Kindle shmindle

Analyst Opinion – Do you know anyone who owns an Amazon Kindle 2 ebook reader? Me neither. How’s about the original Kindle? Same thing. As much as I want to cheer for Amazon to do for ebooks what Apple did for music, I can’t get excited about the current state of the ebook reader art. Simply saying they’re too expensive is almost too easy. But the cheap geek in me can’t ignore the fact that $359 for a device that doesn’t do a whole lot beyond allow you to read is a pretty steep price when your average netbook or low-end laptop does infinitely more.

Even if money were no object, there’s a finite limit to the number of devices regular folks will willingly carry. And in the unlikely event that we all suddenly develop a camel-like capability to shlep along eighteen devices between work and home, we’ve still got to keep them all charged, subscribed to, swaddled in a soft case and protected from the less-than-optimally-trained dog. There’s a limit to device-creep, and the Kindle is where I draw the line.

I suppose I’d be less of a curmudgeon if money were less of an object. But like virtually everyone else I know, I’m an average consumer navigating this very nasty economic downturn, and money, sadly, is an object. So is my time, because I don’t have much of it to fiddle with yet another new, feature-limited toy.

That every ebook reader seems to use a different file format, purchasing model and online distribution method is the straw that breaks this camel’s back. I appreciate how publishers fear open availability of electronic versions of their books. After all, if you think movies and tunes are easy to pirate, imagine how much easier it is with tiny text-based files that can be downloaded in a blink. But the readers of tomorrow are shifting away from a paper-based paradigm. For the unconvinced, check out how well your local newspaper’s been doing lately.

Publishers will learn the hard way that they either offer a viable, monetizable electronic means of distribution and consumption, or the hackers of the world will happily offer a somewhat less lucrative alternative. It’s a lesson music publishers learned the hard way.

Ultimately, then, it’s not that ebook readers are a dead end. Amazon sold a half million through year-end 2008, so if anything, they represent the future of publishing. But in their current luxury-priced, proprietary, limited-function, Tower of Babel form, there are only so many more consumers willing to dive in.

How will this change? First, drop the up-front purchase price. Give the thing away and make it up on content purchases – hey, it works for razors. Then give it a bit more flexibility – and maybe an open platform that supports third party software and peripherals – to up the value proposition a bit.

Now, standardize the content and make it easy to download and use on an iPhone or BlackBerry and I may yet change my mind. Either way, the Kindle is far from the last word on ebooks. For now, save your money and watch the game unfold.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.