From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.
It’s been about a decade since someone first placed a tablet computer in my hands and waxed eloquent about its wonders. I remember thinking, as I cradled the 4 pound object with its delicate screen close to my chest, “I just hope I don’t drop it.”
I’ve toyed with many tablet computers in the years since, and my reaction has always been about the same. While there’s no debating the value of a system that doesn’t require a keyboard and that can capture and even recognize handwriting, the size, weight and fragility of these machines has always made me uneasy. And then there’s the price, which has typically been higher than that of a comparably equipped laptop.
The arrival of the latest version of the Amazon Kindle 2 has got me reconsidering my reservations, though. With its sleek design, color display and built-in networking, the Kindle is the kind of limited-use device that has the potential to accomplish what the tablets couldn’t. At $359, it also threatens to disrupt portable computing in a more fundamental ways.
Here Come Netbooks
The Kindle 2 is one of a proliferating breed of limited-function portable computers called “netbooks” that have taken the market by storm over the last two years. ABI Research estimates that some 35 million netbooks will ship this year, rising to nearly 140 million in 2013. Netbooks are positioned as essentially slimmed-down laptops at a lower price, but I don’t think those devices will take a market by storm. The Kindle 2 difference is that it attacks the portability problem from below. History has shown that disruptive innovation almost never comes from scaling down existing technology but rather from growing the power and functionality of low-cost, limited use devices. The personal computer is the classic example of this.
Critics have been quick to jump all over the earlier Kindle’s limitations, including a closed architecture and limited application support. This is to be expected. Disruptive products are almost always dismissed in their early forms. The reason Kindle is different is that it possesses the essentials of what users need in a portable computer: a readable display, excellent battery life, a usable if limited user interface and seamless connectivity. Amazon has had no incentive to open up the product to third-party developers, but as competition emerges, believe me, it will.
Kendall is one of the crowd of low-end computers that are emerging from the One Laptop per Child project, which I’ve written about before. Founded in 2005, the project attempted to innovate from below by delivering a basic level of computer functionality at a very low cost for people who could never otherwise dream of affording a conventional laptop. This is a completely different approach to innovation from that which is usually practiced in the US: instead of trying to cram more features of questionable marginal value into the same space, OLPC tries to deliver core functions at the lowest possible price.
Attack From Below
The intended audience is third world countries, but the approach will pay dividends on US shores as well. The weight, limited battery life and awkward hinged keyboard of conventional laptop computers have always made them a weak solution to the portability problem. Apple’s iPod has demonstrated that people are willing to trade off some laptop conveniences for portability. Kindle will squeeze its way into the middle of this market.
Although currently positioned as strictly a reader machine, the Kindle will evolve rapidly as market forces demand. I believe to could turn out to fulfill the promise of netbooks, particularly as Amazon peels back the proprietary shell that limits its potential. This race has only begun, and past experience supports the idea that the Kindle, coming from the low end of the market, will be in the pole position.