Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos stepped onstage at around 10:20 this morning at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum to introduce the world to the new Kindle e-reader. It’s super-model-thin—even 25% thinner than a 3G iPhone at only .36 inches—and features comfier round buttons, rounded, smoother edges, and a “five-way controller” that works something like a joystick (or, er, sort of like a click wheel; check out the lower right corner in the pic below) as a navigation device.
Bezos greeted the packed auditorium and walked in front of an image of an open book on screen. “The Long form is losing ground,” he said, going on to discuss how reading tools can change us: we’re getting better at reading short messages like emails and blog posts because of our electronic devices, he said.
“But we learn different things from the long form,” Bezos said—nuance, deep analysis. The new Kindle, he hopes, will cater to people who want that type of experience. What Amazon.com is selling, he emphasized, is not a gadget, but an experience.
So: more about the new Kindle’s features, which will affect this experience and determine whether it’s worth buying for consumers who can also read books on their iPhones and their netbook computers and aren’t looking to plunk down $359 for another device. Its new technology features 16 shades of gray for more detailed images. It can stay charged for up to two weeks on a single charge and holds up to 1,500 books, with everything backed up on Amazon.com. The Kindle now features a sync feature that synchronizes with other devices, including mobile phones, and will hold a reader’s page. The last two details make more use of the Kindle’s real innovation: its ambient wireless connection that keeps readers connected online to shop, upload, and now sync, constantly and with no fees for this service.
The five-way controller allows readers to scroll through newspaper pages as they appear on-screen so that they can read not only headlines, but also the first few sentences and paragraphs, which Bezos feels is a breakthrough in electronic reading of newspapers, one that matches the print experience. And there’s a new text-to-speech feature, which allows the Kindle to “read” to you. Yes, in a cyborg voice that isn’t purely computerized-sounding, but is only about 85% human in its enunciation (my unscientific measurement).
For the Kindle update, Amazon hired a head designer away from frog design, a firm known for its high number of Apple alumni. A source close to the matter told me that in fact, there were multiple ex-frog designers hired to work on the new device. Neither frog nor Amazon will discuss names. The previous Kindle also had Apple alumni involved: Ammunition, the industrial design firm headed by Apple's ex-director of Industrial Design, Robert Brunner, consulted on the first version. All of this explains the ultra-minimalist aesthetic of the new Kindle.
Laura Porco, director of Kindle Books, also told me at the Morgan Library this morning that Amazon also took to heart the thousands of emails that it receives from Kindle owners in terms of prioritizing what new design features to focus on.
"We're always listening to customers. We took their feedback to design some things: they said, we want Kindles to hold more books, and we want crisper images," Porco said. "So now there are 16 shades of gray. And the Kindle holds many more books."
In his presentation, Bezos showed some videos of real-life Kindle 1.0 owners who were given the new Kindle to test before it was launched. "I read more and faster," said one middle-aged customer named Scott, a teacher, who said he also enjoyed free samples of reading material on Amazon.com. The video had the production value of the famous "Mac vs. PC" commercials: people against a plain white backdrop, talking.
In fact, the entire unveiling of the new Kindle had an Apple-like flavor. Amazon.com has been super tight-lipped about what the press event was in the first place, building anticipation and rumors. And there was entertainment: best-selling author Stephen King read from his new, Kindle-exclusive novella called Ur, which features in its plotline a new Kindle with magical powers. "That was parallel to the performances at iPod launches," Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis in the consumer technology division of market researcher NPD Group, told me after the presentation.
Still, critics think the price will be prohibitive for today's cash-strapped consumer. Rubin said that although the new design and features are nice, "is there a market for a $360 book device with limited capabilities?" Avi Greengart, research director of mobile devices at Current Analysis, a market researcher, agreed. "I thought the price might drop," he said. But it didn't.
But Bezos is open to learning how to improve the Kindle experience, of course. "We've been working on selling e-books for years, but that didn't work until 14 months ago," Bezos joked to the audience during his presentation, referring to the launch of Kindle 1.0, which has been sold out since November 2008, according to Amazon.com.