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The original Kindle was crazy

In a world of companies competing to make phones that all look the same, I miss products that truly feel innovative.

The original Kindle was crazy

“Are they completely nuts?” read the review from the New York Times of Amazon’s original Kindle e-reader back in 2007.

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“Printed books are dirt cheap, never run out of power and survive drops, spills and being run over. And their file format will still be readable 200 years from now,” the article continued to argue.

Fast-forward 12 years and the Kindle, along with its iOS and Android apps, dominate the reading market.

Have they killed physical books? Of course not.

Like many first impressions of new products that impose a false narrative, they were never meant to. New products start off daring and often misunderstood. They need to be carefully studied and iterated upon.

Jonathan Ive described it best when he said:

“While ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”

The original Kindle is the perfect example of that notion. So much about the Kindle has changed over the years, but Kindle devices today still remain true to the vision first shown in the original device. There’s a lot to learn, in retrospect, from studying its design and feature set and reflecting on its initial ideas.

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[Photo: courtesy of the author]

Physical design

The original Kindle’s form factor was boxy and uninviting.

In terms of its case, it was meant to resemble how a traditional paperback novel would look when its cover was bent back, with its pages forming a slanted edge.

The Kindle’s slanted edge, however, also acted as a large “Next Page” button and was easy to accidentally press when holding the device. And, unlike a paperback whose pages and cover are comfortable to hold, the hard plastic the Kindle was made from had much less give.

Although the idea to make it physically familiar to a book was fine, Amazon’s execution was poor and that later guided them to craft their own unique physical form factor in all of its future Kindle generations.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

The keyboard

The keys on the Kindle’s keyboard were angled inwards, similar to how BlackBerry keyboards were designed, to help space the keys for more comfortable typing. But unlike BlackBerry keyboards, the keys were hard to press and didn’t give enough feedback—and its layout just made the device look cluttered.

What’s more interesting than the Kindle’s keyboard’s physical design, though, was its inclusion on the device to begin with.

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No other e-readers at the time had a dedicated physical keyboard.

It was aspirational. Amazon hoped it would instill a culture of review and reflection among readers. The company continued the idea with the social network that it tried to create around Kindle books, where users could follow what other users were reading, including well-known authors, and see their highlights and notes.

It didn’t last long. The physical keyboard only made it to the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX before being taken out altogether for all future Kindle devices. Users can still take notes using a virtual on-screen keyboard, but it’s clearly far less of a priority and focus for the device today.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

Scroll wheel

The original Kindle’s scroll wheel is a feature that you have to see to believe.

The wheel itself wasn’t anything remarkable, but the indicator that showed position was something I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was truly wild.

At the time, the technology that powered Amazon’s e-ink screen had too slow of a refresh rate—and so an on-screen cursor or caret would have felt too sluggish. Amazon needed some way to solve how a user would navigate the interface.

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And so if you can’t find a solution to the problem, you change the problem. Instead of finding a way to speed the refresh rate of the e-ink screen, Amazon introduced a small physical bar to the right of the e-ink screen that housed a mirror-like indicator controlled by the scroll wheel.

Is this magic? Metallic. Reflective. Shape changing.

It looked magical.

Using a form of technology that I’ve never seen anywhere else, the indicator looks like a series of small reflective mirrors that somehow change in shape and size to indicate a reader’s position or to show a progress bar.

It’s still one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

Connectivity

To transfer books to the original Kindle, you could either download them on your computer and transfer them over microUSB, load them onto an SD card and slot that in, or use the built-in cellular data service bundled with the device. No Wi-Fi—only cellular for wireless transfer.

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Offering unlimited downloads of books using cellular service was a groundbreaking feature at the time, and a truly innovative one. However, as Wi-Fi became widely adopted in public areas and at home, the Kindle’s cellular feature became secondary and is now available on only select devices.

Speakers & headphones

Amazon, not yet knowing the core use cases for its Kindle devices, wanted to cover the entire reading experience. So, akin to its aspirations to instill writing digital notes while reading, the original Kindle also came with an external speaker and a headphone jack for playing audiobooks.

Listening to books, which is more of a mobile experience, ended up being far more convenient with smaller devices like MP3 players or smartphones, as you could tuck away the device. Amazon removed these features too over time.

Okay, so what?

The original Amazon Kindle was crazy—new ideas often are.

In a world of companies competing to make phones that all look the same, I miss products that truly felt innovative. It got a lot of things wrong but it was daring. It was unapologetically strange. It was ambitious with how it wanted to change the world.

I still keep mine on my desk to remind myself that any design I make is a means and not an end. It may not look like it now, but my designs today are as crazy and clunky as the Kindle was. My work, like anything meaningful, will require iteration, revision, and future trade-offs.

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So, for me, the original Kindle will remain a reminder to stay crazy.


Tareq Ismail is principal designer at Amplitude and host of the podcast IterateFM. You can follow him on Twitter here. This post was originally published on Medium.

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