Four Ways Amazon Could Make Kindle 2.0 a Best Seller

[Addendum, 10/4/08: Boy Genius Report has published pictures from a reader who obtained a Kindle 2. It’s unclear so far which, if any, of the features described in my article below, published 10/3, are included.]

I wanted to love the Amazon Kindle. I’ve been a believer in the future of e-books ever since the late 1990s, when I briefly worked for NuvoMedia, the company that introduced the Rocket eBook. I was thrilled when I first heard that Jeff Bezos had decided to get serious about the technology, figuring that he was sure to have a better understanding of what makes for a great reading experience than Sony, whose PRS-500 reader, released in 2006, was a disappointment. I was intrigued when Amazon said Kindle would have a wireless chip, allowing free, nearly instantaneous book downloads over a national EVDO network. But when the first version of the Kindle came out in November 2007, it was so astonishingly ugly and expensive that I immediately soured on the product.

Now, though, there are reports that the “Kindle 2.0” is on the way. And being an optimist, I’m hopeful that Amazon will work out some of the kinks in the first-generation device. In late August Business Week‘s Peter Burrows reported, based on an interview with an unnamed source who had seen the new device, that Amazon brought in a consumer-electronics expert from international design house Frog Design to guide the Kindle’s overhaul, and that the new version is thinner and “more stylish,” with an improved screen and user interface. “They’ve jumped from Generation One to Generation Four or Five. It just looks better, and feels better,” the source told Burrows.

The Original Kindle, from AmazonThat’s all very encouraging. But Amazon needs to change more than just the gadget’s look and feel. If it really hopes to catch up with slick rivals like the iPhone (which is a credible e-book reading device in its own right) and compete with Sony’s expanded e-book reader line (the latest addition to which was announced this week), the Kindle needs some basic operational improvements: fundamental design matters like the placement of the page-forward and page-back buttons were badly flubbed the first time around, according to many owners. Amazon also needs think more flexibly about content pricing. And it needs to charge less for the device itself: the current $359 price tag probably reflects Amazon’s actual cost (the electronic paper screen, designed by Cambridge, MA-based E Ink, is very expensive), but I don’t think the company will see mass adoption at any price above $249. Dropping the price to $199, the same as the 8-gigabyte iPhone 3G, would get people thinking seriously about the Kindle as a holiday present.

I’ve met Bezos, and he strikes me as a big-picture guy. I’m sure he understands that the Kindle is more than a reading appliance—it’s an entire publishing platform, a system for browsing, purchasing, and consuming books, magazines, newspapers, and other digital media. So, just as Apple has continually revised and updated iTunes and the iTunes Store (without which iPods and iPhones would be fairly useless), I’m hopeful that Amazon is looking at ways to make the whole Kindle package more appealing to readers. But just in case they need some suggestions, here are a few:

1. Explore motion-activated scrolling or page turning. One of the biggest complaints from Kindle customers has been that the page-forward and page-back buttons are so large and awkwardly placed that it’s easy to hit them accidentally. Amazon will surely try to fix this problem in the Kindle 2.0, probably by moving the buttons around or making them smaller. But there’s an affordable technology—tilt activation—that could help them get rid of the buttons altogether.

Last week I bought an app for my iPhone called Instapaper Pro that’s quickly becoming indispensable to me. Its main function is to copy stripped-down versions of Web pages, then download them to your iPhone. Say you come across a long newspaper article and you want to read it later. You just click the “read later” bookmarklet in your browser, and the article will automatically show up, minus ads and other junk, on your iPhone. I find this extremely useful. But what makes Instapaper even cooler is the “tilt scroll” feature, which allows you to advance through the copied Web text simply by tilting the phone slightly backward or forward. It’s an ingenious use of the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer—the same tiny chip that prompts the Web browser window to rotate by 90 degrees if you want to view it in landscape mode rather than portrait mode.

It ought to be easy to build something like this into an e-book reader. Tilting the Kindle backward or forward might not be the most natural way to activate a page-turn, since Web pages scroll up and down, while book pages flip from right to left. But any movement that the accelerometer can detect is fair game. Maybe a sideways jiggle?

2. Try different pricing and distribution models for e-books. Amazon charges $9.99 for the Kindle versions of new releases. That’s less than what you’d pay for a hardcover, which is part of the Kindle’s attraction. And in light of the fact that Apple does pretty well selling albums on iTunes for $11.99 to $13.99, I’m willing to revise my earlier argument that new-release prices should be slashed to $5 or $6.

But I still don’t understand why e-book publishers and device makers aren’t exploring more of the … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy