The entire world remembers the iPhone’s unveiling on January 9, 2007, as the game-changing moment in the world of technology. But during that same year, Amazon announced the Kindle, the first generation of the device that would change the way we read and publish eBooks.
While it wasn’t the first dedicated device to read eBooks, the Kindle was definitely the finest eReader that existed at the time. Strategically, the first Kindle played a huge role in shaping the Seattle-based Amazon of today. It was Amazon’s entry into a new hardware product category, at a time when the company was still known for selling books online.
The story behind the development of the original Kindle is fascinating. Here are some facts:
In late 1997, NuvoMedia founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning pitched the idea of an e-Reader to Jeff Bezos. They developed a prototype version which was called Rocketbook and showed it to Bezos and his senior executives in Seattle. Bezos seemed to like the e-Reader but wasn’t fully convinced. He also wanted exclusive rights over Rocketbook, but that couldn’t happen. Later on, NuvoMedia founders met Barnes and Noble founder Leonard Riggio and sealed the deal.
In 2004, Bezos thought of a new digital strategy to compete with Apple, which was on the top of the game, thanks to the massive success of iPod. At that time, Apple also had a huge impact on music, something Bezos wanted to replicate in Books. He wanted to control the end-to-end customer experience like Apple did. After a lot of discussions, Bezos decided to focus on being a bookseller in the digital world. Bezos saw an opportunity in eBooks as the future of bookselling.
The idea of a dedicated e-Reader was born. Bezos not only wanted to create an e-Reader for long-form reading but wanted publishers to adopt the e-Book format. The challenge, however, was the lack of expertise in developing hardware.
Bezos placed his bets on Steve Kessel, who was heading the book category at Amazon at that time. Sometime in 2004, Bezos called Kessel into his office and told him to lead the digital efforts “Your job is to kill your own business,” he told him. “I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job,” writes Bloomberg Businessweek writer Brad Stone in The Everything Store, a biography of Amazon. There was fear that if Amazon didn’t push hard in this category, then Apple or Google would. And when Kessel asked Bezos what his deadline was on developing the first hardware product, Bezos apparently told him, “You are basically already late.”
Kessel had no prior knowledge of making hardware, so he headed over to Silicon Valley and started meeting hardware experts from Apple and Palm. Kessel finally hired Gregg Zehr, former VP of hardware engineering at Palm Computer to lead the Kindle project. Jateen Parekh, a former engineer at set-top box maker ReplayTV was the first employee. Kindle was developed at Lab126, the secret hardware lab that was set up in 2004.
Initially, Zehr and his team were not told what product they would be working on. They thought that Amazon would want to develop an MP3 player or set-top box. Soon Amazon told them to start working on an electronic reading device.
Zehr and his team decided to power the e-Reader using e-ink, instead of traditional TFT and LCD displays that most of the previous e-Readers had come up with. The only e-Reader that used E-Ink was the Sony Libre, but it was a massive failure.
The Kindle was designed to be a single-purpose device, rather than a multifunctional device that invites distraction.
The Kindle was internally known by the name of Fiona. The name was taken from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a novel about an engineer who steals a rare interactive textbook to give to his daughter, Fiona.
The Fiona design was initially outsourced to a British firm called Pentagram. In order to design the perfect e-Reader, they studied the physics of reading and how readers turned pages and held books in their hands. The Pentagram designers worked on the Kindle for two years, until LAB126 hired their own design team and fired Pentagram.
Bezos was meticulous on what he wanted from an electronic reading device. He wanted a simple yet classy looking device that disappears in the reader’s hands. Bezos stressed adding a keyboard so that it makes it easy for readers to search for books and make annotations. Bezos apparently told the designers to design the Kindle in a way that it marries a BlackBerry phone and a book.
During the design process of the first Kindle, there were several discussions related to wireless technology. The designers weren’t able to comprehend how the wireless connection would work in the Kindle. Bezos was clear from the beginning that he wanted to include wireless connectivity so that it could be easier for the readers to download the books from the digital book store anywhere, any time of the day. Instead, the designers wanted Bezos to follow the model similar to the iTunes model, which required making the bookstore accessible on a PC. “Here’s my scenario, I’m going to the airport. I need a book to read. I want to enter it into the device and download it right there from my car,” he said. And when the designers resisted, Bezos replied: “You are the designers, I want you to design this and I’ll think about the business model.”
It took Amazon three-and-a-half years to design the Kindle. “Originally I told Jeff (Bezos) it would take us about 18 months to build the Kindle and we could do it with a couple handfuls of folks. It took us three-and-a-half years and a lot more than a couple of handfuls of folks,” Kessel quoted as saying in a piece on Amazon’s new Day One blog celebrating the Kindle’s 10th anniversary in 2017.
The Kindle project was so secret that most Amazon employees other than the senior team weren’t even aware that the company would be developing an electronic reading device. At one of the all-hands meetings in 2006, one employee stood up and asked: “Can you tell us what Lab216 is? Bezos apparently responded saying: “It’s a development center in Northern California. Next Question.”
The Kindle was supposed to launch around Christmas in 2006, but Bezos wanted to launch the device with a bigger catalogue of e-Books. The big issue for Bezos and his team was to convince publishers to come on board. After a series of discussions, publishers came on board and Amazon decided to sell new books for $9.99.
On November 19, 2007, Bezos announced the Kindle at the W Hotel in Manhattan, New York. The e-Reader, which cost $399, was announced with 90,000 eBooks. At that time, Amazon claimed that the initial run of Kindle was sold out in 5.5 hours.
The original Kindle came with a 6-inch E-Ink display and featured a free wireless connection over Sprint’s EV-DO network. The Kindle was clunky with an angular, wedge-shaped case. There was no touch screen, instead, the Kindle featured a full keyboard and navigation buttons. It also offered a speaker and headphone socket, and expandable SD card storage.