Santa sure was busy delivering Kindles this year, according to an Amazon press release in which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos calls the electronic reader "the most gifted item in Amazon's history."
Amazon likes fun analogies more than hard numbers, so we don't know exactly how many units it shipped, though the release notes customers purchased more Kindle books than physical books on Christmas. Makes sense, since folks with the new devices probably got online and ordered electronic versions of the bestsellers they didn't find under the tree. A Wall Street Journal article quotes Amazon's VP of Kindle as saying it sells 48 Kindle editions for every 100 physical copies of books available in both digital and hard-copy editions.
The Kindle is positioned as a consumer toy right now. But you can't help but wonder whether, like the iPhone and other tools before it, it has the potential to be used for business as well.
While the pricier Kindle DX has features designed to appeal to business professionals, including a larger screen and native PDF support, it's a far-from-ideal productivity aide, based on a Gizmodo review. Endgadget reviewers liked the Kindle DX even less, writing "we were fed up with it after a day of use." The Kindle DX has also been largely a disappointment to users in academic settings, who have some of the same requirements (ability to modify documents, for example) as business users. Many of the 50 Princeton students who received free Kindle DXes were "dissatisfied and uncomfortable" with them, according to a Daily Princetonian story.
I was intrigued when I saw TechRepublic's Jason Hiner put e-readers on his list of five technology trends to watch in 2010, alongside more obvious ones like desktop virtualization and smartphones. I tracked down the article he referenced, written by Jack Wallen in August. In it, Wallen makes a case for adding the Kindle to the enterprise communications mix using arguments near and dear to the business executive, mainly cost and efficiency.
I've got an issue with his cost savings contention, however. He says the average e-reader "that would make sense in the business environment" costs less than $300. The DX, which has the larger 9.7-inch screen, native PDF support and auto-rotation feature that I think would be necessary for most business types, is priced at $489. The entry-level Kindle, priced at $259, only has a 6-inch screen and lacks a built-in PDF reader. (While the Amazon reviewers are largely positive about the DX, one points out another feature omission that may put off business users: no organizational folders.) So the numbers on Wallen's cost formula, which finds it would take 42 boxes of multipurpose paper to recoup the cost of buying five readers, would need to be tweaked for the DX.
Some of Wallen's other points include the desirability of a greener business and increased efficiency gained by not sorting through endless stacks of paper. IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle touched upon the green element, when he noted the Kindle helped him reduce his printing of paper documents by sending himself documents such as travel itineraries to the device. Efficiency gains sound great, but how much efficiency is gained by reducing paper shuffling if you just move the inability to find stuff to your Kindle? (See my reference to organizational folders in the Amazon DX review.)
In fact, I think you could enjoy some of the same cost and efficiency gains by just asking employees to forgo printing and view more documents on laptops. The laptops up the ante, by offering far more functionality than one-trick-pony readers. Yes, e-readers might be nicer than laptops for employees on the go. (See Rob's point about sending himself documents.) But then doesn't a smartphone make even more sense? You can get a smartphone for less(than a Kindle DX or even a Kindle), and it'll do a lot more.
A nice shiny iPhone would seem to be better than a Kindle for boosting employee morale, another benefit mentioned by Wallen. If you want the ability to take notes, which is available on the Kindle DX (though not exactly a home run, judging by the Daily Princetonian article, Endgadget and Amazon reviews), you could get workers a PDA. Another option that may make sense for some workers: an iPod touch. I wrote about Ohio State University's use of iPod Touches for some of its students last year.
Of course, the Kindle may just not be the right e-reader for the enterprise. Plastic Logic is earning interest with an e-reader prototype called the Que, which has an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch touchscreen, 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to modify documents. Unlike the Kindle, Plastic Logic is pitching the Que squarely at professionals and is promising sophisticated document-management capabilities when it rolls out the product at the Consumer Electronics Show next month. (Yes, I see the glaring "Consumer" in the event name, but CES offers plenty of business-friendly technology as well.)