Did Amazon's Social Networking Injection Just Kill the Kindle's Killer Feature?

kindle-social-netSo Amazon revealed the details of its Kindle firmware update for May--a doozy if you're into reading e-books and social networking simultaneously. But with the Kindle's main charm being its status as a single purpose device, did Amazon just screw the pooch?

The Kindle firmware 2.5 has two new bigger-size fonts and better font "sharpness" which is a boost to its readability and accessibility, but the big take-away is the social networking hooks dotted throughout the code. This means you can easily share your highlighted passages or quotes with your digitally connected friends (though only up to 140 characters on the Twitter feed, folks. Keep 'em pithy!). It's far more than a tweak to the device, and it'll transform the platform into much less of a lonely user experience.

The Kindle's (2 or DX) main strengths are the e-ink display, the battery life, the Amazon ecosystem, and the massive simplicity of the single purpose device. Over time, most of these pluses have been seriously eroded. There's debate about the benefits of e-ink screens, and it's largely a matter of personal taste--the irritating slow wipe/refresh effect is annoying to some, and it precludes any serious attempts at having dynamic imagery (for smart textbook uses, for example). Apple's ecosystem for the iPad is almost as strong as Amazon's is, in e-books, has even forced Amazon to rethink its business model, and offers a huge array of extras. Even Barnes and Noble's Nook ecosystem is impressive. The battery life of the iPad roars in at around 10 hours, and that's if you're using Wi-Fi a lot, running video, and surfing the Web, all of which you can't do on the Kindle.

In fact, possibly the most saleable quality of the Kindle (and its horde of cheaper, and some may say better, cloned single-purpose e-readers) is its simplicity. If you're seriously into books, and like tech, this is the device for you. You don't want the expense and sophistication of the iPad, with its distracting social networking powers and alluring games--you just want a reliable, one-task machine. Forget all these social hooks, and the potential future horrors of push email over Whispernet.

And yet Amazon, in a desperate bid to keep up with the glamorous temptations of the tablet PC, has just sunk this one big advantage of its e-reader. Sure, you'll be able to turn these extras off...but Amazon will be bolting more facilities into the Kindle as time goes by, and they haven't even optimized the core tech of the thing yet. This is the lesson Amazon should be learning from Apple, with its initially pure-purpose iPods, and its slowness in adding in video to the iPhone: Get the killer core features first, and then add in the fancy stuff.

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