen with the latest iPod dangling from those white headphones, wanting to express yourself through your playlists and preferences. So even if you don’t think of yourself as a music lover, there are lots of reasons to own and use an iPod.

No one is ever going to be considered “cool” for walking around with their nose in a Kindle (although I do know people who express themselves through the books that they read in public – nothing tells the world you’re a science fiction lover like reading a Cory Doctorow paperback on the train – something the Kindle can’t do). Why the stigma against reading? I’d say that often it goes back to our school days, and the whole “smart kids” versus “cool kids” culture clash. Those habits and preferences are deeply ingrained.

For these reasons, I don’t think the Amazon Kindle, or eBooks in general, are ever going to be as popular, culturally or commercially, as the iPod and digital music.

That doesn’t make it less important. I’d argue that the Kindle and digital books are likely to change and influence people on an individual level, because of how much more stimulating reading is for your brain compared to listening to music. And for that set of people who DO love books, words, and reading, even if they’re not technologically inclined, there’s a lot to love about the Kindle. It won’t make you into a book lover, but if you’re already of that ilk, the attraction of the Kindle is just as powerful as bopping your head to the latest tunes with those white earbuds in your ears.

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8 thoughts on “Can the Kindle Do For eBooks What iPods Have Done For Music?

  1. Pingback: Kindleville

  2. asiriusgeek says:

    I find the Kindle attractive in some ways, but keep coming back to thinking I would prefer a more multifunction device. I’m reluctant to have to carry around yet one more piece of equipment. If my Tablet PC were a bit smaller (or I could afford the smaller Fujitsu), that would make more sense. I wish the licensing would get easier around this. I would love to see Ebooks become a lot more widespread/available, so I guess I’m rooting for that possibility more than this particular device.

  3. This is a great topic! You need to continue the discussion on your next podcast.

    I think that digital music media have driven down the price consumers are willing to pay for music (to the point that many are just stealing the music). Imaginative artists continue to make money by offering their music as “donation ware” (pay what it’s worth to you) or using their recorded music as a marketing throwaway to get audiences to their live performances, where they make their real money.

    I see some of the same forces at work with digital book media. People seem less willing to pay for bits as they are for atoms. As a result, e-books are priced less than physical books. Are books as likely to be pirated? And if they are, will they actually decrease the number sold? Authors don’t have the fallback of live performances to make their money like musicians do.

  4. @asiriusgeek – Multifunction devices, like a Tablet PC or the little Eee PC get lots of comparisons to the Kindle, but here’s where I think they fall down: The Electronic Ink screen on the Kindle is WAY higher contrast and DPI – text is much, much crisper. Plus the screen is not backlit, it has no other real processing duties, no hard drive, etc, and the screen requires no power to maintain an image, so battery life on the Kindle is measured in days, not hours like Tablet PCs and netbooks. Plus the Kindle is a LOT smaller and lighter than those other options. Add on top of that the fact that you can only access Amazon’s library of Kindle books from a Kindle, and to me, the Kindle is a clear winner for reading purposes (and believe me, I’ve used everything from a Tablet PC to a desktop to a PDA to a phone for reading ebooks).

    @Brent – this WOULD make a good discussion on the podcast. Brian is out this week and next, though, and then I’m at OSCON. Want to be a guest on the show with me? Seriously, what are you doing on Friday? Got a few minutes to chat? 😉

  5. yes, the Kindle will do for eBooks what the iPod did for digital music.

    Jobs may be correct that ‘lots of people don’t like to read’ but I’d guess that number is smaller than the amount of people that don’t like to listen to purchased music.

    In other words…i’d say more people read books than listen to purchased music! I’m one…

  6. hi josh – please let me know if this is the wrong place to post this –
    i run an amazon kindle blog theKindle.wordpress.com and viewership has been climbing steadily and I’m actually launching a social network for kindle owners and book lovers.
    We’re in pre-Alpha right now with the Alpha Release on 21st July (we’ll also be moving to a more book friendly url).
    Would appreciate it if you could join and give some feedback.
    More details at http://thekindle.wordpress.com/2008/07/12/social-network-for-kindle-owners-and-book-lovers/ including ‘3 Free Kindles in the first 3 months’ promotion and other information.

  7. Alison Barclay says:

    I believe that with eReader for iPhone and iPod touch, it might turn out to be the iPhone that does for eBooks what iPods have done for digital music. I haven’t read an ebook for quite a while as my most recent phones have had smaller screens than my old Palm OS and Windows Mobile PDAs, but reading a book on my iPod touch is really nice and hopefully this will introduce a whole bunch of new people to the experience!

  8. Jerry says:

    I really do appreciate what the Kindle brings to the table, just as I appreciate the fact that you can store so much music on an ipod, but for me, I prefer “dead tree” books, and still listen to much of my music on vinyl. It is an aesthetic choice, nothing beats the feel or smell of an old book, and I loooove the imperfections that records have, making each album unique.

    I do not own an iPod, though I should get one for excercising and the like, and I have no problems with the idea behind a Kindle, I think it is cool, but I would die happily under a stack of books.

    My .02 cents.

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