x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Amazon Kindle deserves some praise on its 10th birthday

The electronic book reader improved on its predecessors

Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite tablet. Patrick Fallon / Bloomberg
Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite tablet. Patrick Fallon / Bloomberg

The iPhone has received a good deal of hype this year as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, but another important device is just about to reach that same milestone.

The Kindle is set to turn 10 on November 19, and while not as revolutionary as Apple’s flagship product, Amazon’s e-book reader is responsible for its own share of change.

And, just like the iPhone, it has also been emblematic of Amazon’s approach to both innovation and customers. It’s a good example of why the two companies are currently positioned so differently in consumers’ minds.

Just as Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, the Kindle wasn’t the first electronic book reader. Amazon improved on predecessors such as the Sony Librie and the long forgotten Rocket eBook with a lightweight and portable device that used an innovative “electronic ink” display to take the pain out of reading books on a screen.

More importantly, it was affordable. Retailing for US$399, the Kindle quickly sold out and remained out of stock for months. Subsequent iterations got progressively cheaper, culminating with the ad-supported Kindle 5 in 2012, which sold for just US$70. Most of Amazon’s e-readers since have sold for between US$100 and US$200.

If the iPhone unleashed the app economy, then the Kindle sparked a self-publishing revolution that changed how the long-form printed word is created, distributed and sold.

Kindle Direct Publishing, which launched in conjunction with the e-reader in 2007, allowed writers to skip publishers and sell their works straight to consumers. E-books could be sold for as low as 99 cents, with Amazon keeping just a small cut rather than the lion’s share, as publishers generally do.

Many well-known writers did exactly that while many more – not having to go through a publisher gatekeeper – got themselves discovered. New authors including Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey and E.L James, of 50 Shades of Gray fame, became overnight self-publishing sensations.

Authors also experimented with new storytelling formats and business models, including shorter works and serialized chapters released at regular intervals, with various payment options. At last, innovation came to the book business.

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Affordable, with a great deal of supporting content, the Kindle became all the rage for a while – a sought-after holiday and birthday gift. E-books sold in huge numbers as consumers loaded up their devices in anticipation of binge-reading sessions on the beach.

Amazon has never disclosed how many e-readers it has sold, but estimates have pegged the number in the multi-millions. E-books, meanwhile, have gobbled up as much as a quarter of the overall book market in a number of countries.

The lustre has come off both the device and content in recent years as consumers have shown a renewed interest in print books. But the Kindle and its publishing platform, as well as those of the competitors that sprouted up, remain robust and viable options for both authors and readers.

The Kindle’s first decade wasn’t without its controversy, of course. Amazon infamously deleted purchased copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four from users’ devices in 2009 after discovering that the publisher lacked the rights to sell the books.

Company founder Jeff Bezos was forced to apologize and ended up settling a potential class-action lawsuit, but the fears of Big Brother – and Amazon’s apparent control over users’ purchases – continue to linger.

Ironically, Amazon and Apple’s biggest clash was over e-books. Publishers, fearing Amazon’s growing power, conspired with Apple to counter that influence by fixing e-book prices. In 2014, Apple settled with U.S. anti-trust authorities, giving Amazon customers credits for the over-payments they were forced to endure.

Given that, it’s no coincidence the two tech companies are where they are today.

Both are juggernauts – Apple is the biggest U.S. firm by market capitalization, while Amazon is fifth – and both have their fingers in many businesses. But, according to a survey last week of more than 1,500 Americans by tech website The Verge, one company is beloved by its customers while the other is considerably less so.

Americans, it turns out, trust Amazon almost as much as their bank and would care very much if it suddenly disappeared. Apple, meanwhile, is disliked almost as much as Facebook and Twitter. More people actually prefer Microsoft to the iPhone maker.

Conspiring to inflate e-book prices might have something to do with that. Continually raising iPhone prices in the pursuit of even more astronomical profit, while simultaneously engaging in anti-consumer moves like removing the headphone jack, also probably played a part.

Apple is now replacing the fingerprint reader on the iPhone X with facial recognition, yet another move that is provoking skepticism if not contempt.

Amazon has also had its missteps – to be sure – but it is still seen as a benevolent entity for the most part, as the survey shows.

Offering consumers lower prices, giving product makers new opportunities and disrupting the establishment’s status quo will do that. And those are all things the Kindle has done.