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February 4, 2010

The iPad is not a Kindle killer

The blogosphere is now full of ecstatic praise for the still-unavailable Apple iPad. Much of the commentary follows this pattern: a recitation of the known facts about the iPad (fast, multipurpose, “cool”), followed by the unwarranted conclusion that these facts make it a “Kindle killer”. This argument is similar to debates about religion, in which it is assumed that belief systems are a zero-sum game where there can be only one winner. But what is most noticeable about this argument is that it ignores some crucial facts. This isn’t too surprising, given the rich-geek myopia and herd mentality that pervades Silicon Valley culture. Here are the issues the geeks are ignoring:

Price: the cheapest iPad with 3G is $629. Add to this the $30/month data plan, and you have a two-year cost of $1349. Compare this to the cheapest Kindle, which is $259 and has no monthly charge for 3G access. Then consider the hints that Steve Jobs has given about raising eBook prices as a sop to the traditional publishers. Amazon won’t sit still, either. They’ve dropped the price on the Kindle at regular intervals, and are likely to do that again this year.

Battery life: the Kindle has a battery life of about two weeks when the 3G radio is turned off. I have confirmed this through personal use. This is a huge deal for me, especially when traveling. I don’t have to fret constantly about finding a place to recharge in outlet-starved airport terminals or train stations. It’s one of the key features of the Kindle that makes its use much closer to that of a real book than other electronic devices, including the iPad, which has a reported battery life of 10 hours.

Weight: the Kindle is much lighter than an iPad, which makes it more comfortable to use when reading in bed, or standing at a train station, or any other place where the device must be held in the hands. Even the larger Kindle DX is lighter than the iPad.

Simplicity: geeks with short attention spans and an addiction to email and Facebook won’t consider this a virtue, but the Kindle does one thing very well and offers no distractions. Again, this makes the device more like a real book. Admittedly, this factor may become less important as Amazon opens up the Kindle with their forthcoming developer’s kit.

Display: there is some debate about the readability of e-ink vs. LCDs, but the e-ink is definitely the winner in bright light, and I find it easier on the eyes than my laptop display. Amazon may switch to a different kind of display later this year, perhaps the Qualcomm Mirasol, but if it’s done right it should still offer the same benefits as e-ink: low power consumption and readability in sunlight.