June 15, 2015

Amazon’s Next Voyage

While my Kindle vs. Kobo comparison has become one of the most read articles on the site, I’m left with some lingering regret that I was not able to provide a comparison that included the Voyage.

From the emails I’ve received, I know many of you were also hoping that I would one day follow up with a Voyage review. While today is not that day, I have some thoughts on the subject that I wanted to share, especially in light of the recent Paperwhite 3 release.

False Hope

Like so many other e-reading enthusiasts in Canada, I used to wonder what’s taking Amazon’s Kindle Voyage so long to get here.

A while back, I stopped wondering because I came to a realization: it isn’t coming. It was probably never intended to come to Canada, because in the grand scheme of things the Voyage isn’t the Kindle flagship…not yet.

The Voyage was a proof of concept—a toe dipped into in the waters of this odd niche to see if there was sufficient interest for a premium offering in the e-reader world. It’s not that other such offerings haven’t existed before, but they weren’t made by Amazon, and Amazon only does things when they make sense at a certain scale.

The Kindle Voyage was their barometer, and I think the ongoing demand for the Voyage is a promising sign.

I see a couple of interesting possibilities emerging as a result:

  • Amazon focuses their energy on establishing the required marketing and regulatory relationships to allow the next Voyage to release in Canada at nearly the same time as in the US
  • Having proven that there’s interest, Amazon pulls out all the stops and establishes the Voyage as the true Kindle flagship: broad availability, meaningful technical and experiential improvements, and a price to match

A New Hierarchy

The current Kindle line-up is unbalanced, and it will be the next Voyage’s job to correct this imbalance by pulling significantly ahead in terms of technical and functional improvements.

A new Paperwhite is on the scene, and it brings the same screen resolution to the mid-range model, leaving the Voyage with only physical design differences to set it apart—worthy, but not twice-the-price worthy.

By the time the holidays roll around, I suspect we’ll see a much more sensible Kindle line-up. The entry level Kindle will remain a perfect introductory unit at a no-brainer price point, the Paperwhite will maintain its appeal as the everyman Kindle, and the Voyage will pull ahead as the cutting edge device for the new audience Amazon has identified.

The Paperwhite has always been—and will likely remain—the best value and best purchase option for most people, but soon the true connoisseurs will see more meaningful reasons to spring for the Voyage.

Leaps and Bounds

The challenge is figuring out what improvements can be made to the next Voyage that don’t compromise the core mission: deliver the best digital reading experience possible.

Staying true to this goal means eschewing any fancy features that would compromise the purity of the Kindle experience. Notifications, apps, and other such distractions are the purview of tablets, not e-readers.

Yet unlike some pessimists out there, I am not too concerned about this because I think Amazon is keenly aware of these boundaries.

Faster page refreshes and contrast tweaks? Yawn. Those aren’t going to compel people to buy a Voyage over the Paperwhite, let alone upgrade. Those are the kinds of yearly improvements Amazon can make to the Paperwhite to keep it fresh.

That leaves me wondering though…how do you improve the e-reading experience in a meaningful way? Having spent so much time with so many different e-readers (there are four with me right now), I have a few suggestions for the next Voyage:

  1. Adjustable colour temperature for the front lighting. You’ve already made brightness adjust automatically, Amazon, why not add a dual-colour LED array and intelligently optimize colour temperature for time of day? Cooler during the day and warmer in the evening. Like Flux for your Kindle.
  2. Thinner display stack. Now that the display is flush with the bezel, why not go all-out and devise an equivalent to the antireflective laminated displays of modern LCD panels? Higher resolutions are great, but a true improvement would be making the text look more like it’s printed directly on the screen rather than being rendered underneath it. Kobo’s already using IR touch to remove the capacitive layer from the GloHD screen, and I’m sure there are other options worth exploring too.
  3. Better typography. Yes, Bookerly is beautiful and the new engine tweaks are improvements, but ebooks are still woeful to look at compared to their print counterparts. Of course, this has to do with their flexibility—a printed book need only contend with the one page size, one font choice, and one layout. E-readers must deliver a good reading experience across a variety of screens and settings. Still, there’s more work to be done on this front.
  4. Software improvements. Counter Kobo by matching their native Pocket integration with an Instapaper one. Allow us to nest collections and organize books with more facility without having to resort to our computers. Allow us to see the cover of the book we’re currently reading as a screensaver if we want.
  5. A new book format. Here’s my most contentious suggestion: forget about wading into the mess that is EPub, develop your own ebook format that allows for more precise rendering instructions for type and layout. Make it open source so the whole industry can benefit from it eventually, while you retain first mover advantages. Apply your DRM layer over it just like everyone else will. Only Amazon has the clout to do this successfully, and I think it’s about time they do so.

That last one is more of a general thought than a Voyage-specific idea, but if even one or two of these items make it into the next Voyage, it will make it that much easier to justify the premium price.

What would you like to see in the next version?

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