The Original Kindle Was Crazy
What the design of the first popular e-book reader can teach us about innovation
When David Pogue reviewed Amazon’s original Kindle e-reader for the New York Times back in 2007, he asked a simple question: “Are they completely nuts?”
“Printed books are dirt cheap, never run out of power, and survive drops, spills, and being run over,” he continued. “And their file format will still be readable 200 years from now.”
Fast forward 12 years and the Kindle, along with its iOS and Android apps, now dominate the e-reading market.
Have they killed physical books? Of course not. But they were never meant to.
Of course, new products start off daring and are often misunderstood. Jony 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 Amazon’s original device. There’s a lot to learn in retrospect from studying its design and feature set while reflecting on its initial ideas.
The physical design
The original Kindle’s form-factor was boxy and uninviting.
In its case, it was meant to resemble a traditional paperback novel with its cover bent back and its pages forming a slanted edge.
The Kindle’s slanted edge, however, also acted as a large Next Page button, and it was easy to accidentally press when holding the device. And, unlike a paperback whose pages and cover are comfortable to hold, the Kindle’s hard plastic was stiff and had little to no bend.
Although the idea to make it physically similar to a book was fine, Amazon’s execution was poor. The company eventually crafted its own unique physical-form factor for future Kindle generations.
The aspirational keyboard
The keys on the Kindle’s keyboard were angled inwards — similar to the design of the BlackBerry keyboard — to help space the keys for more comfortable typing. But unlike BlackBerry keyboards, the Kindle keys were hard to press and didn’t give enough feedback. Its layout just made the device look cluttered.
What’s more interesting than the Kindle keyboard’s physical design was its inclusion on the device to begin with: 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.
They continued the idea with the social network that they tried to create around Kindle books. Users could follow what others 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, never to appear again on a future Kindle device. Users can still take notes using a virtual on-screen keyboard, but it’s clear that it’s far less of a priority and focus for the device.
No other e-readers at the time had a dedicated physical keyboard.
That 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 the current page position was something I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was truly wild.
The refresh rate on Amazon’s e-ink screen at the time was so slow that an on-screen cursor or caret would have felt too sluggish. So, Amazon needed some way to solve how a user would navigate the interface.
And if you can’t find a solution to the problem, you change the problem instead. Instead of finding a way to increase 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.
It looked magical.
Using some form of technology that I’ve never seen anywhere else, the indicator looked like a series of small reflective mirrors that would somehow change in shape and size to indicate position or show a progress bar.
And so if you can’t find a solution to the problem, you change the problem instead.
It’s still one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in a consumer device.
To transfer books to the original Kindle, you could either download them onto your computer and transfer them over via micro-USB, load them onto an SD card and slot that in, or use the built-in cellular data service that came bundled with the device.
No Wi-Fi — there was only cellular for wireless transfers.
Offering unlimited downloads of books using cellular service was a groundbreaking feature at the time, and truly innovative. However, as Wi-Fi became widely adopted in public areas and at home, the Kindle’s cellular feature became secondary, and it’s now available only on select devices.
Listening to books before smartphones
Amazon, not yet knowing the core use cases for their Kindle devices, wanted to cover the entire reading experience. So like their 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. So like it did the physical keyboard, Amazon removed these features over time.
In a world of companies competing to make phones that all look the same, I miss products like these that truly felt innovative.
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 like these that truly felt innovative. Amazon 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 my original Kindle 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.
So, for me, the original Kindle will remain as a reminder to stay crazy.