The New Kindle DX: Powered By Innovation or Desperation?

The tech airwaves have been burning up ever since Amazon announced its newest Kindle, the Kindle DX. Sporting a significantly larger 9.7” greyscale e-ink screen, native PDF support as well as annotation and highlighting tools, the Kindle DX represents a concerted effort to expand on the utility of the original model. I’ve written quite recently about my belief that digital publishing could be the new frontier for failing newspapers and could also revolutionize the educational market, but only if it’s done correctly. The question becomes, will the new Kindle be powered by innovation or desperation? Will it be guided by a vision of the future or by the shortsighted needs of the present? The answer to this question will ultimately determine whether the device and perhaps even the entire nascent e-reader market will blossom into a new distribution  model or fade slowly away into insignificance.

When I look at the new features of the Kindle DX I have to wonder, am I looking at innovation or merely evolution? The main selling point of the DX is its larger screen and certainly the addition of 3.7” of additional screen real estate is a significant boost. For the first time, it should be possible to read larger format media like textbooks and newspapers on a Kindle. But Does a 9.7” black and white display constitute innovation? Not to my mind, it doesn’t. At least, not yet. It may be a catalyst for innovation if it can attract enough kinds of content to reach critical mass, but that attraction is by no means guaranteed. I still believe that one of the lynchpins of mass acceptance is an affordable color screen. Color means pictures and pictures mean magazines. Magazines are not only less expensive than newspaper subscriptions, but their size is more akin to the size of the DX, making them easier to fit on the device. Amazon must not let up on pursuing color, even if it means taking a short-term loss on every unit sold. The same is true for touchscreen technology. They must not be so desperate to lower prices that they end up compromising the user experience. In the end, it’s the user experience that will ultimately define the Kindle.

How to Read PDF on Kindle

The second significant new feature of the DX is the expanded support for PDF, the global standard for digital documents.  I’m pleased to see that Amazon finally understands their importance and has built support for reading PDF’s directly into the Kindle DX. Does support for reading PDF files constitute innovation? Part of the problem with modern e-book readers has been the lack of a unified standard. The ideal digital publishing format would be platform agnostic, incredibly compact, contain annotation and highlighting tools as well as a very granular set of security protocols to appease publishers and limit wholesale piracy. Sounds a lot like PDF doesn’t it? It certainly does to me. With the Kindle, Amazon has the chance to embrace a global document standard and help move the entire industry towards the adoption of a single unified format across a new generation of devices. That kind of commitment would be true innovation. Instead, they chosen so far to create yet another stand-alone e-book format rather than rely on a technology that is already in use throughout the publishing world in the very newspapers and magazines they’re trying to bring to the Kindle. Will they choose to embrace another company’s global standard for the good of the platform, or will they choose to push their own proprietary format because they’re desperate to control

Finally, the Kindle DX will introduce some additional partners like the New York Times and several academic textbook publishers who will make some of the first large-scale forays into true digital publishing. Is that innovation? Frankly, it’s too early to tell. We don’t know yet what the pricing structures for these types of content will be but one thing is certain… many people both inside and outside the publishing industry will be watching to see whether it takes off. If it does, it could herald a new distribution model for faltering newspapers as well as revolutionize the way students study, read and learn. If it doesn’t, then the Kindle will have failed a fundamental litmus test of its own viability. To truly succeed, the Kindle must justify its existence. To do that, consumers must see the value in adopting a Kindle and that means there must be industry-wide consensus that in order to thrive in the long term, value needs to be shown in the short term.

Today, a weekly delivered subscription to the New York Times costs about $350 per year, $176 for just the Sunday edition alone. What if you could get 365 days worth of the Times delivered wirelessly on Kindle for less than the price of the Sunday edition alone? Would it make spending $489 on a Kindle DX easier to swallow if you knew that you could recoup the cost in about 2 years on a single newspaper subscription? I suspect that it would.

If the Kindle DX and its offspring are to survive, they must do more than simply evolve, they must innovate. It’s not enough to understand how the paradigm must change. True innovation provides the tools to begin that process even in the face of short term risk. The potential of both e-readers and digital publishing will only be realized if everyone involved makes a conscious effort to focus on the bigger good and not give in to the greed and desperation of the moment. Whether Amazon as a company and the publishing industry as a whole has that kind of focus is something that only time will reveal.

UPDATE: Gizmodo’s Mark Wilson is reporting that according to James Maroney, President and CEO of the Dallas Morning News, Amazon is demanding a staggering 70% cut of all profits from subscriptions on the Kindle. They also want the right to redistribute their content on other mobile devices. Here’s hoping that Amazon’s short-term greed doesn’t prematurely strangle their prospects for long-term success.