NEW YORK - Amazon.com on Monday unveiled a slimmer, lighter version of the Kindle, its electronic book reader, with a host of new features but the same price as the original device.
At a news conference at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, Chief Executive Jeff Bezos demonstrated the new device, which will be available for shipping Feb. 24. Dubbed the Kindle 2, it’s easier to read, half as thick as the original and thinner than Apple Inc.‘s popular 3G iPhone.
Perhaps its niftiest new feature is a high-quality text-to-speech function enabling the Kindle to read books out loud. It also has additional memory and can store 1,500 books, with 25 percent more battery life compared to the original version.
“It’s a sexy device. It appeals to the heavy reader,” said Avi Greengart, research director of mobile devices at Current Analysis. He said the original version had a “goofy” design and other flaws that Amazon appears to have fixed.
The new device comes barely a year after Amazon launched the original Kindle, which has been sold out for much of that time. The Seattle-based company has never disclosed specific sales figures for the device, though analysts guess as many as 500,000 units have been bought.
“We’ve been selling e-books for years, and guess what? It didn’t work, until 14 months ago,” Bezos said. He said Kindle books now account for 10 percent of all sales involving books that are available both in print or digital form.
The Kindle, originally launched in December 2007, is the first reading device that allows customers to buy and download books without a connection to a computer. The goal of Amazon, the nation’s largest Internet retailer, is to use the Kindle to remake the book market for the digital age.
“Our vision is every book ever printed in any language, available in less than 60 seconds,” said Bezos, who noted that 230,000 books can now be purchased in digital form.
The Kindle 2 is just 0.36 of an inch thick - nearly half the width of the original - and weighs slightly less at 10.2 ounces. The device offers 2GB of memory capacity that Amazon says will hold more than 1,500 books, compared with just 200 books for the original version.
Amazon says its extended battery life will allow Kindle 2 users to read for four to five days on a single charge if the device’s wireless service is turned on, or up to two weeks with wireless off. The Kindle 2 downloads books via the high-speed wireless network run by Sprint Nextel Corp., though no wireless fees apply.
Amazon kept the price of the device at $359. A price cut for the original Kindle was implemented last fall.
Several analysts had speculated that the Kindle 2’s price would drop to under $299.
Even with an improved design, the Kindle is likely to remain a niche product unless its price comes down, analysts say. Greengart, for one, said the cost could discourage buyers, especially in light of the deepening U.S. recession.
“It fits into the ‘nice to have but not desperately needed’ category,” he said.
The use of electronic readers, however, is almost certain to grow. Younger people increasingly get their news and other information from the Internet and they often connect to the Web with electronic devices - wireless phones, BlackBerrys and iPhones.
In the near future, Amazon plans to allow customers to use certain smart phones - and perhaps other devices - to read digital books sold on its Web site.
“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” said Jay Marine, Amazon’s director of product management.
Yet those devices are too small for extensive book reading, opening the way for Amazon to create a new market with its Kindle. Sony Corp. also makes an electronic reading device, or e-reader, and other companies could eventually join the fray, particularly if Amazon allows its digital book copies to work on them.
Asked if they would consider such a strategy, Amazon executives decline to comment.
The first Kindle was generally considered easy to read, but some customers complained about the placement of buttons and the number of steps it took to perform certain tasks. Some critics said it was easy to get dirty or accidentally turn a page.
Despite those flaws, Amazon periodically ran out of Kindle and the device hasn’t been available for several months.
Marine said that the company did not anticipate such high demand at the end of 2008 but that Amazon has learned its lesson. “We think we’re ready for the Kindle 2,” he said.
Prices for books are basically the same. Bestsellers cost $10 or less digitally compared to as much as $35 for a hardcover edition. Major publications such as the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and now the New Yorker are also available for a regular fee.
The emergence of a mass market for digital books would be beneficial for customers and Amazon alike.
The price of a book - still Amazon’s single biggest category of sales - derives mainly from the cost of ink, paper and transportation. Amazon can sell books more cheaply to customers and more profitably for itself when they are distributed over the Internet and read on a Kindle.
Best-selling author Stephen King, who attended the Amazon event, said the device makes reading easier, especially for people with poorer vision, and he praised its storage capacity: “I can have 20 different books on the Kindle.”