IN 2007, A small team of Amazon employees had been working for a few years on a new ebook reader project they’d eventually call the Kindle. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was eager to finish and sell the thing; he was certain Apple or Google was working on something similar, and didn’t want them to beat Amazon to market. The team, sequestered away in an old law office in Seattle, working among racks of the very books they planned to make obsolete, had already gotten a lot of things right. But one part still eluded them.
At the very beginning, the Kindle’s creators wrote a press release about the device. This is standard practice at Amazon: It’s meant to ground everything in the ultimate result, to begin with the end in mind and then work backwards. The Kindle’s founding documents mentioned that customers would get new content by connecting their device to their PC, and syncing it like an iPod. So that’s what they built. But the vision quickly felt too small. “You want to be able to be on a tarmac, think of a book, and get a book in 60 seconds,” says Steve Kessel, one of the early leaders of the project.
There was only one way to make the 60-second vision real: cell service. “We knew we wanted it to be a wireless device that had no contract for customers,” Kessel says, but nothing like that existed. So Amazon worked with Qualcomm to build a system called Whispernet, which gave every Kindle owner free 3G connectivity so they could download books from anywhere. The feature felt like magic—both to the Kindle team and to early Kindle buyers. If you had to pick just one thing that made the Kindle a success, it was this.
It’s now been a decade since Amazon unveiled the first Kindle to the world. The first model seems ridiculous in retrospect—what with the giant keyboard filled with slanted keys, the tiny second screen just for navigation, and the mostly pointless scroll wheel—but was wildly popular, selling out its initial inventory in less than six hours. Since then, the device has torn through the publishing landscape. Not only is Amazon the most powerful player in the industry, it has built an entire book-based universe all its own. “Kindle” has become a platform, not a device. Like Amazon tends to do, it entered the market and utterly subsumed it.
Now, however, Amazon’s ebook project comes to a crossroads. The Kindle team has always professed two goals: to perfectly mimic a paper book, and to extend and improve the reading experience. That’s what readers want, too. In a world filled with distractions and notifications and devices that do everything, the Kindle’s lack of features becomes its greatest asset. But readers also want to read everywhere, in places and ways a paperback can’t manage. They want more tools, more features, more options, more stuff to do. Amazon’s still working out how to satisfy both sides. Whatever route it takes, the next decade of Kindle is likely to be even more disruptive than the last. First it changed the book business. Next it might help change books themselves.