ZDNet is running a series of articles this week on how Amazon has reached its current level of innovation and power over our lives. As seems most appropriate, it is starting with the Kindle. Columnist David Gewirtz discusses how the early Kindle—a fairly ugly and really expensive block of plastic—managed to conquer the nascent e-book market in a way no other device had managed since the Palm Pilot first prompted commercial e-book sales back in the ‘90s. (Gewirtz starts farther back in the history of e-books than that—all the way back to a Spanish inventor in the 1940s—and scoffs at people who think the history of e-books started with Project Gutenberg, but really, he’s just showing off. Neither of those have much to do with the success of the Kindle now.)
I think Gerwirtz fundamentally misses the mark on what the Kindle’s innovation was, however. He puts the Kindle’s success down to combining device-agnosticism with the vertical integration of selling books, but he doesn’t even mention what I see as the Kindle’s real secret—the way it used its always-on 3G connection and its one-click purchase patent to make e-book purchasing dead simple.
Earlier e-book platforms, from the Palm Pilot all the way up to the Chinese OEM e-ink readers that used to be a drug on the market, required their users to download a file, plug the device into the computer, and then copy the file across. It might seem simple to you or me, but we’re techies. In my experience working phone tech support for Best Buy TVs, I’ve had people have endless trouble with the simplest of cable-connecting procedures. Even if people can figure it out, they just don’t want to mess with it.
The Kindle was the very first platform where you could simply tap a link on the e-book you wanted, and then start reading it seconds later. No need to download files, plug a cable in, and sideload. You tapped, and then you started reading—just like magic. Hence, it was the first e-reader that actually had a broad appeal to ordinary people—people who couldn’t figure out how to make their VCR stop flashing 12:00 could buy and download an e-book with no fuss or muss.
Even when DRM isn’t an issue, people tend not to like buying e-books for their Kindle from somewhere other than Amazon, because apparently even emailing it over to your device is too much of a problem. That’s the experience Baen had when it found it was leaving money on the table by not having its e-books in Amazon’s store—and Baen had been selling e-books directly itself for more than a decade. So it changed the way its store had worked for over ten years to get them in it.
The Kindle won the e-book market due to innovation, all right, but that innovation was its always-on wireless connection and its utter simplicity. (And the $9.99 pricing on bestsellers helped, too.) Still, it’s an interesting article even if it does reach the wrong conclusion, and I look forward to seeing what Gerwitz has to say about Amazon’s other innovations in days to come.