Kindle: The Paperless Empire

The ultimate guide to the best-selling E-reader, Amazon Kindle.

Ebook vs paper book? Image: Kozlowski. All rights reserved.

We are all living in a highly digitalised world where digital products are gradually dominating all aspects of our life. The invention of the digital reader, Kindle, marks the digitalisation of the reading process. As the first successor of its kind, Kindle and its paperless reading ideology has brought significant impact over the traditional publishing industry. Alongside its mighty supporter Amazon, Kindle and the Kindle E-book store redefined the concept of ‘reading’.

In the following sections, an overview of the Kindle and the E-reader will be explored. With reference to its historical pattern as well as the analysis of its business model, the internet ecology of Kindle by Amazon will be detailed. The transformative influence of Kindle as an internet-based service product will be evaluated lastly to conclude this essay.

What is Kindle?

Kindle is the electronic book reader devised and produced by the online retail giant Amazon. Besides the physical hand-held reading tablet, an app version is also available for all web platforms. The Kindle has no complex functions at all. Besides a library for accessing all the downloaded E-book materials, the device also offers access to the Kindle E-book store, so users can download books directly from the tablet (Hall, 2018).

What stands out the most for an E-reader tablet like Kindle from other well-known tablets like iPad is the application of the E-ink technology. Unlike an ordinary LED or LCD display, the E-ink offers an incredibly high similarity with the real ink print along with much higher energy efficiency (Siegenthaler, Wurtz, Bergamin & Groner, 2011). The screen has the visual quality just like real paper even under bright sunlight. Reading on an E-ink device also causes less stress to the eyes and with little need to charge the device, the overall experience is highly comparable to real printed books.

Kindle compared to the experience of a print book. Video: The Verge.

Historical Overview of Kindle

Although the history of hand-held E-readers can be traced back to the late 1990s, this niche industry has never been so prosperous until the release of the first Amazon Kindle in 2007 (Hollander, Krugman, Reichert & Avant, 2011). The first model of Kindle sold out within five and a half hours, and Kindle has been the representative model for E-readers ever since. Among the 1.33 million E-readers sold in 2011, 92% of them were Kindle (Anscombe, 2012).

The first model of Kindle had a 6-inch E ink display with no touch control. The edge of the model was designed to a rear-like shape for better hand-held experience, but in combination with the tiny keyboard, the overall experience with the model was not ideal.

The first Kindle model. Image: Coldewey. All rights reserved.

After a few experimental updates in the next two years, the first touch screen Kindle was released in 2010. The storage was increased from 2GB to 4GB to accommodate the growing E-book database. The full-screen design was on the track of the aesthetic trend of other digital devices as well.

The first touch screen Kindle. Image: Waugh. All rights reserved.

Two years after, the launch of the first version of Kindle Paperwhite introduced its addition of front-lit display illumination function. This special design followed the key logics of the previous Kindle models; instead of using traditional illumination methods found on the LCD displays, the front-lit projected the light directly to the screen instead of to the human eyes (Siegenthaler, Wurtz, Bergamin & Groner, 2011), causing less harm to the eyes while creating better night reading conditions. Selling at an affordable $199, the Paperwhite was the best-selling models for Kindle due to its high level of performance and reasonable pricing (Roberts, 2016). The first big-screen Kindle model Kindle DX was also released in the year of 2014 to accommodate wider customer needs, and followed by the first waterproof Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle has officially gained its place in the bathtub too.

The first front-lid and waterproof Kindle. Image: Meadows. Some rights reserved.

The next breakthrough point for the Kindle was the release of Kindle Oasis as a high-end Kindle model in 2016. Priced at $400, it completely redesigned the shape of the reader again and added a side handgrip with a much thinner device (Roberts, 2016). While maintaining the major features from previous updates, this product further enhanced the one-handed reading experience.

The latest Kindle Oasis. Image: Bray. All rights reserved.

Looking at the overall pattern of the Kindle history, we can see a constant adaptation to modern digital aesthetics, including a large display, touch screen, thinner device and larger storage place (Roberts, 2016). But at the same time, Kindle has never forgotten about its critical attraction as an E-reader. The addition of front-lit as well as the handgrip might seem like minor changes, but is tailored specifically for improving users’ reading experience. This successful product development focus reassured the dominating position of the Kindle in the E-reader market.

Analysis of the Business Model: The Kindle Ecosystem

‘Amazon’s Kindle is no longer just a product: It’s a whole ecosystem.’ – Gobry Pascal-Emmanuel from Business Insider (2011)

The success of Kindle cannot be discussed without looking at its powerful backup, Amazon. Amazon accounts for 83.3% of E-book market share in the US and 39% globally in the year of 2017 (Publishdrive, 2017), the reputation in its E-book as well as the online physical books retail market constructs a strong backup for the emergence of Kindle.

Amazon is the biggest E-book and physical book retailer globally. Image: Greene. Some rights reserved.

The relationship between the Kindle and the Amazon E-book stores can be comparable to the classic ‘Razor and the Blade’ business model. This concept embraces the idea of offering a low-margin item (the razor) to encourage sales of the high-margin companion products (the blades) (Ovans, 2015). Kindle is a relatively low-budget digital device, but to continue using this product, the customers will have to purchase the E-books from Amazon. Deriving from the basics of this business model, Amazon has constructed an ebook empire combining both the hardware (E-reader) and software (E-books) for reading; and Kindle functions as a centralised service provider of the pre-existing enormous E-reading ecosystem (Gobry, 2011). The Kindle ecosystem revenue accounted for 10% of Amazon’s total revenue in 2012, marking the success of its innovative business model (Gobry, 2011).

Who could threaten Amazon’s empire? Video: The Economist.

Kindle’s Internet Ecology

As the definite leader in the E-reader as well as the E-reading industry, the success of Kindle is situated within a multidimensional internet ecology.

The predominant partner, owner as well as the ultimate supplier of Kindle is Amazon. As an E-reader, partnering with the book publishers is of high essentiality. In order to maintain a smooth online purchase experience, Kindle also corporates with payment providers like Paypal. Additionally, Kindle has recently introduced Alipay and WeChat Pay on the Kindle device too to cater to the habits of Chinese users (House, 2010).

The major competitors of the Kindle include Kobo, Nook, Sony and Hanvon. Although Kindle occupies over 90% of market share in the English-speaking world, regional variety still exists. In China, Hanvon technology owns over 70% of market share in the year of 2010 (House, 2010). Moreover, a huge number of readers would choose to read on a usual tablet like iPad, Samsung Pad to avoid owning multiple devices. Although Kindle is a specified E-book reader, in a broader ‘reading’ market, traditional printed book publishers and the LCD tablets are also potential competitors for the development of Kindle.

Besides the E-book readers, one of the critical users of Kindle is the traditional book publisher. In fact, Amazon has been partnering with major book publishers like Hachette to promote existing book quality. Only the E-readers have access to what quotes or passages are marked by the readers, and publishers highly value this database (Engineered, 2015).


Infographic of Kindle Internet Ecology. Image: Author.

Kindle: A Disruptive Digital Innovation?

Digital disruption is defined as a type of environmental turbulence caused by new digital innovation leading to the erosion of boundaries and approaches of pre-existing industry and services (Skog, Wimelius & Sandberg, 2018). Kindle as the representative model of the E-reader market is a disruptive digital figure to the publishing industry.

Disruptive Impact over the Publishing Industry

The fear of the disappearance of printed books is not a hollow panic coming from nowhere. Since the aggressive launch of Kindle, the sales revenue of printed book has been showing a trend of decrease while the E-book sales have boosted triple-digit rate (refer to Figure 1, Gilbert, 2015). The growth of the digital book market is not the major concern for the book publishers, but for the physical book stores and other bookselling agents. The employment rate has been influenced significantly in the brick-and-mortar bookstores with the monopoly dominating position of Amazon as the online platform for both E-book and physical book sales (Gilbert, 2015, p.168).

Figure 1: Sales of Trade E-Books and Printed Books. Image: Gilbert.

Additionally, the introduction of self-publishing in Amazon arose a huge dispute with the book publishers too. As E-book provides a low-risk and low-input method of self-publishing, some independent writers have been cooperating with Amazon in publishing their writing directly in a Kindle version (Gilbert, 2015, p.174). In the year of 2013, three out of ten best-selling E-book in Amazon were self-published (Greenfield, 2013, as cited in Gilbert, 2015). The Kindle functions not only as an agent for presenting a published book, but it has transformed to be an E-publisher itself. This transformative impact on the traditional publishing market has raised concerns widely, especially with the regulation of book quality under a low-risk environment. At this stage, whether self-publishing is a perfect substitute for the traditional publishing industry is still yet to be tested in the market.

Kindle E-publishing is the fastest way for individual writers to publish their work. Image: Haines.

Sociocultural Impact

The major feature of a digital E-reader is that it is ‘paperless’. So it is more accessible to carry around, it is light, and it has the storage space of over a thousand book in just one thin tablet. Most importantly, it is an environmentally-friendly product without the need to produce papers. The Kindle has maximised its advantage in promoting sociocultural transformations.

The excellent accessibility of Kindle has offered a new opportunity in the educational sector. Schools around some states in the US and UK are starting to promote the use of the Kindle in replacement of traditional textbooks (Anscombe, 2012). Charity organisations are also encouraging the community to donate and recycle their old Kindles and to redistribute them to schools in remote regions (Anscombe, 2012). From the business’s perspective, the launch of big-screen Kindle like Kindle DX in 2014 as well as the projected launch of Kindle Kid version is both contributing in extending the educational opportunity of Kindle (Gobry, 2011).

Kindle in the classroom. Image: Hinckley.

As demonstrated in the example above, the emergence of Kindle has reimagined the traditional relationship between the reader and the reading device. A digital reading device has also perfectly resolved the physical limitation of a printed book, and the recyclable quality of Kindle has prolonged its product lifecycle in a more extensive field of function. As a pioneering E-reader device, it is an active facilitator in the transition of education digitalisation.

Political and Regulatory Debate

The major regulatory concern with the Kindle is the issue of Copyright. Although the majority of Kindle users uses the tied-in function to download materials from the Amazon E-bo0k store, Kindle also allows the use of material from the open network. Unauthorised downloads happen nearly every moment, but unfortunately, the web regulation against the spread of pdf version text material is still not fully well-constructed today (Ritata, Golnam & Wegmann, 2014). The Kindle has actively introduced a filter function to filter the presentation of unnamed documents to prevent the violation of copyright (Bailey, 2016), but the effectiveness of this method is minor.

Moreover, the Kindle self-publishing program also raises controversy over the right of the author publishing online. Kindle is the only platform allowed to sell the contracted self-published work, which causes numbers of copyright dispute when the writer wants to publish the physical version of the writing (Miller & Bosman, 2011). E-publishing is a brand-new field of industry, the market is currently updating the facilitated political regulations. This again showcases the extensive transformative impact of Kindle over the publishing regulations.

Kindle has been involved in several Copyright issues. Image: Lomnitzer. All rights reserved.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Kindle has been a transformative internet-based innovation. The aggressive business model Kindle proposes with the Amazon E-book store has put on disruptive impact over the traditional book publishing industry. The well-structured Kindle ecosystem is indeed forming as a ‘paperless E-book empire’. As an accessible reading device, the Kindle has reimagined the reading experience and the way we access and interact with books. It is, for sure, not a fully matured product. Still, the pioneering influence the Kindle has brought to the future of E-reading has reserved itself a remarkable position in the history of digitalisation.

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