In an article “cleverly” entitled “Kindle…Or Is It Just Kindling?”, Wired.com looks at whether the Kindle is really likely to be a “game-changer” in light of the potential total market for a device of the Kindle’s specifications.
Their argument is that the intersection of the sets of those people who can afford to spend $360 during a recession and those people who read enough to make a Kindle desirable will not be a terribly large one, and that the overall market for a Kindle may be as small as a million or fewer units. Although the figures they choose for their thought experiment are somewhat arbitrary, it is interesting to follow its process.
However, as one of the comments below the article indicates, “The problem with such critical articles on e-readers is that non-book readers write them. From their comments, it’s pretty clear that they’re clueless to the advantages of devices like the Kindle, such as its portability, better text quality, zoomable fonts, and the fact that you can walk around with a couple hundred books in your bag.” Another comment notes that a lot of people below the arbitrary minimum income level the author chose were willing to spend $300 during a recession on an iPod.
One thing the article suggests that is not as arguable is that the Kindle has the potential to sell a lot more units if they are able to lower the price. (Of course, there is nothing unique to the Kindle in this assessment; lower price leading to more sales is a simple axiom of economics.) One commenter writes, “I also know a lot of novel readers who are waiting for the price to come down to $150 or below, myself included.” More units sold means a larger base for selling compatible ebooks and e-periodicals, which means a better economy of scale.
(More after the jump.)
The article concludes with another line that brings to mind the image of the author spraining her arm reaching around to pat herself on the back: “Designing the game-changing e-reader, it seems, is more like designing the game-changing harpsichord than the iPod.” But does the article proceed from a false premise? Is it necessary that the Kindle be “game-changing” to be successful, and does the Kindle being successful mean that the “game” will “change”?
To consider this, we have to figure out what “game” the Wired writer is talking about, and how it might be “changed.” But it is not too hard to figure out, from that other product they compared it to. Though there were other mp3 players, and even other hard-drive-based mp3 players before the iPod, nobody remembers them. The iPod changed the way people listen to portable music forever, and the iTunes Music Store has largely or entirely replaced CD buying for a pretty significant chunk of the population. Are they anticipating that the Kindle might change the reading game in the same way, largely or entirely replacing paper book buying just as the iPod did?
It has been an expectation, either conscious or unconscious, that electronic books will replace paper books for about as long as the idea of electronic books has existed. You see it in the Star Trek franchises, where Captain Picard is considered unusually old-fashioned because he likes to curl up with a genuine paper book to relax. You see it in Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks, one of the first “modern” fictional treatments of the idea (back before ebooks were even called ebooks), which ends with “the last paper book” being published. You’ve seen it in the starry eyes of ebook enthusiasts for the last decade and a half—the idea that, sooner or later, paper publishers will be the first against the wall when the (ebook) revolution comes.
But is this expectation realistic? Eric Flint, Baen author and ebook evangelist, doesn’t think so. Paper books are far too entrenched, and have too many cases where they are better than ebooks, ever to go away—even when as many people own ebook readers as TVs or DVD players. Flint predicts the trend already happening will continue: ebooks and paper books will exist in symbiosis, with people benefiting from the advantages of each form in situations where the other would not work as well.
Whither the iKindle?
Coming back to the Kindle, we can already dismiss the notion of it “replacing” paper. But what about simply being adopted in iPod-like numbers, bringing the e-and-p symbiosis to a much larger chunk of the population? I believe it could happen, in the right circumstances. But those circumstances would involve a dramatic drop in pricing, because the Kindle simply does not share the same advantages as the iPod.
The iPod, and mp3 players in general, makes listening to portable music easier. No more fiddling about with linear-access media like cassette tapes, or random-access-but-clumsy media like CDs. No more bulky CD or tape players required—now you can carry hours of music in a gizmo the size of a pack of cigarettes, light enough to strap onto your arm while you jog. And the music sounds as good as it ever did from cassette or CD (or at least close enough that most people cannot tell the difference).
The Kindle, and ebook readers in general, actually make reading harder. (Leaving aside the issue of people with poor eyesight who need to increase the font size to be able to read, of course.) The screen quality is not quite up to paper (though, as the Kindle shows, it is getting there). The user interface (of ebook readers in general; I have not used a Kindle) can be confusing, but everybody knows how to “use” a book. It requires battery power to operate. It is a lot more fragile than books—drop a Kindle and a paperback from twenty feet up and see which one takes more damage when it lands. The form factor is about the same as a regular book, so it does not get the iPod’s convenience benefit. And even if it can hold dozens or hundreds of books, how many people read more than one or two books at a time?
These disadvantages are things that most ebook lovers have learned to live with, avoid, or even embrace—but you will have a hard time explaining to the average layman why he should spend $360 on a device that will make books harder for him to read. Ebooks do have advantages as well as disadvantages, but those advantages usually do not cancel out the disadvantages in situations where paper books simply work better.
When the Kindle, and ebook readers in general, get cheap enough to see massive market penetration, then we might see the “game” start to “change.” But to extend the metaphor perhaps past its breaking point, ebooks are only going to be a new expansion for the game—not an entirely new set of rules.