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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 19, 2007 at 10:58 AM

Kindle hacking, iPod parallels and a chat with the Kindle director

I’m fascinated by’s new Kindle electronic reading device, but I’ve got more questions than answers – even after interviewing Charlie Tritschler, director of Kindle.

Tritschler was one of the product specialists that Amazon started recruiting in late 2004 from companies such as Apple, Palm, Philips, Sony, RIM and Microsoft.

In early 2005 it hired Tritschler from PalmSource. Before that he was at Liberate Technologies and Apple, where he spent 10 years and worked on the PowerBook line.

Tritschler answered some questions about Kindle today in an interview from New York (where Amazon held a press event but didn’t invite its hometown paper, one of 11 available on the Kindle, and recently ranking #42 in the Kindle Store).

He wouldn’t say exactly how many people are working on the project, which buildings it emanated from in Seattle (turns out they were also developed in Cupertino, Calif.) or how they camoflauged Kindles when testing them here in town. Nor would he discuss future directions or details of the internal hardware.

On other topics, though, he provided some interesting details.

Is Kindle hackable? “It’s not something we’re opening up, but all devices can be hacked. That’s something people can do.”

Will there be APIs for software developers to write Kindle applications? “That’s an important future direction for us.”

Tritschler noted that Amazon also announced a “digital text platform” for authors to create content for Kindle.

Will this also be used as a music player? Kindle supports MP3, has headphone jacks and “the sound quality is really nice.” Amazon will see what users want from Kindle, but “we really designed it to be a single purpose device” for reading.

How about a color display? Sounds likely. He noted that screen producers “have been showing some color prototypes.”

How about video playback, once Kindle has color? “As the technology evolves to support faster refresh rates, that’s something the market will look for.”

Does it have a browser? Yes, in the “experimental” features area. But it doesn’t work well with sites that are “heavily formatted.” “Things that are text-based work very well,” he said. (I wonder how it will work with free content formatted for mobile devices.)

How did Amazon recruit him? By asking him to come “change the world.”

Tritschler believes Kindle will indeed change the world by improving the experience of reading, adding capabilities such as search and a built-in Oxford dictionary that can be used to check definitions of words as you read.

I’ve seen a lot of similar reading technologies over the years, from companies such as Microsoft and Sony, so it seems to me that while the device may be better than predecessors, Kindle’s real advances are in its business model.

When Jeff Bezos refers to Kindle as the iPod of reading in the glowing Newsweek story where Amazon chose to debut the product, he’s referring not just to a device for playing digital content but an iPod-like ecosystem with a device, service, store and content partnerships.

For one thing, it comes bundled with free wireless service and its own unique e-mail address. There are no monthly fees to pay and renew with wireless providers, you just turn it on and connect, just like a radio or a TV. Amazon covers the service cost with Kindle’s price and content sales, although it must have been able to get a deal on wireless service because the device uses minimal bandwidth.

Novels in the Kindle format are typically 500 to 800 kilobytes, Tritschler said, explaining why they download in 10 to 15 seconds.

Can Amazon provide this free service forever, especially on future versions with color screens and video that use more bandwidth? Has it figured out a way to wrap bandwidth and access costs into the content? If so, why can’t we get phones, computers or Tivos like this?

Amazon has made deals with book publishers and it’s now selling digital “Kindle editions” of 90,000-plus books, but digital books have been around for awhile.

More intriguing (from my perspective) are the deals it forged with periodical publishers. It offered newspapers, magazines, blogs and wire services a new opportunity to sell digital subscriptions. Even though you can already get their content online, usually for free and in full color, they’re hoping that people will pay for the convenience of their content arriving on Kindles.

If this works, and content owners find people are still willing to pay for their content in a useful format, maybe it will be the beginning of the end of the current Google era where publishers are encouraged to give it all away and hope for traffic and ads.

Speaking of giving it away, I wonder if Amazon will ever make Kindle work with digital books already available from public libraries.

The public buys those books, so it should be able to read them in the latest format without buying another copy from Amazon. Nor should libraries have to go out and buy “Kindle editions” of their collections.

Maybe I don’t have all the details, but it seems that for Kindle to become the iPod of books, Amazon will have to let people put free content on the device. Can it do that and sustain the free services? Will people really pay $399 for a device that won’t let them load content they already own or acquire content from sources other than Amazon?

Remember that less than 3 percent of the content on the average iPod was purchased from iTunes, according to Steve Jobs, who argued that a big reason for the iPod’s success was the system’s openness.

The openness of iPod and iTunes is pretty debatable, but for digital content consumers, it set the expectations of flexibility.

If Kindle doesn’t have similar flexibility, and digital reading devices really are the books of tomorrow, maybe someone will have to come up with a gateless, open-source/public access version.

UPDATE: A reader pointed out that the Kindle was developed at Lab 126, an Amazon subsidiary developing gadgets in Cupertino, Calif. Details about Lab 126 are now posted at its Web site, including a mission statement that suggests Kindle is the first of multiple reading devices from the company. It’s vision statement:

We envision wireless electronic reading devices that embrace a traditional book’s simplicity, utility, and the ability to disappear as we read, but offer consumers capabilities that are only possible through digital technology and wireless connectivity. Starting with Kindle, which enables consumers to think of a book, newspaper or blog and be reading it in less than a minute, we will build tightly integrated products that bring together great devices, powerful software, Amazon services, and unmatched content selection.

UPDATE 2: I caught up with Steve Kessel, senior vice president of worldwide digital media at Amazon, who oversees the product and Lab 126. He said Amazon has teams around the world working on its design, software and interface.

When I asked if people will be able to load their own content, he noted you can email personal documents such as Word documents and jpeg images to Kindles. It also accepts PDF documents as part of the experimental section, although “some have fixed layout so they may not layout perfectly on the device.”

Can people load their own books onto Kindle? “Books are purchased from the Kindle store.”

But you can load your own music onto an iPod, I said.

“All the books for purchasing are from the Amazon store because to create this seamless experience of being able to download over the air, it would have to be built as an end-to-end experience.”

Kessel left the door open a crack, though:

“I think we’re open to different ideas in the future.”

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