11 August 08 | Chad W. Post

From Financial Times (free registration required—why does anyone do this anymore?):

Sony launched the Reader in October 2006 with quite a fanfare. It is a light, book-sized gadget with a screen made by a technology company called E-Ink that is easier and more restful to read than a computer’s and needs no backlight. You can download books to a computer from Sony’s eBook Store, which has 45,000 titles, and transfer them to the Reader.

Sony did a better job with the Reader than with the Walkman of linking the device to the content and it gained respectful reviews. Sir Howard singled out the Reader as the sort of device that the new Sony wanted to make: both innovative and well-connected.

Then, a year later, Amazon launched the Kindle. It looks quite similar and has an E-Ink screen but there are two differences.

First, the Kindle links to Amazon’s online store and there are now 145,000 titles available to download. As well as books, readers can subscribe to daily newspapers and even blogs, which makes the Kindle a more useful device in everyday life.

Second, Amazon came up with a clever way of linking the Kindle to its content. Each Kindle is connected to a 3G mobile network, so books and newspapers can be downloaded within a minute. If you subscribe to The New York Times, for example, it arrives wirelessly in the night, ready to read on the morning commute.

This enhances the usefulness of the Kindle. “The real change is that you can buy a book any time and anywhere. It is like having an airport book stall with you 24 hours a day,” says Mark Mahaney, a Citigroup internet analyst.

Poor Sony. According to this article, they’re “open” to developing a wireless component to the device, but man, that’s probably going to be too little too late. The other week E.J. posted the TechCrunch numbers that Amazon had sold 240,000 Kindles in the first nine months. Personally, I thought that seemed a bit low, and I still feel that something has to happen (a huge new group of books available for download? a second version that’s way sexier and allows some sort of note-taking? a upsurge in use by college students for textbooks?) to really make this “tip,” or whatever.

I’ve been reading Rob Walker’s fascinating book Buying In about murketing and was somewhat surprised to find out how long it took the iPod to take off—something that FT references as well:

Anyway, it works. To the surprise of sceptics about e-book readers, the Kindle is a hit. Amazon has not released figures but TechCrunch, the technology website, reported last week that it has sold 240,000 units, putting it on track to match iPod first-year sales of 360,000 in 2001.

Meanwhile, Kindle sales make up 12 per cent of the total for book titles available both in digital and physical form on Amazon, which is far from trivial.

I’m still a firm believer that the physical book has a long life left to live, but the digital book future seems much closer than it did last summer . . . I’ve always felt that the distribution aspect was going to be the big draw to consumers—being able to download a book instantaneously after someone mentions it at dinner appeals to some base drive in my brain (and I suspect others). It’s why I like downloading audiobooks from the NYPL, and I can see myself buying into this idea if the type of books I read were all available in cheap Kindle versions. I still prefer the book itself, and the 145,000 titles available seem pretty mainstream, but if all New Directions books of NYRB books were available there, I’d be awfully tempted . . .

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