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Another Perspective


COVER STORY

This is a story about online retailing giant Amazon and its tactful handling of a product problem.  The product in this story is the Kindle 3 e-book reader.  Kindle is the emblematic delivery device for a growing range of goods and services, Amazon's direct connection to somewhere between five and 10 million customers.  So, when the latest Kindle began failing in mysterious ways, there was a lot more at risk than a batch of gadgets.  At stake was Amazon's relationship to some of its best customers; it has emerged stronger than ever.  Let's all learn a little from Amazon.

If you haven't actually used a Kindle or one or its rivals such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, one of the Sony readers, or any of the half dozen or so other similar devices, this might be a good time to get a sense of the way this sort of device has evolved during the past few years.  The Kindle pretty much defines its product class.  The standard model (there is a larger version) is a slim, half-pound hand-held tablet computer with a monochrome screen.  It can store a few thousand books.  It can read the books to you if you plug in a headset and activate the Kindle's voice synthesizer.  It can deliver a selection of magazine and newspaper subscriptions, too.  Kindle books and periodical subscriptions are cheaper than paper versions and, in the case of the New York Times, cheaper than the standard digital subscription, too.

Bezos
Jeff Bezos
Computer science Princeton guy who wrote the book
and the book on business in the cloud

If you stick to just plain reading, a Kindle can run for a few weeks between charges.  If you want it to reach out to the Amazon cloud, however, you can turn on its radio.  That will cut its battery life in half or maybe a quarter, but when you are on the air you can download books or music, pick up email, grab PDFs, or load office docs wherever you are.  A Kindle has a keyboard and a crude cursor control, plus a Web browser shaped to fit the device, so you can use a Kindle to shop in the Amazon e-book store, to check Webmail, to surf the Web, and to do some other tricks .  .  .  but a Kindle does not do interactive tasks nearly as well as a tablet computer like the iconic Apple iPad. 

Some e-book readers have color screens and the ones that do, for instance the color Nook, use lots more juice, so they will go flat in a day not a fortnight.  It you like to read as you travel, whether on an airplane or in a subway train, the Kindle and its ilk are just the right thing.  On the other hand, if you want lots of apps or need to yakkety yak, put down that Kindle and pick up a smartphone.

What really defines the Kindle and its imitators, however, is the not the teeny Linux (or Android) distro that shapes the e-book reader.  What makes a Kindle great is its role in conjunction with Amazon cloud services.  (The top Kindle rivals are tied to their vendors' cloud systems, too.) Kindle's connection to the cloud comes in two forms.  The $139 low-end Kindle ($10 cheaper than a similar Nook) reaches Amazon via WiFi networks, exactly the way a laptop computer does.  The $189 mobile Internet version does WiFi like the basic model but also has a cellular phone dedicated to data--no voice--that rides on GSM 3G networks.

There are also two other variations rounding out the Kindle line: one is model with a 9.7-inch screen plus WiFi and GSM that costs $379.  The other, the latest variation, is the same as the 6-inch Kindle 3 with WiFi only, plus a software variation: the buyer gets a $25 discount for tolerating screen saver pages and an e-book home page that carry advertising.

Advertising is the latest addition to the evolving Kindle culture.  Initially, Kindle was a CDMA device confined to the USA Sprint network and the intellectual property (IP) arrangements made by Amazon for its e-books were generally confined to licensing in the American market.  During the second generation, Amazon switched the Kindle's mobile Internet technology to GSM and extended its IP licensing to add rights for parts of Europe.  In the third and current generation, Kindle's geographic reach is very wide.  The $50 premium that you pay just once for the GSM model covers perpetual mobile Internet service in the USA.  (There can be surcharges for downloading books outside the USA.) That's right: Pay once, surf and shop in America forever.

If you don't want to buy a Kindle reader, you can get a free Kindle app for your iPhone, Android, iPad, PC or Mac.  The app will let you buy and read e-books and electronic publications, too.

It all sounds close to a perfect concept for book buffs.  So what went wrong?

Well, a peculiar problem cropped up soon after Amazon started shipping Kindle 3 readers late last August.  By mid-September, a few customers had phoned Amazon to say their Kindles froze or started rebooting again and again.  Thinking it must have shipped some defective Kindles, Amazon at first offered the customers an exchange, as it would if it had delivered any other unsatisfactory item.  Then two totally unexpected things happened:

First, when Amazon got back the problematic Kindles, they all worked perfectly.  They didn't freeze.  They didn't randomly reboot.

Kindle Cover
Amazon's Culprit Cover
This version, without a built-in light, can crash the Kindle it is supposed to protect

Second, when the customers who sent in their malfunctioning Kindles got brand new ones, the replacement devices suffered the very same problems that led to the exchange.

Initially, a patient Amazon offered yet another exchange to these customers.  Once again, Amazon got back Kindles that worked correctly while the brand new fully tested replacement Kindles failed in the field with exactly the same symptoms as their predecessors.

Somebody--and it may have been customers rather than Amazon's engineers--noticed something: All the Kindles that failed had Amazon-brand covers.  In fact, they all had the same type of cover, the basic model, not the deluxe one that included a light.

For $35, Amazon offered a folding leather cover that hooked to the left edge of a Kindle.  For $60, Amazon offered a similar cover that had a built-in light.  The hooks that grabbed the Kindle were actually electrical contacts and they pulled a little juice from the Kindle to power the light that folded into the cover.

Anyway, by November Amazon customer service had a new way to respond to customers who called up complaining about their Kindles.  The service rep would ask the customer if the Kindle had an Amazon cover and if so what kind.  If the customer said the Kindle had a plain cover the service rep would ask the customer to take the cover off the Kindle and reboot the Kindle by sliding the power button to the on position for 30 seconds.  Bingo! Working Kindle.

At first the next step was to ask the customer to exchange the cover for a lighted one (at no extra cost); later, having received plenty of covers it could test, Amazon just asked the customer to ditch the evil cover, accept a refund, and also accept a $25 credit toward the purchase of a lighted cover.

Amazon has not been talking about the way the cover caused its Kindle to fail.  What is clear is that the failure only occurred after the top hook lost its black paint, exposing the metal underneath, and, it seems, the bottom hook suffered similar wear.  Whether the hooks acted like an RF antenna, a current drain or caused some other goofy electrical effect remains a mystery to outsiders; for all we know any of a few effects were caused the Kindles to go nuts.

During the whole process, from the first failures until Amazon's support solution was fully institutionalized, customers were babbling away, posting complaints, observations, theories and, every once in a while, useful advice on Amazon's Website forums, on independent forums in the e-book world, here and there across the gadget-lovers' universe, and elsewhere, too.

Amazon won't talk about the situation.  The company still hasn't made public its Kindle sales volume, which outsiders reckon was between five and ten million units last year and which will grow again this year whether or not Amazon comes out with yet another generation.  But Kindle covers are very popular and Amazon's own covers, notwithstanding their high price, are among the best sellers.  So it's entirely possible that Amazon has replaced (or will replace, when they wear and cause mischief) a million covers.

If it has, another way of looking at the story is that Amazon probably has a million customers who think its customer service practices are as good as they can be, or it will have that many as the plain covers, now discontinued, discombobulate the e-book readers they are supposed to protect.

And how has all this been reflected in the e-book business? Well, Amazon says it sells more e-books than it sells paperbacks, and that last Christmas it sold more Kindle 3 readers than paper copies of the last of the Harry Potter books.

If any cloud has a silver lining, it's Amazon's.

— Hesh Wiener April 2011


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