Kindle’s 15-year anniversary is a reminder simplicity is king
Len Edgerly, a 72-year-old podcaster from Cambridge, Massachusetts, has spent the last 14 and a half years talking about his favorite tech product of all time: the Kindle.
Edgerly, who records a weekly podcast called “The Kindle Chronicles,” has spoken to authors, readers, publishing industry experts and Amazon executives — even founder Jeff Bezos, twice — about his appreciation for the e-reader in more than 700 episodes.
“I use the most basic Kindle, which is under $100,” said Edgerly, who said he’s owned about 30 Kindle devices over the years. “I love how small it is and fits in my pocket. It’s the one that most disappears when I read something. It’s like holding nothing but the words.”
Amazon (AMZN) launched the original Kindle on November 19 2007, pushing the publishing industry to further embrace digital books and also kickstarting the e-commerce giant’s hardware efforts. In the 15 years since then, the tech industry has seen smartphones and tablets rise and surpass the e-reader space, but the Kindle’s e-ink display, compared to an LCD display, still draws fans by offering the most natural reading experience with limited eye strain.
“The Kindle Chronicles” sometimes gets 2,000 downloads per episode, according to Edgerly, a niche but loyal listener base. A Kindle group on Reddit has more than 202,000 active members, ranking in the top 1% in terms of size, with users posting what they’re reading and taking pictures of the places where they bring their e-readers. There are also Facebook appreciation groups, and Kindles have been been spotted over the years in the hands of celebrities on vacation or in the background of popular shows such as “The Big Bang Theory.”
The Kindle dates back to an earlier era of single-use, digital devices, from the iPod to cameras, that launched in the 2000s before smartphones became ubiquitous. Its staying power may be a testament to this approach, at least for a certain subset of users.
“Much of the longevity for this type of single-use case device is that they just do one thing very, very well,” said David McQueen, a research director at ABI Research.
Although the e-reader category has shrunk over time — many market research firms have stopped tracking sales and Amazon does not publicly share Kindle sales numbers — the Kindle continues to see demand as a reading device for a handful of reasons. It’s intuitive, can hold thousands of books, features a long battery life, is lightweight and upgrades aren’t always necessary. Amazon can keep Kindle prices relatively low because the business model is all about selling books, not selling hardware, McQueen said.
The evolution of the Kindle
Kindle, which was codenamed Fiona in its early days, sought to provide the best type of hardware for e-reading at a time when nothing else was on the market. The day it launched, it sold out in the first five and a half hours.
“Our supply chain and manufacturing teams have had to scramble to increase production capacity,” Bezos said in a letter sent to shareholders at the time, which was shared publicly in 2017, on the tenth anniversary of its launch. “We knew Kindle would have to get out of the way, just like a physical book, so readers could become engrossed in the words and forget they’re reading on a device. We also knew we shouldn’t try to copy every last feature of a book — we could never out-book the book.”
Bezos made good on that promise. Over the years, the Kindle has offered larger screens and touchscreens, the ability to adjust font size and spacing, and better processors and battery life. It improved its illumination with the Kindle Paperwhite, added waterproofing with the Kindle Oasis, launched a Kids Edition, and, most recently, introduced an e-pen for writing with the Kindle Scribe.
The Kindle’s specs have gotten smarter, too. The first Kindle’s battery had to be recharged every other day if the wireless connectivity was turned on and had an internal storage of 250MB — enough for 200 medium-length books. Now, the battery lasts for up to six weeks, has 16GB of storage for thousands of books, and weighs 5.5 ounces (nearly half the weight of the original). Likewise, the original Kindle had access to 90,000 books in the Kindle Store compared to 13 million books now in the Kindle Store. The original cost was $399; now it starts at $99.
Still, the Kindle today is strikingly similar to the original. Corey Badcock, head of Kindle product at Amazon who joined the company eight years ago, told CNN Business that’s been a strategic decision.
“The vision of Kindle is that it’s always been about reading a book with the advantages of it being digital and portable,” Badcock said. “Year after year, people told us they don’t want notifications on the device or browser to watch YouTube. … People love the sanctuary part of it; that it is distraction free.”
In 2017, Amazon told CNBC it had sold “tens of millions” of Kindles in its first 10 years. Badcock declined to share updated Kindle sales numbers but said the “business continues to grow and expand.”
Linn Huang, an analyst at IDC Research, believes the most significant part of Kindle’s legacy is that it helped kickstart Amazon’s development of consumer tech devices. “It isn’t so much that the Kindle e-reader is still around, it’s that it launched Amazon as a consumer device manufacturer, and holy hell look at how far they’ve come in that regard,” she said.
Amazon’s current lineup of hardware devices includes the Fire tablet, the Firestick media streaming gadget and the Echo smart speaker. Huang believes the Kindle will likely remain part of that lineup for another 15 years.
“We’ll still have e-reader fanatics just like we still have those who prefer paper,” she said. “The more interesting question is will Kindle be broadly considered retro tech like vinyl record players or arcade cabinets of today?”