Amazon Debuts Free Kindle App for iPhone

Amazon today made good on hints that it planned to release a Kindle-compatible e-book reader for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, expanding the market for its digital library by tapping into the devices’ booming growth.

While the news might seem counterintuitive — surely a free application will eclipse a $360 purpose-built device? — Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) betting that the app and the Kindle won’t compete with each other.

Instead, the e-commerce giant expects customers to want both the free application, which is downloadable from Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) App Store, and the Kindle, the second generation of which it released only last month. To simplify the task of using both clients, Amazon said it’s turning to a synchronizing feature it calls Whispersync.

The feature, which took about 14 months to develop but seemed to have little value when Amazon first announced it in connection with the Kindle 2. Now, it has a clear purpose.

“Whispersync technology saves and synchronizes a customer’s bookmark across their original Kindle, Kindle 2, iPhone and iPod touch, so customers always have their reading with them and never lose their place,” the company said in a statement.

Ian Freed, vice president for Amazon Kindle, told the Associated Press that “the company sees the software as a way to introduce non-Kindle owners to the device, potentially turning them into Kindle buyers.”

A new platform for Kindle e-books

The company signaled that it planned to roll out Kindle-compatible e-book readers for smartphones last month, following Google’s announcement that it intended to make 1.5 million public domain titles available on smartphones through its Book Search feature — including the Android-based G1, the Apple iPhone and certain Nokia devices.

Amazon confirmed the next day that it also sought to extend its e-book offerings to smartphone users, but revealed only scant details on the effort during the interim.

Kindle still has some clear advantages over the free application, however. While the Kindle enables users to buy e-books over the air, the iPhone client requires a user to exit the software and visit the Amazon Kindle store on the Web to make a purchase. Also, Kindle has a text-to-speech feature that the iPhone app lacks.

The Kindle, which measures 8 inches by 5.3 inches, also offers a larger screen for reading. The iPhone, meanwhile, offers about a quarter of the display — it measures only 4.5 inches by 2.4 inches.

Yet there are some obvious benefits of bringing Apple into the mix: piggybacking on the explosive growth of the iPhone.

According to a recent study by Generator Research, the Apple iPhone accounted for about 5 percent of all smartphone devices shipped globally during the third quarter of 2008, compared to 40 percent for industry leader Nokia.

Despite having a sliver of the marketplace, the findings show Apple’s rapid growth in the market despite having launched the iPhone less than two years ago. In fact, the iPhone’s growth rate is such that Generator sees Apple leading the smartphone space by 2013, while Nokia will be hanging onto a mere 20 percent of the market.

Amazon gave little information on future plans to deploy the app to other mobile devices and application marketplaces. Google’s Android mobile operating system, for instance, supports an App Store-like application repository, the Android Market.

Late last year, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion unveiled plans for an application store of its own, starting in March, and Palm launched its own mobile storefront, the Palm Software Store.

“We are actively working on making Kindle books available on a wide range of devices, but we are not disclosing specifics at this time,” Amazon spokesperson Cinthia Portugal said.

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