Can Oprah overcome the Kindle’s looks?

So what happened when Oprah, the Queen of All Media, mentioned on her show that the Kindle is her “new favourite gadget?” According to Ad Age, the amount of traffic to the Amazon website was about six per cent higher than usual on that day. That’s not a huge amount — but the article also mentions that the number of searches for the keyword “Kindle” rose by close to 500 per cent, which is a pretty big number. Traffic from Oprah’s site to Amazon’s, meanwhile, went up by more than 15,000 per cent.

As Greg Sandoval of CNET points out, Oprah is hugely influential with a certain demographic, one that is much larger than the initial geek/early adopter crowd that gravitates to things like the Kindle. The biggest issue for the device, in my view — apart from the fact that we can’t get them in Canada, of course — is that the Kindle is, well… butt ugly. Seriously, the thing looks like it was designed back in the 1970s, by someone who had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey too many times.

Obviously, people are going to buy the Kindle for other reasons apart from its looks. But if nothing else, Apple’s success with the iPod and iPhone (and too many other devices to mention) has shown that design is a key ingredient in whether gadgets are adopted by mass audiences or not. There were lots of ugly mp3 players before the iPod — I know because I had one — but only geeks used them. That’s because geeks will use things regardless of what they look like, and even take pride in how ugly they are. Normal people like things that are a pleasure to look at, to hold, and so on.

As Virginia Heffernan notes in her piece in the Sunday New York Times magazine, people love Apple products so much that “users have long reported desires to chew them, lick them, even copulate with them. No such urge possesses the Kindle user.” She also sees the Kindle’s lack of any real Web access as a positive thing — since it allows the user some non-Internet downtime — while some would no doubt see it as a tragic flaw. Can Oprah’s endorsement overcome the Kindle’s lack of sex appeal and make it the first mass-market book reader? I’m skeptical.

13 thoughts on “Can Oprah overcome the Kindle’s looks?

  1. It IS butt ugly. Just saw one on a plane for the first time up close. It reminds me of this weird little gadget my dad had that was supposed to teach me multiplication (he got it from the gov't). And that was in the late 70's.

    copulating with their iphone/ipods? um, yuck, it's too early in the morning for that image to be floating in my head all day

  2. I played with a friends Kindle in NYC and agree with the design comment (Radio Shack ugly) but to have so many books on hand was awe inspiring and if available in Canada I would snap one up regardless of its looks because in this case its what's inside that counts. I also would not be surprised to see books eventually come to itunes and apple one day getting into this market.

  3. Do you see Apple trying to compete here at all? Just add books to the iTunes store and get Jonny Ive on it and I think they could compete. They'd have to partner with someone like Barnes and Noble probably, but I'm sure lots of booksellers would like to compete with Amazon for this kind of business.

    • I think if Apple wanted to, they could come up with something better and nicer than the Kindle in about half an hour — and outsell it five to one.

  4. To James' comment, there already are booking reading apps in the Apps Store, including Stanza (free) and eReader (free). The latest offering, Classics (http://classicsapp.com/) is more impressive for its design and attempt to mimic or give rise to the feel of physical reading.

    While the Kindle may have proved that there is a market for ebooks, other devices will move into the market to compete, and they will be prettier.

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  6. I have a Kindle, and I don't notice the design issues that much. I've learned not to accidentally click the next page button.

    The biggest issue, though, between Kindle and other ebook readers such as Sony's is the use of electronic ink, as compared to back light with iPhones, iPods, and other like device. Electronic ink takes no power to maintain a page indefinitely, but the same cannot be said for the iPhone. In addition, there's more surface area with the ebooks–a difference that will impact the older reader, who are primarily going to buy these devices. Lastly, eletronic ink is less of a strain on your eye, and doesn't have the same problems in direct light that back lit devices do.

    I think the Kindle has done better than most people think. I also think that people give too much credit to Apple's design ethos, which is based more on form than function. To each their own, though, as it would be nice to see increased reading options for all devices.

  7. So the Kindle's not the prettiest thing out there… but it's amazing. The screen's a thing of beauty, and the fact that it's hideous leaves your mind as soon as you start to read. Oh, and the whole wireless thing (which, sadly, doesn't work outside the US) is flawless. Every morning I get a couple of newspapers automagically delivered to my Kindle… and then if I read a good book review, I can often just search for the book right there on the Kindle, get a couple chapter sample delivered to me instantly, and can go ahead and also purchase it if I like it. No computer required. Super simple, elegant, and just works.

    I'm definitely a believer… Amazon may have gotten the industrial design wrong, but they've got the *service* dead on.

    Oh, and my Kindle started acting a little flaky a few days ago, with the battery not lasting as long as it used to. I called Amazon, and they next-day FedEd'ed me a replacement device without any hassle.

    Personally, I think if they can get the pricepoint down from $360 to ~$200, they'll have a great mass-market device.

    • I've definitely heard the same thing about the service, and the readability (I would love to try one, but as you pointed out it doesn't work in Canada) but I still think the design needs a little help. Maybe version 3.0 will do something for me 🙂

  8. So the Kindle's not the prettiest thing out there… but it's amazing. The screen's a thing of beauty, and the fact that it's hideous leaves your mind as soon as you start to read. Oh, and the whole wireless thing (which, sadly, doesn't work outside the US) is flawless. Every morning I get a couple of newspapers automagically delivered to my Kindle… and then if I read a good book review, I can often just search for the book right there on the Kindle, get a couple chapter sample delivered to me instantly, and can go ahead and also purchase it if I like it. No computer required. Super simple, elegant, and just works.

    I'm definitely a believer… Amazon may have gotten the industrial design wrong, but they've got the *service* dead on.

    Oh, and my Kindle started acting a little flaky a few days ago, with the battery not lasting as long as it used to. I called Amazon, and they next-day FedEd'ed me a replacement device without any hassle.

    Personally, I think if they can get the pricepoint down from $360 to ~$200, they'll have a great mass-market device.

  9. I've definitely heard the same thing about the service, and the readability (I would love to try one, but as you pointed out it doesn't work in Canada) but I still think the design needs a little help. Maybe version 3.0 will do something for me 🙂

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