Wild West Retail: Amazon's Kindle, Microsoft's Zune

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Amazon has unveiled its e-book reader, Kindle, even as Microsoft is reporting surprising demand for its Zune music player. Engadget reviewer Ryan Block sorts through the choices.


Yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the much awaited Amazon Kindle, a sort of portable digital library, which is always conveniently connected to Amazon's homepage so you can purchase your next read.


(Unintelligible) how that works.

STEWART: Amazon isn't the first to put out a portable digital library. Many have unsuccessfully tried to take books into the digital age. Now, another gadget maker trying to go where others have failed is Microsoft with the Zune. The Goliath that is iPod has been picking off little MP3 Davids. But this could be Zune's year. Interest is high, if you believe search engines and e-retailers.

Here to guide us through the retail Wild West is Ryan Block, the editor-in-chief of the tech Web site Endgadget.

Hi, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN BLOCK (Editor-in-Chief, Engadget): Hi. How are you guys?

STEWART: I'm doing great. Let's start with the Kindle first. Could you explain just nuts and bolts - they haven't used nuts and bolts anymore - how it works?

Mr. BLOCK: So, basically, the Kindle is an eBook reader. And what that means now is it's a small portable device and it's really intended only for the purpose of reading books. So it has a special screen made of a material called e-ink, and it mimics the properties of paper page so it's got very high contrast text, and it looks a lot like a piece of paper except that it's a display. So, you know, you can change what's on it and these things like, go to the Amazon homepage and download books with it.

The other thing that's very different about other eBook readers today is that it's connected over Sprint's network through a technology called 3G EV-DO. It allows you to download books really quickly. So the fact that it's connected and the fact that it's got those really great paper-like display, something that, I think, that they think will really resonate with consumers.

STEWART: How big is this book reader itself? I mean, what does it look like? How much does it weigh? Am I going to be sorry I have it in my purse after about an hour?

Mr. BLOCK: Well, it depends on how big your purse is (unintelligible).

SMITH: It's huge.

Mr. BLOCK: No, I mean, it's really — it's not that big. It is a little bit larger than some of the other devices on the market like Sony's PRS, eBook reader. But it's really — it's, you know, it's very modestly sized especially when you consider that you are go to out and buying, you know, just your regular hardcover book. I mean, it's going to be a lot smaller and thinner than that.

STEWART: So it's like about a paperback size?

Mr. BLOCK: I mean…

STEWART: I can't tell from the pictures.

STEWART: It's a little bit larger so there's a term in the biz, if I remember it correctly, called a QP, quality paperback, which is kind of like a mid-size book. You know, in between a small paperback and, you know, a very large hardcover. So it's about in that size.

SMITH: Is there any indication that there's a need for this? I mean, certainly songs have this impulse quality. You may want to — you have a song in your head and you want to download it. But does anyone get a couple of pages into a book and say, oh, I need to use a wireless system to download five more books?

Mr. BLOCK: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's something that consumers are going to kind of determine. I mean, this is a very new market and there hasn't been a successful eBook reader. But then again, all of the eBook readers that have come to date, have had a lot of problems encumber them.

STEWART: Yeah. Tell me about why the other ones haven't succeeded? Tell us about some of those specific problems.

Mr. BLOCK: Well, for one, almost all of them have desktop software, and everybody hates fiddling with desktop software because, you know, it doesn't always work and you have to use a proprietary store and the formats aren't always right. So, you know, there's that fact.

And then, there's the fact that if you're using desktop software, you have to be bound to a computer in order to, you know, put more content on it. This kind of solves that problem. You no longer have to be at your computer to get content on the device. You know, some might argue that the cost for the content is still a little bit much. I mean, from just downloading a small text file, which is really all a book is on a digital reader, is that worth $10? Or, you know, is the ability to read books on a device like this worth $400, I mean, because if you look at the average cost of their new books for download, which is about $10 for a bestseller, and compare that to the average cost per book to buy, it's about $15. So to cut (unintelligible) the cost of the reader, you have to buy about 80 books before, you know, you start making any real savings on.

STEWART: And just to be clear…

SMITH: And that's like 20 years of average American reading, right?

Mr. BLOCK: Right. Yeah.

STEWART: And just be clear the readers themselves are about $400 right now, right?

Mr. BLOCK: They're about $400. Those prices will come down eventually. But yeah, as of right now, it's - I think it's on the higher end of that scale of eBook readers, but it also does a lot of things that the other ones don't.

STEWART: Question about this. Can I only get books from Amazon? Can I get other things on this eReader, or am I in a headlock if I buy this Kindle?

Mr. BLOCK: Sure. I mean, it is very Amazon-centric, and they have a system for purchase so you can get books through Amazon. But you don't have to buy, you know, buy text through them only. I mean, if you have eBooks that you've downloaded from the Gutenberg Project or your own text that you've written yourself, you can still transfer those files onto the device. I mean, it's definitely possible. But, I mean, if you're going to pick anyone, you know, electronic book retailer in the world, obviously it would be Amazon. I mean, they've got the biggest library and the most content deal.

STEWART: Which segues nicely into iTunes, having the biggest library, but Zune is trying to come on strong. I want to get your opinion about a couple of things. The Zune was released last week, you know, not nearly as much press. I mean, iPod puts out a bookmark and (unintelligible) cover it in the paper. Apparently, this one, if you go in search engines, people are looking for information about it. On a scale of one to ten, the new Zune, worth its price?

Mr. BLOCK: So, I mean, the new Zune is very competitive with the price with the iPod, and I think Microsoft is really making, you know, a big effort to kind of come in and make an alternative product to the people who really aren't satisfied with what Apple is offering. My personal feeling that they didn't really offer anything that interesting or compelling or different than what Apple is doing. I mean, the Zune has a couple of things that the iPod doesn't do, like, it has a wireless feature. So if your friend has a Zune, you can transfer a song to them. But the downside to that is if I send my friend a song, they can only play it three times. So, you know, it's a step forward but then sometimes it's two steps back.

STEWART: Well, last year, Microsoft released the Zune and it was big old dud. Did they fix — what did they fix in the course of those 365 days?

Mr. BLOCK: They fixed a lot of basics that should have been there from the beginning. For example, they had a Podcasting, which is, you know, free audio and video content from a variety of publishers on the Internet, you know, kind of the audio, you know, video version of blogs, if you will. That should have been there since day one though. So it's kind of hard to call that an upgrade when the iPod has had that for years, and so have many other players.

STEWART: Now, Ryan - we're talking to Ryan Block, he's the editor-in-chief of the tech Web site Engadget. I watch(ph) the Truth Squad for us. I put Zune into a search engine and to a new search engine, and I kept getting this headline. This is it, quote by quote, "Microsoft new Zune 80 gig MP3 player has sold out across the Web in its first four days of release." Is this planned scarcity or just as a surprise for demand?

Mr. BLOCK: I think planned scarcity is kind of a myth for consumer electronics makers because - although, you know, it does create some buzz when you can't actually get a product, they're — everybody is only in business to sell these things, and it's actually really bad for them to not have these things on store shelves. My impression, what I've gotten from the Zune team, they do not even have enough of the hard drive base units - the larger kind of flagship model -to get on store shelves to meet demand, and they haven't had enough even to send out to press for review. When that happens, when there aren't enough units to send out to press review that usually signals me that they just are not able to make enough (unintelligible). Not necessarily that demand is so high, but they're just having some problems on the manufacturing side.

STEWART: So it was a hiccup in the production end more than anything else.

Mr. BLOCK: Yeah. I mean, you know, I can't confirm that, and I don't think that Microsoft is going to comment on that either way. But that's usually the impression I get when things like this happen.

STEWART: Ryan Block is the editor-in-chief of Engadget, filling us in on all things Zune and Kindle.

Hey, Ryan, thanks a lot.

Mr. BLOCK: Thank you very much.

STEWART: So that's old-school way of reading books, Robert.

SMITH: Yeah, the way I prefer is the print pages and the library…


SMITH: …but, you know, if you haven't been to a library in a long time, it may surprise you what goes on in the bathrooms. The book drops, the parking lots. We'll do library confidential, coming up.

STEWART: We'll also check in on the most e-mailed and most viewed stories around the Web, including some Thanksgiving horror stories and why men may actually prefer blondes — or at least their brain waves.

SMITH: There's not a blonde in sight. I'm not saying a word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Stick around. You're listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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