Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Apple, Microsoft, Google -- how about a Kindle Killer?

I have a Kindle and I like it, but I don't love it. I like the form factor and the e-paper display and the touch interface is OK, but I really wish it used voice input in the user interface and was well integrated with my laptop.

Reading is an active process -- kind of a dialog with the author -- and I create a lot of associations and marginal notes. I want an e-reader that lets me record those in a database while reading. Database entries would include a note, timestamp, tags (global to me, local to the document -- perhaps even global to the world), the document it was associated with, the selected passage or figure it was associated with, etc. The links would be hot.

I'd like to be able to search this database in a variety of ways, for example, finding entries with a given tag or combination of tags, free-text search or those associated with a given document and display the results in a variety of ways, for example in a table showing only the first N characters of a marginal note and the passage it was associated with.

Voice recognition -- for commands and text entry -- should be a first-class input modality. If I have selected a passage for annotation, a single voice command should initiate speech-to-text mode so I could dictate my note and tags.

The e-reader and my laptop should be integrated. I should be able to copy the annotation database to my laptop with a single command and search and display reports in the same way as on the e-reader. I should also have the option of updating the e-reader database from my laptop, uploading it to the Internet or exporting it in various formats, for example, docx or xlsx.

I've outlined a few features I'd like in an e-reader -- what would you like to see?

The business case -- low-hanging fruit

When the Kindle came out, Steve Jobs dismissed it saying “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore -- forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Amazon does not release official sales figures, but Forbes estimated that between 2007, when the Kindle was released, and the end of 2013, roughly 43.7 million Kindles were sold. Assuming a 3-year replacement cycle, about 30 million Kindle e-readers are currently in use -- for reading and purchasing content from Amazon. Regardless of Jobs' opinion, there is a sizeable market.

Apple is a device manufacturer par excellence, Microsoft has elevated "devices" to its tag line and Google sells some devices, so they all have varying degrees of manufacturing experience.

Speech recognition is the key technology that I want added to an e-reader and Apple, Microsoft and Google have world-class speech recognition products and research projects.

Amazon may be taking a loss on each Kindle and making it up on content sales, but Apple, Microsoft and Google have online stores too and could be selling the same content as Amazon.

The Kindle reminds me of the Apple Newton -- a very early "personal digital assistant" with a stylus and handwritting recognition as its primary input modality. The Newton failed because the handwriting recognition was slow and inaccurate -- like typing on a Kindle's virtual keyboard -- and it was a stand-alone device, barely integrated with Apple or Windows computers. (I've still got a Newton -- in mint condition because I only used it to look cool). Apple learned from the failure of the Newton -- the iPod was one component in a system along with the iTunes store and software.

It seems to me that a Kindle-killing e-reader would be low-hanging fruit for Apple, Google or Microsoft. If any one of them builds it, I'll buy it. (Think of the competition if they each built one)!

Update 6/5/2014

There is a long (320 comments) discussion of this post on Slashdot.

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