The introduction of “Whispersync” technology may well be the bigger technology news from Amazon.com, which announced its Kindle 2 e-reader Monday in New York.
What has caught the interest of industry analysts, however, is the next sentence from Amazon: “Kindle 2 will also sync with a range of mobile devices in the future.”
The statement suggests that a Kindle 2 user could start reading a book on the e-reader and finish reading it on an iPhone or an Android phone, analysts noted. Last week, Google announced a mobile version of Google Book Search, making it possible to read books on the iPhone or Android devices.
“If you could extend the function of the Kindle to additional devices or, even better, if you could acquire content via another device and have it end up on Kindle, then that’s getting more compelling as a value proposition,” said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner, in an interview.
Baker, who has been critical of the Kindle and of e-book readers for serving only a niche market of mobile professionals rather than a mass consumer audience, said whispersync “sounds like a step in the right direction. I applaud Amazon for that. If users of iPhone could access Amazon books, it would make Amazon a more compelling value proposition.”
Amazon.com won’t say when the future Whispersync capability will be available on other devices, but analysts said it would require a major effort by the online retailer to work out interoperability of devices and wireless networks.
Amazon’s Steve Kessel, senior vice president of digital media, the group behind the Kindle, said whispersync will mean a user can “read a book across multiple Kindles and mobile devices,” which means it will work across multiple networks as well. He refused to say when it might be launched or divulge which other devices might work with it.
$359 price too high in a recession
As for the Kindle 2 hardware announced Monday, both Baker and Shim said the enhancements in the Kindle 2 are a step in the right direction, but both criticized the $359 price as still being too high for wide adoption of the device.
Shim said he had hoped that the original Kindle would be marketed as well, with a price of around $250, down from the $359 for the Kindle 2, to offer a lower-priced model.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, also said that at $359, the Kindle 2 will not sell well during the recession.
About 500,000 of the original Kindles have shipped, according to IDC. However, Amazon.com appears to be ending shipments of the original model that ran out in November. According to its Web site, “if you have previously placed an order for Kindle 1, and have not yet received it, your order will automatically be upgraded to Kindle 2.”
But Kessel said the $399 price is “a great value,” since it covers wireless access without the need for an annual contract or monthly wireless fee while also providing a device that is basically “the same technology as a cell phone.”
Baker also said that Amazon’s claim to being the largest e-book store is irrelevant, since even 230,000 titles is not enough. “It will have to get to millions or billions of books to matter to the mass market,” he said.
In response, Kessel said Amazon plans to add many more titles. “Our vision is that every book ever printed in any language will be available in 60 seconds from a Kindle,” he said. “That’s an audacious goal and will take us time. We already have tens of millions of book customers buying physical books. We have 103 of the 110 New York Times bestsellers today and we’re moving on from there.”
Kessel said one of the new features of the Kindle 2 is text-to-voice, which allows a user, for example, to read 15 pages on the screen, then drive a car and have the next few pages read to him by voice.
But Baker said the text-to-voice technology might be important to only a few. “Why do I need a device to read me something?” Baker asked.
Shim said the Kindle 2 could still use improvements with the display technology, such as the addition of color text.
But Kessel said Kindle 2 has display improvements, including 16 shades of gray compared to only four in the original, making text appear sharper and crisper. He also defended not deploying backlight technology as some have called for in Kindle 2, calling its electronic ink display “absolutely the right technology, since you don’t want to read a backlit screen for three hours and have it shorten battery life.”
The device can also be read in bright sunlight, he noted, adding that the device ships in white, which provides the best color for framing the text and easing eye strain.
Even though Whispersync could enlarge the market for e-books, some analysts said it will depend on other mobile devices that don’t have very clear displays today.