When I remember 2001, I remember Apple launching a device that garnered some admiration for its technical savvy, but whose price and function drew something of a raised eyebrow from critics. “‘Breakthrough digital device’ might be pushing it,” wrote David Pogue, in his review of the first iPod. (“Apple, don’t flatter yourself.”) Meanwhile, the first New York Times mention of the device was hardly breathless. The article quoted three people. The first was a Gartner analyst, who said, “It’s a nice feature for Macintosh users … but to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn’t make any difference.” The second was Steve Jobs, who was paraphrased as “disputing the concern that the market was limited, and said the company might have trouble meeting holiday demand. He predicted that the improvement in technology he said the iPod represented would inspire consumers to buy Macintosh computers so they could use an iPod.” The RIAA declined to comment, and another analyst simply said, ”This raises the bar.” The one actual description of the iPod in the article called it a “hybrid of existing products.” The article included an estimate that the size of the market for all digital music devices would be 18 million units by 2005.
I remember this muted enthusiasm pretty clearly because I was one of the skeptics. What could be so impressive about a portable music player? The Walkman’s been around almost as long as I have. Storage size? Honestly? What need could I possibly ever have to carry my whole music library around with me? How much music can I listen to at one time?
32 million iPods were sold in 2005. That’s not even counting other digital music devices. This year, the 100-millionth iPod was sold. Clearly there was a market need here for a vast mobile music library that most of us were blind to in 2001.
I now have three iPods.
When folks talk about Kindle doing (or not doing) for books what the iPod did for music, they usually seem to mean creating a tiny-but-capacious e-book reader that allows us to carry our library everywhere we want. But I don’t think Bezos et al. are aiming at that at all. I suspect they’re trying to create something we didn’t know we needed. A leap of imagination so bold, it could only seem obvious in hindsight. Jury’s still out on whether or not they succeeded.* But I’m wonderfully excited by the possibility that I could one day encounter something that just transforms my notion of what a book can be.
* Personally, I felt for the Kindle the murmur of a tug I hadn’t yet felt for any other digital reading devices, although not strong enough to win me over.
I think that in 2001, the iPod was the device that made a broader cross-section of the public take mp3 players seriously, and to consider buying one. And I think the Kindle does the same with book readers. The criticism is the sign that this discussion has gone from pie-in-the-sky, wouldn't-it-be-great-if to what-can-be-done?
Also, if you look at the problems with the iPod at its launch -- too expensive, a closed system (one player, one store, one software engine, even one OS), not enough storage, a limited market, etc., then the similarities are even sharper. Apple worked remarkably quickly to overcome those criticisms, dropping prices, making the device available for Windows users, and introducing a range of devices and adding features to appeal to aa broad a user base as possible. The Kindle -- or any book reader hoping for a shot at the title -- will need to do the same.
The Kindle actually has some advantages over the first-generation iPod. It's leapfrogged to a wi-fi equipped, stand-alone device with a built-in store, just months after the iPod finally did. And by most accounts, the Kindle store works as smoothly and has the same strength of selection that initially distinguished iTunes.
But there are two clear-cut advantages I see for the 1g iPod vs. the 1g Kindle. First, even though the iPod improved its original design and interface with each iteration, nobody thought the iPod was ugly. It was able to become a prestige device in large part because it was a triumph of industrial design.
The second is more substantive. A tremendous number of people consumed music digitally between (roughly) 1997 and 2001, and were able to play that music on their iPods. The Kindle has been tremendously farsighted in including newspapers, weblogs, and online reference in addition to books, since the former and not the latter have been what we've consumed digitally. But we can't place-shift our media with the e-book reader the way we can with cds and mp3s (and now pictures and video), so a good deal of the flexibility brought by digitization is lost.
When the Kindle can let me put everything I want to read -- web pages, Snarkmarket, Yahoo Movies, a PDF I made on my PC, a comic book, a new hypertext XML book -- on the device, without making me pay again (with ad revenue or a simple HTML browser or whatever) that, I think, will be the key breakthrough. Then we'll see innovations in the design, in the way electronic texts are sold/distributed/ad-supported, in what kinds of interfaces we can use, and in the flexibility of where we get and where we can use the material. Then -- I hope -- the usage will catch up to the desire, and the new digital reading will be properly heralded with its signature device. Whatever that device -- or many devices -- turns out to be.