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.

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What is Mark Mahaney smoking?

Whatever it is, I would like some. According to Henry Blodget, the Citigroup analyst seems to think that Amazon will be selling $750-million worth of its Kindle e-book readers within two years. What actual data is this analysis based on, you ask? Absolutely none whatsoever, as Kevin Maney points out at Portfolio, since the company has refused to give any details about Kindle sales. In other words, it’s just a bald-ass guess. And as far as I can tell, it’s a howler.

As Henry himself knows all too well, making outlandish claims about what stocks and/or products will do in the future can get you noticed pretty quickly — so maybe that’s what Mark is after here. Or maybe it’s a kind of thought experiment, in which you run some theoretical numbers in order to get a rough sense of what might happen. In any case, while Henry seems to think Mahaney’s estimates are reasonable and even likely in some cases, the whole thing seems off base to me.

The Citigroup analyst figures that Amazon will see the same kind of sales growth for its e-book readers as Apple saw for its iPods, but will only sell about half as many. That seems hugely inflated. Like Mahaney, I have absolutely no figures to back me up, but I would guess that the market for e-book readers is less than one-tenth the size of the market for portable music players, perhaps even smaller. And the idea that users will buy a book a month just seems insane. And there’s also the Apple factor, as Rex and others have pointed out.

The only aspect that Henry seems to agree is “optimistic” is the idea that Amazon will make the same kind of revenue from e-books as it does from printed books. As Blodget notes, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon — since publishers will need to be convinced to sell them, and readers will need to be convinced to buy them, and that means they need to be cheap — and may never happen at all. I don’t know what Mark Mahaney was trying to do with his Kindle analysis, but if he was trying to make a credible argument, he failed.

Is Kindle the iPod of books?

Several weeks ago, Amazon introduced the latest in a long line of “e-book” readers, known as the Kindle. Available for $400, it comes equipped with an easy-to-read “E Ink” screen and a wireless connection that allows users to download books that they purchase from the online retailer. Kindle users can also upload their own files to the reader by e-mailing them to a special address associated with the device, or by using a USB cable.

Could this latter feature help the Kindle do for books what MP3 players did for music — that is, provide a platform for copyright infringement on a vast scale? Mike Arrington of TechCrunch seems to think it might. In a recent post, he speculated that the Kindle could become the vehicle of choice for reading “pirated” e-books downloaded via BitTorrent.

Although it is primarily used for the swapping of music, movies and software, there are also books available using the P2P standard, including some versions of recent best-sellers such as the latest Harry Potter novel. Downloading them and emailing them to a Kindle is child’s play, Arrington says, since the device automatically translates Word documents, PDFs and other file formats.

“Users may buy a book or two on Kindle, but many users will simply steal the content they want to read. Thanks to Amazon, that’s really easy to do on their slick new device,” the TechCrunch editor writes. “Should users do this? No, and we do not encourage this. But will they? I think we all know the answer to that.”

There are some hurdles when it comes to books that music doesn’t face, of course. For one thing, books still primarily come in paper form, while music is already digitized on CD and is easy to “rip” and upload. Books either have to be scanned — which is time-consuming — or the e-book format they are in has to be cracked. And not everyone likes to read books multiple times, whereas people often keep music around on their MP3 players for months or even years.

All that said, however, it seems likely that books will be dragged kicking and screaming into the age of digital media just as everything else has, and the Kindle could be the vehicle doing the dragging.

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Kindle: Colour me still unconvinced

So Amazon has launched the Kindle, its e-book reader, with a press release and an event with CEO Jeff Bezos, which TechCrunch is live-blogging. Several sites have hands-on details, including Engadget (which I would be happy to pay for, Ryan, just not via a monthly fee).

If anything, my skepticism about the Kindle — some of which I allowed to escape in this post yesterday about the paying for blogs option — has increased. And not just because it looks (as someone said) like a giant version of a Handspring PDA from 1997, although I think that’s going to reduce the demand more than Amazon might like to think.

The thing that I’m really torn about is the wireless connectability. On the one hand, it’s great to have a device that can download books (although it reportedly takes a while), and it’s nice that Amazon has built that into the price. But then you have to pay to access the RSS feeds of blogs, which makes no sense — especially if, as Boing Boing notes, you can go to the blog directly with the built-in “experimental” browser. At this point, I feel compelled to use the phrase “WTF?” again.

The wireless also isn’t Wi-Fi, but a specially configured version of EVDO, so you can’t do all kinds of things with it. In other words, the wireless connection is sort of crippled, just as a whole series of other things about the device are crippled — and that would include the inability to put certain kinds of content on there because of the proprietary or restricted formats that Amazon is using.

I’m with Rex Hammock on this one: I would much rather have a larger version of the iPod Touch (assuming we could hack it, of course). Saul Hansell thinks we might get something like that in the future. Fred Wilson — who was approached about including his blog on the Kindle — says he thinks the whole idea of a dedicated e-book reader is ridiculous, and Kevin Kelly says he sees e-books as just one possible app on the Cloudbook of the future.

Amazon’s Kindle: pay to read blogs? WTF?

So lots of people probably know by now (at least if they read Techmeme) that Amazon is launching an electronic book-reading gizmo called the Kindle on Monday, and there’s a gigantic cover story about it in the latest issue of Newsweek magazine. Speaking of which, the Kindle will apparently be a magazine and newspaper reader too, letting you read publications that you’ve downloaded using its built-in wireless connection.

amazoneink-thumb2.jpgFirst things first — I think that Bezos is right to emphasize the wireless aspect, which is based on a cellular-style service that Amazon is calling Whispernet. Previous e-book readers had to be hooked up to the PC or a cradle of some kind in order to download new books via the phone line and so on, but being able to buy and download them almost instantaneously will add a whole other dimension (I realize that the iPod has managed to succeed without that ability, but then I think music is different from books in a whole bunch of ways).

The second thing that hit me was the part where Steven Levy says that users will be able to download books, newspapers and magazines, and will even be able to “subscribe to selected blogs, which cost either 99 cents or $1.99 a month per blog.” That one made me do a double-take. Pay a monthly subscription fee to read a blog? Either Levy and/or Bezos have been smoking something, or they have found some magical way to get people to pay for something that has historically been free.

I’m trying to think of a blog that I would pay money to read, and nothing is really coming to mind — not even Engadget or TechCrunch or Boing Boing. But that line of thinking raises the inevitable question: if a blog like Engadget is pretty much as good as a magazine (which I think it is), then why would people pay for one but not the other? That can lead you in one of two directions: charge for the blog, or don’t charge for anything. We know which one Jeff has chosen — but is it the right one?

Other questions include: Is it really as ugly as it looks in the photo? Steve Levy says no on his blog, but David Rothman of TeleRead says yes. And will it be open and support industry standards, or will it be full of awkward proprietary formats and DRM?