Can Kindle Keep the Fire Burning?

As the Amazon Kindle brand approaches its fifth birthday, it seems a good time to assess its place as the guiding force in the e-reading movement.

Nobody can question the scope of Amazon’s achievement. Kindle was the tip of the spear in a full frontal assault on five centuries of reading tradition. Even more, the company opened the door to millions of frustrated aspiring authors. The gate-keepers were overrun. Eighteen months ago, we could still hear the voices of the old guard whispering about making a stand, putting down the insurrection, protecting their print aristocracy. The peasants were revolting!

We hear much less of that today. Traditional publishers have calmed down to the realization that they can survive, even thrive—if they’re smart; if they’re open to brand new paradigms in every area of their field.

When Jeff Bezos first announced the Kindle, he clearly understood what the device meant for the future of reading. The pundits scoffed, but many of us looked up from our Palm Pilots with hungry eyes. We picked up on Bezos’ passion and vision for a new way forward.

Bezos was quickly vindicated. Kindle 1 was a rough tool, but a successful one. Amazon’s customer clout (and the slow reaction of its competitors) bought the necessary time to build the little machine into a truly wonderful reading device. We all fell in love again with reading. Kindle enthusiasts awaited new firmware updates like tots on Christmas morning: new fonts; the ability to organize books into “collections;” real page numbers.

Then Amazon upped the ante. Bezos introduced the Fire, a backlit tablet at a friendly price. Sales predictably soared. It mattered little that the device had its share of bugs—just wait for the firmware! The firmware never lets us down.

Except the updates haven’t come—not too frequently. The weakest app on the Fire seems to be, of all things, its Android reading app. I’ve used two Fires, each with weird problems, such as displaying the cloud library. And for some reason, Amazon has failed to provide the little amenities that helped round out the e-ink Kindles. There is still no collection feature. No page numbers. No universal search.

I always understood the intention of providing an entry-level tablet at the lowest cost, but I figured video and web browsing would be the weaknesses. I expected the reading part of the Fire to sparkle; it bore the Kindle name. I’ve stopped looking for firmware upgrades. Amazon seems more interested in rolling out the next generation of Fires and Touches; putting ads on the displays; renting videos.

These moves are good business, and we’d expect them of Amazon. But when I remember Bezos’s early vision of transforming the reading experience, it’s a little sad to see Amazon becoming just another clamoring brand in the gadget-verse. I hope the company won’t abandon the pursuit of pure, enhanced reading. My Fire is nice, but the K3 is still my go-to advice again—because of the great enhancements they were still adding roughly a year ago. I hope Bezos won’t forget that kindling a fire is only the first step; you have to stoke the flame every now and then.

—Rob Suggs

5 Comments on Can Kindle Keep the Fire Burning?

  1. It will be interesting to see if dedicated eReader hardware can coexist with multi-function tablets. If you have an iPad, for example, and make good use of, say, ten apps including an eReader, how do you cost that eReader? Is it one-tenth the cost of the multi-function device? Could it be that the Fire deliberately avoids competing with the Kindle because of that arithmetic?
    All other things being equal, as the economists tend to say, who wants to carry around more than one mobile device? At home, would you trade in your collection of remotes for one that would rule all?

  2. Having an iPad and a Kindle I see no issue with having both. I take the Kindle on the train and in the car to places where I might enjoy a break to read, but where I don’t really need or want to do anything else. I take the iPad when I want to do more or need to write some reports or edit colleague’s reports.

    I have a feeling that Bezos is looking at the horizon and what is coming on the DRM front. If and when more major league publishers start to distribute without the idiotic DRM, then the market for competing eReaders will surely be reinvigorated and we will see cheaper and better devices spring up from China and Korea. Amazon has made hay with the protection of DRM, using it to leverage their dominance of the market, with the brainless compliance of the legacy publishers. This changeover from DRM will then have major implications for Amazon and for the indie publishers and writers.

  3. I think e-ink will survive, because it’s so superior for reading that it will command a following. My point in the article, however, is that it will be a shame if Amazon spreads out so far in its branding that it stops improving its e-ink product–or even the reading experience on the Fire. If that happens, others will step up, of course.

    Howard, your point is interesting about cheaper and better devices from China and Korea. That’s a given, but Amazon makes that a challenge by releasing $79 ad-supported readers. It doesn’t need to profit from the hardware, which is just a gateway for the content it can sell. Amazon has big advantages to be sure.

  4. Until a week or so ago, I had never read a book on my Kindle Fire. I was a — pun intended — dedicated e-ink devotee. Then I started reading, or I should save, trying to read an academic tome: Jesus & the Victory of God from Fortress Press. The digital version was a mess; the font went from too small in sections back to normal and the links to end notes, without which the book cannot be read properly, were almost impossible to negotiate. In desperation, I downloaded it to my Fire. I choose Trebuchet, and adjusted the size and reading became a pleasure again. So much so that I am rethinking the whole Fire versus Kindle Touch thing.

    Part of the problem is the lack of quality control in e-book digitization. The fonts, in particular, vary wildly in size. It is annoying to have to constantly readjust font size when I go from reading a book to reading a magazine. The e-ink Kindles are less flexible in dealing with this problem.

  5. Roberto, Kindle-eink devices don’t let you select a font, but the Nook and Sony seem to offer different fonts and sizes. But your general point is still valid. One other thing is that the older Kindle format had a lot of problems and limitations. The newer KF8 format can now be read on the Kindle Touch (i.e., the 4th generation devices), and that will that publishers can design ebooks for it much better.

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