Surprise Hits: Kindle's amazing sales numbers don't go unnoticed

In November 2007, when Amazon (AMZN) unveiled its e-reading device, the Kindle, I wrote a column predicting that it would fail to find traction, given its cost ($399) and the cost of downloaded books (around $10 per).

Boy, was my crystal ball cracked. A Citigroup analyst estimates that Amazon sold half a million Kindles last year (and could have sold many more, had it not run out during the Christmas season). The introduction of two extensions this year -- the improved Kindle 2 and the textbook-friendly Kindle DX -- has built on the brand's success.

At a recent soiree, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reported that the company now has 300,000 titles available in both print and Kindle versions; of these, 35 percent of sales have been in the electronic format. These are astonishing numbers, given that Kindle is less than two years old -- and that it suffers a basic black-and-white screen, feeble internet-browsing capability, and a lack of simple input programs, such as a word processor.

Why has this format succeeded where others failed? I'm convinced the keys are the strength of Amazon's marketing, the effortless book-delivery system (via the Sprint cellular network), and our culture's seemingly bottomless taste for electronic devices.

Of course, such success does not go unnoticed; almost daily, it seems, we read of companies preparing to unveil their own electronic readers. Apple (AAPL), Barnes & Noble (BKS), Fujitsu, even Rupert Murodch's News Corp. (NWS) empire could have devices on the shelves within the year. Some could even offer a color picture.

Can any company match the catalog of Amazon, though? That is the challenge. For the public, choice can be a good thing, driving down the cost of an e-book and a device to read it on.

Kindle's success shocked me; its continued success in a highly competitive market will be only a mild surprise. But I've learned not to underestimate the product developers at Amazon.

Tom Barlow is an avid reader who will miss the marginalia of the paper library book, cryptic messages left by prior readers, sometimes decades past. Do you suppose Marcia still loves Bruce?

Be sure to check out all 20 recent products that became Surprise Hits.


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