Amid growing competition from Apple’s iPad and other e-readers, Amazon.com is launching a redesigned Kindle that’s smaller, faster and has WiFi and twice the battery life.
The $189 price and 6-inch screen size are the same, but the new version has an improved navigation system that replaces the Kindle’s quirky joystick with a more standard control pad. It also has the higher-contrast display that debuted last month on the larger Kindle DX.
But the blockbuster is likely to be a $139 WiFi-only version of the new Kindle – the first without 3G cellular service – that could help Amazon maintain its lead position as the market surges in coming years.
“We think that will make a significant impact on the number of multi-Kindle households and just broaden the overall ability for people to get it,” said Ian Freed, vice president of Kindle at Seattle-based Amazon.
The company is announcing the new models and taking orders on Thursday. They’ll be shipped starting on Aug. 27.
Amazon is not saying a lot about what’s inside the new models, but it provided lots of specifications. They’re 15 percent lighter at 8.7 ounces, 21 percent smaller and turn pages 20 percent faster. The battery charge lasts four weeks, up from two weeks, and the device holds 3,500 books, up from 1,500.
Amazon also has finally added a light to the Kindle, sort of. For the new model, the company is releasing a $60 book cover with a slide-out LED light that’s powered by the Kindle battery.
The barebones Kindle is also priced $10 under a new WiFi-only version of the Nook e-reader that Barnes & Noble announced last month.
Yet Freed (left) insists the company’s focused more on improving its reading device than on the competition.
“Our goal is to build the best possible reading experience in a device that we possibly can,” he said in an interview in Amazon’s new South Lake Union headquarters. “You’ve seen over three years, we just keep making improvements. This is a product that’s very much designed for readers.”
Still, the Kindle’s competition now includes the iPad with its vivid color touchscreen and the Nook, which has a dual display with both color output and black and white for text.
Freed said the company considered adding a touchscreen but found it interferes too much with the display. It’s also exploring options for color displays but they have to be high quality and “so far it’s still in the lab.”
In the meantime, Freed believes the Kindle can hold its own against the iPad, noting that “most books are black and white” and the Kindle’s display is readable outdoors and in bright sunlight. At 8.7 ounces, it’s nearly half the weight of an iPad.
“There are other products out there, general purpose products that are great for other things, but the iPad is a pound and a half – when you’re reading for any period of time that becomes heavy very quickly,” he said. “You can’t read it in sunlight.”
The iPad is “a great product for Amazon – we have a Kindle app on that product as well – but we envision that and other tablets as products people will use to surf the Web and buy at Amazon etcetera,” he said. “But for readers, they really deserve a product that’s designed for them.”
Although the Kindle has become an important part of Amazon’s business, with sales of Kindle books recently overtaking its sales of hardcovers, the company won’t say exactly how many Kindle devices have sold since it debuted in November 2007.
Freed said Amazon has sold “millions” of Kindles and sales were up year-over-year in each of the last three months, especially after its price was cut to $189, from $259, in June.
James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research, estimates Amazon has sold about 4 million and will reach 6 million by the end of the year. He believes it has about two-thirds of the U.S. market for e-readers.
In a report last week, he predicted 29.4 million people in the U.S. will own e-readers by 2015, up from 3.7 million at the end of 2009. It cited surveys that found more people are still interested in e-readers than iPads.
Of the 20 percent of Americans thinking about buying an e-reader, 69 percent are eyeing a Kindle.
Here’s Freed showing the new Kindle light: