Amazon Hopes to Kindle E-Reading Fervor

Amazon Kindle 2 redesign
Spectators examine Amazon’s new Kindle. Photo: Judy Mottl

NEW YORK — Amazon debuted a thinner, lighter and more rounded version of its Kindle e-book reader this morning, baking in new features designed to address complaints with product’s first incarnation while adding a slew of enhancements.

Among the new features include greater storage and battery life, a sharper display, more ergonomic page controls and text-to-speech capabilities. The price for the unit remains the same at $359, and is slated to ship Feb. 24.

“We don’t want anything to take you out of the flow state when you’re reading that great book,” Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos told a standing-room-only crowd at the e-tailer’s Kindle 2 launch event here at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

“But we also want to do things a book can’t do,” he said. In addition to the text-to-speech feature — which enables the Kindle to read aloud to a user — the new version of the wireless e-book reader also includes access to instant word definitions through a tie-in with the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Kindle 2 arrives as tech players acknowledge market potential with e-book technologies — and are undertaking new efforts to capitalize on that market.

Industry observers expect that Amazon could rake in $1.2 billion in 2010 from sales related to its reader, according to a recent Citigroup analyst report that also indicates the online retailer sold 500,000 units in 2008. If Citigroup’s revenue forecast is accurate, the result would increase Amazon’s annual revenues by 4 percent, it said.

Google also sees opportunity in e-reading capabilities as well. The search giant said on Thursday it would make its 1.5 million public domain titles at its Book Search service available on smartphones, including the Android-based G1, the Apple iPhone and certain Nokia devices.

The next day, Amazon confirmed that the e-commerce pioneer would extend its Kindle offerings to smartphone users as well. However, the company has since revealed only scant details on the effort.

“It will be complementary to the Kindle,” Jay Marine, Amazon’s director of product management for the Kindle, told InternetNews.com today. “Users should be able to sync back and forth between their smartphone and their Kindle.”

The company declined to provide additional information on a mobile phone version of its reader.

A larger selection of content is also making e-book readers more enticing. Amazon has grown the number of titles supported on the Kindle, from 125,000 last May to 230,000. Since launching the Kindle in November, 2007, Bezos has said repeatedly that his aim is to make Amazon’s millions of books — as well as every book in the world — available for its e-readers.

The market is also ripening in part due to improved technology. Research firm Gartner said new innovations developed for smartphones are solving glitches with early e-book readers, such as poor screen resolution, processing speed and storage content. Today’s e-book readers are lightweight, provide good readability and battery life and boast needed processing power, according to the research firm.

But for companies like Amazon, Sony and others selling e-book readers, the challenge is balancing design factors like screen contrast ratio, weight and form factor, Gartner said.

Redesigned reader

Amazon’s Bezos said today he believes Kindle 2 achieves the right combination to improve the reading experience — helping readers focus on the content rather than the device.

Amazon Kindle 2 redesign
The new Kindle (left) is thinner and flatter than the product’s first iteration (right).
Click on the graphic to enlarge. Photo: Judy Mottl

The unit now sports a flat, white tablet design instead of a wedge, with a magnesium rear panel replacing a rubber backing. At 8 inches, the Kindle 2 is half an inch taller than its predecessor, but it’s also half as thick — now about 0.36 inches, or roughly the width of a pencil. It remains 5.3 inches wide.

Kindle 2’s redesign replaces its scrolling dial with a tiny thumbstick for easier vertical and horizontal navigation, boosts the old unit’s 4-level grayscale display to 16 shades of gray — providing sharper contrast — and cuts the form factor by a tenth of an ounce, slimming the unit down to 10.2 oz.

Amazon also said it redesigned the unit’s button layout after customers called the previous design awkward. It said that Kindle 2’s new button locations make it easier to turn pages and simpler to operate with one hand.

Page 2: But will it grow beyond a niche?

Amazon Kindle 2 redesign
Spectators examine Amazon’s new Kindle. Photo: Judy Mottl

Page 2 of 2

While the first generation of the Kindle shipped with 256MB of internal storage — roughly equivalent to 200 books — the revamped version offers 2GB, which Amazon said enables it to house 1,500 titles.

Kindle 2 also includes a 25 percent stronger battery. According to Amazon, the device can run without a charge for up to two weeks if the wireless service is off, with that span reduced to four or five days if wireless remains on.

With the first Kindle, users could read for about a week without using wireless, and had to recharge about every other day with wireless enabled.

Still a niche?

Yet the sleeker, sexier design and new features won’t draw a mass fan base anytime soon, experts said.

For one reason, Amazon’s current price of $359 may be too high to encourage users beyond a niche group of enthusiasts. The unit first sold for $399, before a price drop last Spring to $359. Bezos has said that the cost of the technology in the unit precludes further price cuts.

“The value proposition isn’t appealing to the average worker,” Van Baker, a Gartner analyst, told InternetNews.com. “While this new device sparks interest in the Kindle, it’s not going spark mass market ignition.”

That’s despite the fact that e-reading is a growing pastime. A new National Endowment for the Arts study said nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online last year, and 84 percent of adults who read offline literature also downloaded books from the Internet last year. For those who read online articles, essays or blogs, the book-reading rate is 77 percent.

Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD, agreed that that current costs, among other reasons, make it unlikely for e-book readers to catch on for a wide audience.

“It’s going to take a combination of a lower price point and a different content focus to drive these product to mass scale,” Rubin told InternetNews.com. “I’m a little surprised that they didn’t lower the price.”

Kindle’s content prices haven’t changed, either. Books cost $9.99, newspapers range from $5.99 to $14.99 monthly, blog services start at 99 cents and magazine subscriptions start at $1.25 a month. Users download the content through Kindle’s wireless connection to Sprint’s high-speed EVDO data network.

Still, not everyone thinks e-book readers will remain a niche interest.

Bestselling novelist Stephen King, who made a surprise appearance at today’s event, said books and e-readers go together “like peanut butter and chocolate.”

“It isn’t likely they’re competing with each other,” King said, adding that the unit makes reading more convenient.

“We read when we’re on walks and on treadmills,” he said. “You’re going to like this gadget.”

During the day’s events, the horror author also read from a new novella he wrote exclusively for release on the Kindle. The story, “Ur,” stars a demonic Kindle. Bezos chuckled at the description.

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