Can the Kindle Follow in the Steps of the iPod?

I was one of the first iPod and Kindle users. I’m actually more of a book guy than a music guy, but in both cases I recognized a hit long before the product actually became one.

The changes between the iPod first- and second-gen products had more to do with porting iTunes to Windows, which opened up the market, than anything to do with hardware. While the first iPod only worked on Macs, the second iPod worked on Windows as well, jumped from 10GB to 20GB in capacity, got a solid-state scroll wheel, and better engraving options. The $400 price tag stayed steady ($476 you take into account inflation), and like the Kindle, it was criticized for being way too expensive for what it was. In the first year, Apple sold nearly 400,000 of the things, and that number jumped to nearly 1 million the second year.

The best estimates also have the Kindle selling around 400,000 its first year, but it had a much larger number of physical changes, and it too is projected to sell around 1 million units in 2009. The iPod was an overwhelming success; will that same success carry the Kindle?

Where the Kindle 2 beats the iPod 2

Kindle 2With the Kindle, the changes between the first and second generations are vastly greater than they were between the first and second generation iPods. While the iPod’s dimensions stayed largely the same, the second-generation Kindle looks more like a wide iPhone. It is even thinner than the iPhone is, and it is far thinner than the original Kindle was.

First iPodLike the first iPod, there was a tendency to hit the buttons on the initial Kindle by accident. It took until the third iPod for Apple to fix that, but Amazon addressed this problem on take two. Granted, technology has come a long way since 2002, and the approach is different, but the problem was a major pain on the first device.

While the second-generation iPod  didn’t really perform that differently from the first, other than getting the all-important Windows support, the new Kindle improves in several major ways. Page turning and power on (which used to take up to 20 seconds, and sometimes hang) are now instant. This is a huge improvement over the first generation. Battery life has also improved dramatically, jumping more than 25 percent.

Kindle has always come with free 3G wireless out of the door, and remains the only product in market to offer that. The second generation adds Whispernet enhancements (which can also be downloaded and applied to the Kindle 1) that allow you to sync your Kindles with each other. This sync allows you to read two of these things at the same time, and never have to search for the page you were on.

Amazon could take a lesson from Amazon when it comes to charging. Early iPods used a FireWire interface that was rarely found on a Windows PC, while later version still use a proprietary interface that is often easily lost. The Kindle one used a very rare power connector to similar those on some Samsung phones and, and the new Kindle 2 uses a standard mini-USB plug for charging.

Where the iPod 2 Beat the Kindle 2

iPod 2nd GenerationOne name: Steve Jobs. Steve made sure that the iPod was seeded well. The initial product went out to a large number of influencers heavily loaded with music that was hand selected, and even came with the CDs to address piracy issues (this was before the iTunes store launched). Apple continued this seeding, which helped form a core of advocates who helped move the market to the massive size it has grown to. Amazon doesn’t seem to get seeding, and while Jeff Bezos has taken a personal interest in the product he is no Steve Jobs.

Apple also developed and executed an iconic marketing campaign around the iPod. Amazon has yet to execute substantial marketing, and they are only addressing a small fraction of the available market as a result. It wasn’t until the third-generation of the iPod that Apple got serious about the iPod ecosystem that now surrounds and protects the iPod. While covers with lights (one of the shortcomings of both versions is the lack of an integrated reading light for low light reading) did eventually exist for the first Kindle, it hasn’t been replaced with one (as of this writing) that support the new Kindle. Apple did make a major socket change in its third version, which effectively made the first and second generations of the iPod obsolete, but the wireless support in the Kindle should reduce the likelihood of that.

People like to see products like the iPod and Kindle in person, and Apple enjoyed a strong ramp in retail. Kindle, however, is still mostly marketed through Amazon. While this is somewhat offset by Amazon’s number one position in online retail, the product is still significantly hampered by not being sold in brick and mortar stores.

Where They Tie

The Kindle and iPod go head to head on one thing: cross-platform support. The second-generation iPod moved off Apple-exclusive platforms and on to Windows. With the Kindle 2, support for the iPhone and iPod Touch was announced, and if you have an iPhone, you can explore the Kindle 2’s capabilities for the cost of your first book. You can actually keep the iPhone and iPod Touch in sync with your Kindles, much as if they were both Kindles.

Can the Kindle Outsell the iPod?

Kindle 2I love my new Kindle, though I wonder if someone at Amazon missed a meeting when it comes to a friggin’ book light, which I finally remedied with an accessory on my first Kindle, and now have to start over. Other than that, the Kindle 2 is vastly improved from the Kindle, and in my opinion, it has advanced much farther than the iPod did between generations. Initial sales were right on top of each other for the first year, even though objectively, particularly taking into account inflation, the initial iPod was substantially more expensive.

However, marketing and seeding tend to move product volume, and far more influencers had come around to the iPod by the launch of the second generation than have come around to the Kindle. Apple eventually brought out products that were vastly more affordable (Shuffle and Nano) than the initial iPod, and completed a line which helped drive the market share for Apple in an increasingly mature segment to dominance. It may be awhile before Amazon can significantly drop prices, or create lower-priced alternatives, though this is offset by iPhone and iPod touch support.

If Amazon could step up to Apple level marketing, I think it has the potential to make some amazingly large numbers. However, the cost of the device remains a critical disadvantage that, until addressed, will keep the product class at a lower run rate. And if smartphones ever get to the place where you can use them as good eBook readers (ePaper is vastly better for heavy reading than even the iPhone is at the moment), that will cap the market.

So while the Kindle could eventually outsell the iPod, chances are it won’t, and that cell phones will grow to eclipse them both eventually (that is a $3-billion market after all). But until then the Kindle is still one hell of a wonderful product.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.