Amazon.com's Kindle fails first college test
If Amazon hoped for honest feedback when it started testing the Kindle DX on college campuses last fall, it certainly got its wish; students pulled no punches telling the Seattle Internet giant what they thought of its $489 e-reader. But if Amazon also hoped the Kindle DX would become the next iPhone or iPod on campuses, it failed its first test.
Seattle Times business reporter
Wary of lugging a backpack full of textbooks on the University of Washington campus, Franzi Roesner couldn't wait to get her hands on a new, lightweight e-reader from Amazon.com.
Soon after receiving a Kindle DX, however, something unexpected happened. Roesner began to miss thumbing through the pages of a printed textbook for the answer to a homework question.
She felt relieved several months later when required reading for one of her classes was unavailable on the Kindle, freeing her to use a regular textbook.
If Amazon hoped for honest feedback when it started testing the Kindle DX on college campuses last fall, it certainly got its wish: Students pulled no punches telling the Seattle Internet giant what they thought of its $489 e-reader.
If Amazon hoped the Kindle DX would become the next iPhone or iPod on campuses, it failed its first test.
At the University of Virginia, as many as 80 percent of MBA students who participated in Amazon's pilot program said they would not recommend the Kindle DX as a classroom study aid (though more than 90 percent liked it for pleasure reading).
At Princeton University and Portland-based Reed College, a small liberal-arts institution, students praised the Kindle for its long battery life, paper savings and portability. They then complained they couldn't scribble notes in the margins, easily highlight passages or fully appreciate color charts and graphics.
"You don't read textbooks in the same linear way as a novel," said Roesner, 23, a graduate student in computer science and engineering. "You have to flip back and forth between pages, and the Kindle is too slow for that. Also, the bookmarking function is buggy."
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the Kindle DX a year ago at Pace University in New York, saying its nearly 10-inch screen and large storage capacity were especially suited for college students.
After all, college students could be a huge market for e-readers. Total U.S. book sales declined 1.8 percent last year, but the higher-education category grew 12.9 percent to $4.3 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.
E-books enjoyed an even faster growth rate, reaching $313 million in 2009. That was up 177 percent from 2008, though e-books still have only a small piece of the market.
Amazon seems to be taking the student feedback seriously. The company last month announced software upgrades enabling Kindle users to sort books into collections and zoom in on PDF documents.
"The pilot programs are doing their job — getting us valuable feedback," said spokesman Drew Herdener, who declined to elaborate.
Amazon, which sells a smaller Kindle with a 6-inch display for $259, entered the e-reader market in late 2007. Many analysts now predict Apple's new iPad, with its full-color, video-capable touch screen, will overtake the Kindle.
The iPad costs $499 and up and can be used to read books, store photos and browse the Internet. In contrast, the Kindle uses a black-and-white screen based on e-ink technology.
Reed, Seton Hill and other colleges plan to test Apple's iPad in the fall to see if it gets a passing grade.
To compete, Amazon soon will have to lower the price for its small-screen Kindle to less than $200, said analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, of Forrester Research, a technology-research firm in Cambridge, Mass.
She calls the DX "a dud" and dismisses Amazon's pilot program as "jumping the gun."
"The DX is just a bigger Kindle, not a better one, and it doesn't solve the problems that university students need solved," Rotman Epps said. "As long as it's profitable, I think they'll continue to sell it, but I don't think they'll emphasize it."
The high cost of textbooks is a major concern for many students, especially as colleges increase tuition amid state-government budgetary constraints.
The average four-year college student spent $659 on textbooks in 2009, according to market-research firm Student Monitor. That was down 7 percent from 2008, partly because of increased used-book sales and a shift toward shorter, cheaper publications.
One reason textbooks are so expensive is publishers release new editions every three or four years, hoping to render used, older editions obsolete, said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at UW.
Anti-piracy software restricts Kindle users from lending their digital textbooks or reselling them, so e-readers can help publishers cut down on the used-book trade, Lazowska said.
But whether they set e-book prices low enough for cash-strapped students remains to be seen.
At his UW office recently, Lazowska seemed disappointed that a Kindle version of a popular text costs $70, roughly the same as a used hard-bound edition and $44 less than a new print edition.
Access to textbooks from a wide variety of publishers is another concern.
"Students have told me, 'I'm not necessarily opposed to carrying another device if I can get all the content I need,' but they're a long way off from that," Rotman Epps said. "There's still not a lot of content available on these devices."
Which comes first?
It's a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: E-readers won't gain widespread acceptance on campuses until more content is available, and publishers won't provide more content until e-readers are better suited for college students.
"The question is, when will the Kindle, iPad and Nook be ready? When they're ready, we'll be ready," said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of higher education for the Association of American Publishers.
Indeed, Barnes & Noble, which operates about 650 college bookstores nationwide, concedes its $259 Nook e-reader is not ready for academic use.
"Those things that students really are looking for in an educational experience just are not there yet in the e-reader market," said Jade Roth, a vice president in charge of textbook merchandising at Barnes & Noble College Booksellers. "It's going to shift when the number of titles increases and when the digital experience is amazing."
UW's Roesner, who had two internships at Amazon and came away with a favorable impression of the company, said she still uses her Kindle DX to read PDFs.
"Flipping through the pages in a PDF is slow, but I'm sure that'll get fixed," she said. "And I really, really like reading papers on the Kindle as opposed to my computer."
Enough to pay the $489 price tag?
"I wouldn't have bought it myself," Roesner said.
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was originally published May 23, 2010, and corrected May 25, 2010. Apple's new iPad will be distributed this fall at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, not Seton Hall University as originally reported.
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