I love books and I love gadgets. So, unsurprisingly, I rushed excitedly to get one of the first ever Amazon Kindle ereaders when it was released on November 19, 2007. The reader, and Amazon’s backing of the eBook concept, promised to revolutionize the selling and reading of books – a promise that has absolutely been fulfilled.
Since buying that first Kindle in November 2007, I’ve bought (I think) four more Kindles over the years, although, astonishingly, my original Kindle still works (I checked just a couple of months ago).
The first Kindle was a strange looking device, and expensive (it cost $399, which 13 years ago was worth perhaps twice what it is now). To be blunt, although part brilliant, in totality it was a dreadful design (in particular the battery compartment door would fall off) and did not live up to expectations, and while I desperately wanted to love it, I couldn’t, as I explained in the review I wrote at the time.
In the almost thirteen years since then, Amazon has regularly updated the product. We’re on the tenth generation of products at present, and the design has evolved and improved. Losing the keyboard was sensible (it took four years until this happened in the fourth generation of products), and so too was losing the funky metallic strip thing and wheel on the right of the screen (quickly disappeared in the second generation), but the loss of the next/previous page tabs is more regrettable (they gradually became smaller and smaller and are still present in the high-end Oasis but have disappeared off the two lower-priced models). Losing the SD card capability has been compensated for by simply increasing the built-in memory storage.
The original single model ereader has split into multiple different types of readers at different prices and with different features. The prices have plunged – the lowest priced Kindle now lists for $90 and sometimes is discounted down to $70 (as is the case right now). The mid-grade Kindle (“Paperwhite” – the best of the three in terms of price/performance) is usually $130 and currently is $105; the top-of-the-line Oasis is $250 but seldom discounted.
The two better Kindles now have almost four times the screen resolution of the original Kindle (300 dpi in both dimensions instead of 167); and all three models have four times greater grey-scale capabilities (but still only 16 shades). All Kindles now have backlights which makes the legibility of the text very much better, and allows them to work in darkened rooms (or airplane cabins) as well as in bright sunlight.
So why am I now declaring the Kindle ereader to be a dead product? It is better than ever before and better value than ever before, and Amazon still sells them.
There are two reasons why the Kindle ereader no longer makes sense to any of us.
The first reason is that these days you can get a better full-function tablet with a better color screen for the same money or less. Amazon offers a 7″, 8″, and 10.1″ Fire tablet (the Kindle ereader has only a 6″ or 7″ screen) for $50/90/150, and currently they are discounted to $35/60/100.
Why pay $90 for a 6″ grey-screened ereader when you can pay the same price for an 8″ full color tablet that you can use for many other purposes too? (Or, just as vivid a question, why pay $90 for a 6″ ereader when you can pay $50 for a 7″ full color tablet.)
Why pay $130 for an upgraded but still 6″ grey-screened ereader, or $250 for a 7″ ereader when you can pay $150 for a massive 10.1″ tablet that does everything the ereader does and such a tremendous amount more, too?
The Amazon Fire tablets all have the Kindle ereader software built in to them, so they work perfectly as an ereader (actually, they work better – they are much faster and easier to understand how to use – the slow and unresponsive touch screen on the Kindles is both unacceptable and frustrating by today’s higher standards).
This brings us to the second reason the Kindle product range is now obsolete. You no longer need a Kindle to read an eBook.
This shift from needing a dedicated Kindle ereader started not long after the Kindle first came out, but initially, it was more a curiosity than a genuine valid alternative. In March 2009 Amazon released a version of the Kindle ereader software for iPhones and iPads. At the time, when iPhones had a tiny 3.5″ screen (about one quarter the amount of screen size that the modern large screened iPhones have), the notion of reading a book on a phone was about as strange as the notion of watching a video on a phone.
But with improved screen resolution, pixel density, and increasing screen size, phones became more and more suitable for reading books on (and for watching videos too).
Within 18 months, Amazon also released the software for desktop and laptop computers, and for Android devices too, so you could read a book on pretty much any sort of electronic device with a screen.
Not content with allowing every other tablet maker to now have Kindle software on it, in 2011 Amazon started selling its own tablets, too. Originally they called them “Kindle Fire” tablets, then simplified the name to just “Fire”. The first unit with a 7″ screen sold for $199, but the price steadily declined (as too did the price of Kindle ereaders).
Particularly since the release of a Fire 7 tablet in 2015 for $50, and subsequently a Fire HD 8 for $90 in 2016 and ultimately (for now!) the 10″ Fire HD 10 in 2017 for $150, Fire tablets have been clearly better and less expensive than Kindle ereaders.
The color issue in particular is important. The Kindle screens with their “e-Ink” technology show black on a off-white background (or, reversed, off-white on a black background). This makes for a disappointing lack of contrast between the text and the background. They can offer 14 shades of grey in-between full white and full black. Sure, a fiction/novel needs no color, but any book with photos or illustrations cries out for color, and even black and white photos look very much better with a full 256 or more shades of grey rather than just 16. Color allows for better and clearer formatting in non-fiction books, a better interface on menu type pages, and of course, allows for all other types of applications to present themselves normally too. Color is impractical/impossible with e-Ink technology, and while the compromise was acceptable in 2007, it is no longer acceptable now.
My sense is that Amazon knows its Kindle product range is dead. It has served its purpose. The concept of eBooks is now universally accepted, and mainstream. Amazon can relax, it no longer needs to “jump start” the concept by providing dedicated hardware.
Proof of the loss of focus towards the Kindle product range can be seen by how the development of the units has more or less stopped; indeed, the possibly best of all Kindle units, the mid-priced Voyage, was discontinued in mid 2018. On the other hand, there’s a clear limit to just how much you can do with a single purpose device that is intended simply to read books with.
There are rumors of a new Voyage 2 being released this year (mind you, 18 months ago the rumors claimed it would be released last year), and while the gadget-addict in me gets excited at the thought, the small rational part of me asks “Why – What For?” and I calm down again. Maybe there might be some special niche applications, but for those of us who simply want to read books for pleasure and interest, we don’t need new annotating type features. It could also be suggested that the long lead-time to replace the excellent original Voyage with a successor is further evidence of lack of corporate focus.
Not even the fanciest future Voyage 2, should it ever appear, is likely to do anything more for regular readers than the most basic Fire tablet. The Kindles are now as obsolete as a Palm Pilot. Not because they’re no good. But because there are more flexible multi-purpose devices now that are simultaneously much better, more convenient and less expensive.
There’s another darker reason that causes me to think Amazon has given up on the Kindle range. Their support, which initially was of highest quality, has slowly dropped over the years, and now is outsourced to offshore call centers, so much so that sometimes, plead as I will to speak to someone competent and in the US, it is impossible to do so. I’ve had a problem with my latest Paperwhite ever since I bought it almost a year ago. One of the core functions on it – synching and downloading purchased books – doesn’t work. I’ve spoken to dozens of people, I’ve replaced the unit twice, I’ve even sent a letter to Jeff Bezos that had his executive support team scrambling like a bunch of Keystone Kops in a black and white silent movie, ineffectually wasting my time over several months but never fixing the problem.
This is a huge problem in a core part of the device’s promised functionality. Amazon should be panicking and scrambling to identify and resolve it, but no-one, all the way to Jeff Bezos’ office, seems to care. The cruelest part of the problem is that it only happens on my new Paperwhite. Not on my iPad or iPhone, and not on my Fire tablets. Amazon clearly doesn’t care about its Kindles (or the users of its Kindles) any more.
Yes, eBooks are transformative. I love them, and have over 300 eBook titles so far, and continue adding to my collection. I can travel with my entire eBook library on my tablet and phone, without having to fill my suitcase or carryon with heavy bulky books. And, yes, we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Amazon for bringing eBooks into the mainstream. Even, yes, Kindle ereaders are moderately functional units for reading books.
But, yes most of all, Kindles are now technologically obsolete due to the impressive advances in phone and tablet technologies. To read eBooks, buy a better and also cheaper tablet, rather than an inferior and more expensive Kindle ereader. Or simply use the phone you already have.
On Wednesday this week, news came out that Barnes & Noble have taken most ereaders off their website. Sony has apparently discontinued its “digital paper” ereader, too. How long before Amazon does the same? Amazon Kindle eReader. 2007-2020. RIP.
Postscript : There are two remaining points in favor of the Kindle, and it is worth mentioning them.
(a) The eInk screen is clearer to read, the brighter the light that shines on it. This is the opposite of what happens with a normal screen. So if you like to read outside, with the sun shining on the screen, eInk can be better than a regular screen, as long as you don’t have the reflection of the sun off the screen going into your eyes.
(b) A subtle point but perhaps worth considering too. If you’re reading a Kindle, you don’t have the steady stream of other distractions popping up on your screen – emails, instant messages, news updates, and anything else your Android or Apple device thinks it should urgently tell you.