2007 Kindle pessimism

I’ll admit to not yet having seen a Kindle, but I think it is not the wave of the future and not the next iPod. The key feature of the iPod is the use of software to organize your music collection, not just the portability … Maybe Kindle is good for voracious readers who take long trips, and don’t want to buy books along the way, but can you build a market on that?

That is from Tyler Cowen, upon the Kindle’s release in 2007. Was he right? In some ways obviously not. Amazon very much did build a market around the Kindle. I think Tyler missed a few things.

1. The economic effect of the Kindle. Ebooks are so much cheaper than normal books that in some ways a Kindle becomes a cost saving device. That is even more true for the small minority of people who lack moral scruples around piracy.

2. The transformative nature of more-portable books. The combination of weight, thickness and being able to use it one-handed means a Kindle is much more usable than a book in a wide variety of situations (public transport being the primary one). As the features continued to improve, this became more true — having a waterproof book I can read in the pool/bath is genuinely revolutionary for me, though I have never seen anyone else reading one in a pool. Having multiple books on one device also allows a freedom of choice — you can carry a library around with you and decide what’s right for the moment, rather than being confined to whatever you packed that morning.

3. The link between Amazon’s store and the Kindle made it almost inevitable that the Kindle would dominate the e-reader market. In this respect it is similar to the iPod: other MP3 players/e-readers existed, but making it easy to buy MP3s/e-books and transfer them to your device made the iPod/Kindle more popular than the competition.

4. The Kindle’s instant gratification. With paper books, the absolute shortest time between deciding I want a book and starting to read it is 30 minutes, and I’m lucky to live near a largeish book store. For more obscure books I have to wait a couple of days for the book to ship. With a Kindle, I can start reading a book within 30 seconds of wanting it. Removing the friction of waiting is a large contributor to the Kindle’s popularity.

But in other ways Tyler was right. Overall, the Kindle has not been as transformative as the iPod. The iPod reshaped the act of listening to music — you can draw a clean line from its invention to the popularity of streaming services and the “death” of the album. And while there is a Kindle subscription service, as far as I can tell it’s not very popular. Instead, the Kindle has become a popular way to consume a pre-existing format in a pre-existing way: it’s not done much to change the act of “reading”.

Maybe that’s changing now, with the advent of services like Readwise and PKM tools like Roam — Kindles can encourage much more “active” reading than physical books thanks to the easily-synced highlights. But as we have seen, making predictions is risky, so I shan’t make one.

5 thoughts on “2007 Kindle pessimism

  1. I’ve used and commented on individual Kindles and the Kindle as a cultural product, and the main way it’s changed my reading habits is through Instapaper. I use the Firefox Instapaper extension to save interesting, but long articles to Instapaper, and then download to Kindle every few days. That’s led me to read more long articles and fewer books (the former are almost always free, too). I’m probably less tolerant of the padded nonfiction book, too, and I wasn’t that tolerant of it to begin with.

    I don’t think I wrote my 2007-era predictions about what the Kindle might lead to, but I think that I thought we’d see more “right-sized” books, in that a book with 30,000 words of material wouldn’t be stretched to 60,000 words, as is common in the paper world, and that seems not to have happened.

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