Kindle why?

I love gadgets. If I was in a higher tax bracket I would live at CES and buy everything there that would allow me to record and stream and time-shift and sift and mashup and share my news and TV and music and photos and movies. Hey, last week I installed open source firmware on my Wifi router, so don’t tell me I don’t love gadgets. Did I mention I want two of these new iPhone controlled helicopters?

But, I don’t care for the Kindle.

Being in newspapers (as opposed to being in a higher tax bracket) means I typically wait a bit to take the plunge to invest in new tech.  As in getting a refurbished iPhone for 50% off a year after the 3G launched. Or getting the 6″ Kindle this week, just ahead of the release of the Kindle DX next week. (And actually the Kindle belongs to work, so it doesn’t really count.)

We purchased the Kindle at work as we are finally getting around deciding if we want to produce and deliver a version of the newspaper for it. After just an afternoon of downloading, reading and testing I am tempted to ask, why would we?

Compared to the iPhone it has an irritatingly limited user interface. The display is about perfect for a paperback book, but nowhere near big enough to browse through a newspaper’s worth of daily content. Not to mention the screen is black & white and of a resolution that makes images feel more akin to lithographs.

That is the long way to say that it is a good tool for reading books: 6 inches of black text on a white screen that requires simply turning the pages to go from chapter to chapter. Yes, I do intend to download a few e-novels to see how it fares.

But from a newspaper business perspective, it is not the interface or the screen that is the problem. The issue is the thing is an expensive closed box.

You can only get content onto the Kindle in three ways. One: Through the Amazon.com store. Two: Emailed to your device through a dedicated account. Three: Via a USB cable attached to your computer.

As we found out in a wave of stories on the topic last year, selling through Amazon.com is an quick and efficient distribution system that returns 70% of the subscription revenue to Amazon and 30% to the publisher. So that $10 a month for the Chicago Tribune returns $3 per customer to Chicago. Not a great revenue builder.

Emailing content directly to the Kindle sounds like a great alternative. But, that process will cost the customer .15 cents per megabyte downloaded, rounded up to the next MB. I sent myself a small PDF this afternoon as a test. It cost me 30 cents. Talk about your micropayments.

So, for a publisher interested in publishing to the Kindle, your choices are either give up 70% of your subscription fee; convince your customers to pay .15 cents per MB to read your content; or choice number three, get readers to manually download and sync your publication using a USB connection. Given the fact that that wireless connectivity is a major selling point of the device, I would wager most customers don’t even know they have a USB cable.

It is hard to begrudge Amazon their business model. Their constant sync (which works like magic) is made possible through the ‘Whispernet’ system, a wireless connection to the Internet over the Sprint cellular network. That arrangement with Sprint can’t be cheap and the connectivity charges are covered as part of your subscription fees. But seriously, .15 cents per MB for the personal document delivery service is less meant to cover costs and more meant to destroy the business model for non-Amazon.com purchases.

One would guess that is also why there is no WiFi on the Kindle. WiFi would allow publishers to circumvent the Amazon.com store and most likely they all would. Immediately.

So, are we going to create and publish a Kindle version of our newspaper? Maybe, leaning toward probably. I certainly would not bet all my money on the Kindle to ‘save’ newspapers, but it does have an audience and is a good platform for us to experiment with. Hopefully as open standards and storefronts develop the market balance will tip back a bit more in the favor of publishers. Until then we need to learn as much as we can about the technology and how readers want to use it.

But what I wouldn’t give to see a nice color tablet with touch screen controls, Wifi and 4G connectivity, open document standards and a variety of e-commerce options for downloading content including text, photos and video. If we could get that in a flexible plastic form and for say $99 that would be great too.