Too bad there’s not a reality TV show called “America’s Most Freaked-Out Tech-Company Meetings,” where you watch classic panicked board meetings. For example, when the Apple employee left an iPhone 4 prototype in a bar. Or when Intel learned that its Pentium chip contained a math error. Or when Microsoft was caught bribing bloggers with $2,500 laptops to promote Windows Vista.
One of the most exciting episodes, though, could have been shot at Amazon the day Apple announced the iPad.
Amazon makes the popular Kindle e-book reader. For a while, it was pretty much the only game in e-book town. But the iPad has a touch screen, color, prettier software, audio and video playback, 100,000 apps — and at the time, it didn’t cost much more than the Kindle. For the Kindle, with its six-inch monochrome nontouch screen, the iPad was your basic (full-color) nightmare.
This week, Amazon unveiled what everyone (except Amazon) is calling the Kindle 3. You might call it Amazon’s iPad response. The Kindle 3 is ingeniously designed to be everything the iPad will never be: small, light and inexpensive.
The smallness comes in the form of a 21 percent reduction in the dimensions from the previous Kindle. The new one measures 7.5 by 4.8 by 0.3 inches, yet the screen has the same six-inch diagonal measurements as always. Amazon’s designers did what they should have done a long time ago: they shaved away a lot of that empty beige (or now dark gray) plastic margin.
Now, the Kindle is almost ridiculously lightweight; at 8.5 ounces, it’s a third the weight of the iPad. That’s a big deal for a machine that you want to hold in your hands for hours.
Then there is the $140 price. That’s for the model with Wi-Fi — a feature new to the Kindle that plays catch-up to the Barnes & Noble Nook. A Kindle model that can also get online using the cellular network, as earlier models do, costs $50 more. But the main thing you do with the wireless feature is download new books, so Wi-Fi is probably plenty for most people.
That $140 is quite a tumble from the Kindle’s original $400 price, and a tiny sliver of what you would pay for an iPad ($500 and way, way up).
Yes, of course, it’s a little silly to compare the Kindle with the iPad, a full-blown computer with infinitely greater powers. Although it’s worth pointing out, just in case you were indeed considering the iPad primarily for its e-book features, that the Kindle’s catalog of 630,000 current books is 10 times the size of Apple’s.
No, the Kindle’s real competition is the gaggle of extremely similar, rival e-book readers, all of which use the same E Ink screen technology.
E Ink is satisfying to read but deeply flawed technology for e-book screens. It works by applying an electrical charge to millions of tiny black particles, causing them to freeze in a pattern of letters or grayscale images. The result really looks like ink on paper, because the black stuff is so close to the surface.
E Ink is great for battery life, too, since only turning pages uses power; otherwise, the image could sit on the screen forever without requiring any additional juice. (Amazon says that on the new Kindle, if you turn off the wireless features, you can read for a month on a single charge.)
But E Ink has plenty of drawbacks, too. It’s slow to change the page image, for example. The new Kindle reduces the page-turn wait to well under a second. It’s the fastest page-turner among e-readers, leaving its rivals in the dust (especially the Nook, which, despite five software upgrades since its debut, still lags). But the page turn moment still features a bizarre, black-white-black flashing sequence — a nonnegotiable characteristic of E Ink.
E Ink’s speed problems mean that it can never display video, either. And, of course, it can’t display color. Last month, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, responded to this point this way: “You are not going to improve Hemingway by adding video snippets.” Yes, but color and video may well improve a new era of livelier e-books.
Still, Amazon has clearly put a lot of time into refining the new Kindle’s E Ink screen. The background gray is a few shades lighter than on any other reader, producing much better contrast behind the black text.
In the world of copy-protected e-books, choosing a reader is a particularly momentous decision. You’re not just buying a portable reader. You’re also committing to a particular online e-book store, since in general, each company’s e-books don’t work on other companies’ readers. (The one exception: Sony and the Nook use the same copy-protection scheme.) Even on the new Kindle, you can’t read nonprotected books in the popular ePub format, as you can on its rivals.
(However, Amazon and Barnes & Noble each offer excellent reader programs for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android; in other words, you don’t actually have to buy a Kindle or a Nook to read those companies’ e-books. Buy a book once, read it on all your gadgets. Kindle books even wirelessly sync up, so each gadget remembers where you stopped — a feature that’s still on the Nook’s to-do list.)
The new Kindle now holds twice as many books...
Fortunately, the online stores are all pretty good (except Apple’s, whose book selection is still puny). The pricing seems to have evened out, too; in general, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony have exactly the same prices for New York Times best sellers. Sadly, lots of them are now $13, up from the flat $10 that Amazon used to charge for all best sellers.
Those prices seem high. The fact that e-books involve no printing, binding, shipping, distributing or taking back and shredding unsold copies ought to save you something. And it’s outrageous that that you can’t sell or even give away an e-book when you’re finished with it. You paid for it; why shouldn’t you be allowed to pass it on? (End of rant.)
The new Kindle’s nonremovable storage now holds twice as many books: 3,500 of them, which should just about cover your next flight delay. The tiny joystick has been replaced by cellphone-like four-way control buttons, and the page-turn Forward and Back buttons, which flank both edges, are silent now, for the benefit of sleeping spouses. And the new Kindle handles PDF documents much better now; you can even add notes to them and magnify them.
Of course, the Kindle’s rivals have their own attractive features. The Nook, for example, has a balky color touch screen beneath the E Ink screen, which you use for navigation. You can read any Nook book at no charge, one hour a day, when you’re in a Barnes & Noble store. You can even “lend” a book to a friend — although held to a two-week maximum, one time a title and only on books whose publishers have permitted this feature.
Sony Readers have touch screens; some models even have built-in illumination screens. (If you believe the rumors, new Reader models are on the way.)
Really, though, what makes the Kindle so successful isn’t what Amazon added to it; it’s what Amazon subtracted: size, weight and price. Nook’s two-screen setup makes it fussy and complicated. Sony’s additional screen layers make the E Ink less sharp.
In the meantime, certain facts are unassailable: that the new Kindle offers the best E Ink screen, the fastest page turns, the smallest, lightest, thinnest body and the lowest price tag of any e-reader. It’s also the most refined and comfortable.
No doubt about it — the next episodes of “America’s Most Freaked-Out Tech-Company Board Meetings” won’t be filmed at Amazon. They’ll be set at Amazon’s rivals.