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Amazon Must Kill the Kindle, and Other E-Book Reader Developments

The line of announcements on the e-book reader front, both at CES and out in the rest of the world, has become prodigious. It seems like almost every week someone comes out with a new one. And that's exactly the reason that, for the good of itself, its investors, and everyone else, Amazon (AMZN) should kill off its Kindle.

There was a point when pushing its own device helped jump-start a relatively nascent form of publishing and drove others, like Sony and Barnes & Noble to either improve or introduce their own units. And it's easy to understand how Amazon wanted a vibrant e-book market: better potential pricing because of no printing, virtually zero inventory costs, limitless availability, and instant gratification for customers.

The seeming potential has become obvious to almost everyone in the industry (or trying to get into it), as recent announcements have shown:

  • Magazine publisher Hearst is backing the Skiff, with high resolution and the ability for full-motion video.
  • Notion Ink announced the yet-to-ship Adam.
  • Plastic Logic finally showed its lightweight Que after over a year of promising to.
  • Borders Book Group (BGP) and Spring Design have a deal to sell the latter's Alex reader, which has dual screens (one to show Internet links) and runs Android.
  • Book distributor Baker & Taylor, working with K-NFB Reading Technology, announced rich media reader software called Blio, which hopefully will be successful or likely attain the moniker Blooey.
It's a pretty full slate that faces twin pressures.

On one hand, the field is painfully desperate for continued innovation to find the native ways in which electronic media can soar and not be an attempt to reproduce the book in yet a new and more bug-prone form. After a conversation with a friend and colleague yesterday, I'm coming to call this the merchandising-value conundrum. You can try to create an electronic device that faithfully reproduces most of what a book can do and then create a business model that makes it affordable for most consumers. That's using merchandising to create a value proposition that makes it possible for people to shift from paper to electrons and photons.

And yet, that ignores the inherent new value that a device could bring, integrating Internet, audio, video, and text in some way that makes the content more compelling. The more you focus on reproduction, the more you put off the underlying fundamental changes that might be necessary to bring the extra value that would attract consumers in a different way. The Kindle may be convenient for purchasing books and capable of holding many (when Amazon doesn't decide to take them away from you), but it's not getting into the land of Literary Revolution.

On the other hand, although it needs innovation, the e-book industry badly needs generally accepted standards. Books work for a number of reasons. It's a design inherently good at delivering a given type of experience and that is easy to box up and sell just about anywhere. Buy a book from any publisher at any retail outlet and you know you can read it. But fractured standards mean, for example, that the title you get at one web site may not work on a particular reader. That's a problem, and its one to which Amazon is one of the main contributors because, from its long actions, the company wants to control the entire publishing ecosystem.

The only way to move forward is to solve both problems at the same time, and that means Amazon and the Kindle have to get out of the way. It could be by changing the company's approach to at least openly embrace a common set of standards, or it might be that it could literally stop manufacturing the product. Of course, that would mean that Amazon wouldn't have that lock on selling e-books, but that's about to end anyway. Early in this past holiday season, both Sony and Barnes & Noble underestimated demand as many people failed to make the Kindle their first choice for e-reader. Amazon should do what it does best -- out market and out sell its retail competitors -- and benefit from a wider audience rather than trying to control and own what would continue to be a much smaller one. That would allow it to forgo the subsidy the hardware offers on e-book prices and instead see device prices plummet and then charge rates for titles that would provide a sustainable income for retailer, publisher, and author alike.

Image via Flickr user, CC 2.0.

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