Amazon might not be making any money with its Kindle e-book reader, but that's not dampening the enthusiasm of the device's most outspoken evangelist.
Addressing shareholders at the company's annual meeting today, CEO Jeff Bezos gave an impassioned and lengthy pitch for the Kindle, shrugging off concerns that the device is still in the "investment phase."
"One of our competitive advantages at Amazon is that we are willing to plant seeds -- if we think the seed is important -- and nurture it for a long time," Bezos said. "Everything worthwhile that we've done, we've had to invest in for some number of years, so I doubt this will be any different."
As in previous company earnings reports, Bezos declined to share any sales figures about the device. But he did say that e-book purchases amount to six percent of the overall sales for the 125,000 titles that Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) offers for the Kindle.
The most prolific individual Kindle customer has purchased 1,076 Kindle books.
He also said that Amazon has observed no decline in the number of traditional books purchased by Kindle customers after they got the device. In fact, Bezos said that Kindle customers now order 2.6 times as many total books -- both print and electronic -- as they did before purchasing the e-book reader.
With the Kindle, introduced in November after a long period of development, Amazon is trying to deliver on the long-anticipated but unrealized promise of the e-book reader in bringing the oldest of print media into the digital age.
"What we set out to do three years ago with Kindle is very audacious, because any object which resists change for 500 years is going to be hard to improve upon," Bezos said. "Nevertheless, we decided that that would be our objective."
Rather than try to "out-book the book," Bezos is betting on a strategy of replicating the "essential features" of the book, while playing to the strengths of the digital medium. So the Kindle may never carry the beloved musty smell of the physical book (though Bezos researched it -- turns out, it's mostly glue, mixed with ink and mildew), but it aims to create a similar user experience where the reader becomes unaware of the physical apparatus he is holding.
"It's a very elegant interface between you and the reading," Bezos said. "The book is not trying to be the center of attention -- it lets the author's narrative be the center of attention. That's what we wanted to duplicate."
Then, of course, there are the things the Kindle can do that paper books never can, such as connect to Sprint's EV-DO wireless network and store the margin notes and underlinings a reader makes on Amazon's servers, where they are permanently indexed and made searchable.
For Bezos, the biggest draw of the Kindle's wireless connectivity is the ability to purchase and download an e-book in about a minute. The wireless feature is only available in the United States, so Kindle customers in other countries must transfer e-books from their computers through the device's USB port. Bezos said he is committed to making the Kindle a global device, but offered no timeline as to when that might happen.
He went a step farther and announced his ultimate goal of making every book ever printed in any language available on the Kindle. "This will take us a long time to achieve, but how cool would that be -- if you could think of any book, and be reading it in less than 60 seconds -- whether the book is in print or out of print."
Earlier this week, Amazon cut the price of the Kindle from $399 to $359, but Bezos said not to look for any further price cuts. He said that the new price was the lowest that could be expected given the electronic ink and wireless technologies it contains.
"There really isn't the opportunity to lower the price further," he said, crediting improvements in manufacturing and supply-chain management for the recent price cut.
Looking forward, Bezos hinted that the Kindle's electronic ink, currently four shades of gray, might someday include color. He said that he has seen color electronic ink in the lab, but that it is still several years away from the market.