Amazon's Kindle Gets Ready to Battle Apple's iPad

So Amazon.com has bought itself a startup with an innovative touch-screen technology. The only logical assumption is that it intends to build a touch-enabled Kindle. You’ve gotta think that it’ll take a while to incorporate the new technology into a future Kindle. And given that the last all-new Kindle shipped nearly a year ago, there are probably at least two future Kindles in the works: a next-generation one and a next-next-generation one.

Amazon's Kindle Gets Ready to Battle Apple's iPad
Trying to figure out where the Kindle is headed was aways interesting food for thought, but it got even more interesting when Apple showed off the iPad last week. The current Kindle and the iPad are a study in contrasts: The Kindle is a monochrome, long-life device, button-driven built almost entirely for reading books; the iPad is a color, short-life, touchscreen Swiss Army Knife.

But the only scenario in which the Kindle is unaffected by the iPad (and possibly iPad-like gizmos from other companies) is one in which the iPad flops almost instantaneously. That seems unlikely. So here are five possible ”Superkindles” (to steal New York Times times reporter Nick Bilton’s term).

1. The Ultimate E-Reader Superkindle

Until now, Amazon has always stressed that the Kindle is (to use a term I dislike) a purpose-built device, focused on being the best possible way to read electronic books. E-reading is only one of many things that the iPad lets you do, and it’s not even purpose #1. Rather than trying to broaden the Kindle’s capabilities, Amazon could decide to stay fixated on book reading. Such a Kindle might incorporate a color screen, but it would probably be a power-efficient design such as one based on Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology, not an LCD. And even though Amazon is opening up the Kindle platform, the Ultimate E-Reader Kindle wouldn’t be built to be, say, a great gaming handheld. (For instance, it might still have physical buttons for turning pages.)

2. The iPad-Only-Better Superkindle

This is the opposite of Superkindle #1–a Superkindle that does try to do everything. It would need really good color, a really good touch-driven interface, and an app store that was irresistible to third-party developers. Could Amazon build an iPad-like Superkindle that at least some folks thought was superior to the iPad? It wouldn’t be easy, but it could give it an OLED screen, build in a camera, or partner up with a more reliable wireless provider than AT&T. Or it could simply build something that was at least vaguely competitive, and then price it significantly lower.

3. The Supercheapkindle

At $499, the iPad is much cheaper than most pre-announcement scuttlebutt anticipated it would be, but it’s still no impulse item. Amazon could opt out of direct competition with the iPad, building something that was far less fancy and far less capable–but which it could sell at a much, much lower price. It might even be willing to sell Aren’t there a lot of people out there who’d snap up a $99 Kindle, even if the screen was still in monochrome E-Ink?

4. Hey, maybe the iPad is the Superkindle

Amazon already offers a decent free Kindle reader for the iPhone. What if it worried less about building hardware and more about building the iPad’s best e-reading software/service? Judging from what we’ve seen of Apple’s iBooks app so far, it’s merely a serviceable e-reader, not a leap beyond existing programs. Which leaves Amazon with plenty of opportunity to create something much, much better for iPad owners. Me, I’d like to see e-books (and e-magazines, and e-newspapers) get serious about richer, more sophisticated formatting of text and graphics–something that Kindle competitors Skiff and Plastic Logic are already doing.

5. The Superkindle Everywhere

This is an extension of Superkindle #4. What if Amazon focused on making Kindle by far the best way to buy and read books on a bevy of platforms–iPad, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, WebOS, Windows, Mac, old Kindles, new Kindles, and more? There are hints of this already: The company has released iPhone and Windows versions, and it’s working on Mac and BlackBerry editions. But both the iPhone and Windows Kindle apps shipped in pretty rudimentary form; the most exciting thing about them was that let you read Kindle books you’d already bought. (Competitor Barnes & Noble is on more platforms, although its apps aren’t particularly scintillating either.)

I have no insider knowledge on what Amazon plans to do with the Kindle–it could be something roughly akin to one of the above strategies, or a hybrid of two or more of them, or something altogether different. The one thing I’m pretty certain it won’t do is roll over and play dead: Given its ambition, resources, and vested interest in remaining relevant in the post-paper world, it’ll surely invest enormous effort in the future of Kindle. Whatever that future might be.

If you were Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, what would you be doing right now?

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