Switched On: Rainforest fire (Part 2)

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

Last week''s Switched On discussed some of the similarities and differences between Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader. Where the Kindle really sets itself apart, though, is more in the buying of books than reading them..

The sleek Sony reader costs $100 less than the Kindle and relies on PC software for book purchases.The model for the Sony Connect integrated software and bookstore was the pairing of the iPod and iTunes, a system that has worked so well for Apple's digital music players that the Cupertino-based company made it the basis for all media downloads with an inherently connected device, the iPhone. But just as Apple brought the sensibility of desktop software to cell phones, Amazon has brought its legacy of convenient online retail experience to bear on its reader.

As with its Web-based store, Amazon has stressed the value of a broad selection of content. This is critical in a device that features access to books (or commercial video), since consumers don't have easy and legal access to this content the way they did with CDs for the iPod. The Kindle store has about 90 percent of the New York Times' top 100 bestsellers, and over 90,000 titles in all. This dwarfs the selection available in Sony Connect bookstore. And the purchase process is as smooth as a paperback book cover. Amazon has been such an innovator in online commerce that Apple licensed its patent for one-click purchases on its Web-based store and in the iTunes store.

Unfortunately for Amazon and its partners, this express checkout lane available on the go will likely do little to bring in either Luddite lore loyalists or excite the digital generation; the competition for leisure time is fierce. But Kindle may serve its purpose through customer lock-in. Amazon has delivered the kind of device portal that has long been the desire of Web giants such as Google, Yahoo and MSN, the latter of which tried a number of times with MSNTV and the short-lived MSN Companion. And while selling books may be only a part of Amazon's broad product selection today, Amazon subsidiary Lab126 describes Kindle as but one of such devices that leverage Amazon services. A portable media player for AmazonMP3 or Amazon Unbox may not be far behind.

As for Sprint, Amazon's partner for the wireless WhisperNet network that delivers purchased books and periodical content, the Kindle is a concrete example of the kind of connected devices that the company has touted for its WiMAX rollout -- except that Kindle has become it without using WiMAX. This could be an accident of Kindle's media being so lightweight that better price-performance isn't necessary at this point, but it does cast some doubt as to whether WiMAX is always the best answer for these kinds of applications, or whether Sprint is simply willing to provide these solutions regardless of the network technology.

Regardless, Kindle's success would represent a much-needed proof of concept for wireless network clients that aren't cell phones or niche Web access devices, and is also a clear prototype for the kinds of devices Verizon Wireless is anticipating with its "bring your own device" access plans scheduled to begin in late 2008 or early 2009 to compete with the WiMAX's more open access model..

As for consumer electronics in general, Kindle represents the next iteration of what many are calling "CE 2.0," the integration of hardware, software and services. In this case, the client software resides only on the Amazon device, and fast wireless access plants seeds for how portable electronics can drive new value for consumers and manufacturers by being connected to persistent wireless networks.

Kindle's connectivity may be easier to justify as it facilitates a direct revenue stream for its manufacturer and provides critical content for the device while going easy on the bandwidth requirements. Other portable products could follow with free access, but could be more difficult to subsidize fully, avoiding the costs and complications of subscription that doing so would bring. In any case, Kindle is the beginning of a new chapter.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.