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.