This week Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promised, via Twitter, an “all-new, top of the line” 8th generation of the Kindle, with “details next week.”
Heads up readers – all-new, top of the line Kindle almost ready. 8th generation. Details next week.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) April 4, 2016
This could be exciting news — if you're the type who gets excited about Kindles. By referencing the 8th generation, Bezos is signaling that next week's announcement will (almost certainly) be an e-ink Kindle, rather than another Kindle Fire tablet. And though there's nothing broken with the Kindle, there's quite a bit that could be fixed. The near-total lack of competition in this category, as well as the relatively straightforward mission of putting e-books in front of eyeballs, has led to a slightly stagnant pace of innovation. Here are some improvements we'd like to see out of the next generation.
Complete Rotational Freedom
Kindles are incredible bedroom companions, but one main drawback, however, is that you can't flip the screen around entirely, rotating text by a full 180 degrees. This matters for one incredibly specific, but occasionally deal-breaking reason: You can read while lying on your right side, but not on your left. That's book-cover style cases that are available for the Kindle are excellent products, that can wrap around and securely prop up the device. But flip over to your left side, and the propped Kindle can go with you, with its text now upside-down.
This is one of the main reasons we've actually stopped using the Kindle Paperwhite in bed, and opted for the Kindle Fire 6, which, like most tablets, has complete rotational freedom. The Fire 6 is an inferior reader, with exponentially less battery life, and an LCD screen that's harsher on the eyes. But it's better in bed. A simple screen-flipping option on the new e-ink Kindle would change that.
Tons and Tons of Fonts
The most recent version of the PaperWhite added a new font, called Bookerly, that Amazon claimed was developed specifically for reading on digital screens. It brought the total number of fonts on the device to 7, which is way, way too few.
Our suggestion: A “more” option, selectable below or to the side of the limited number of baseline fonts, that opens a massive list of additional choices. There's nothing inherent to e-ink technology that should limit how many fonts the screen is capable of — e-ink displays can handle relatively detailed illustrations and not-so-detailed photos, after all — and as long as you skip Wingdings and similar fonts, a few dozen choices shouldn't bog down the device's storage.
The reason for a more expansive list of fonts has to do with the way fonts look at different sizes, and with different amounts of space between characters. One of the great advantages of e-books over hardcopy books is the ability to quickly adjust the way text appears, to suit basic personal preferences, or to address the harsh realities of aging eyes. Some fonts, however, look fuzzy at certain sizes, or introduce awkward amounts of space between letters and lines. And consider who Kindles are really for — compulsive, avid readers. The exact kind of people who might care about fonts, and who might take the time to fine-tune the way their text is displayed, to minimize eye strain and distractions.
Less Battery Leak
In theory, e-ink devices should consume no power while not in use. The only electricity that these screens use is when they display a new page. Once that's done, the screen is effectively inert, the rough equivalent of an Etch-a-Sketch. So why does a Kindle that's left on a nightstand for a couple of weeks, untouched, gradually lose its charge? We haven't quantified exactly how quickly Kindles leak power, but they absolutely do. This happens even in airplane mode. This is a problem, especially for a product that's intended to replace paper books. Kindles have to be charged over two or three weeks, rather than once a day. But a hardcover left on a shelf for months doesn't have to be charged before you can read it. Eliminating battery leak entirely would be impossible, since lithium-ion cells always lose their charge over time. Still, Amazon should be able to stretch those charges for longer during inactive periods.
Easier Public Library Borrowing
Amazon deserves credit for its library borrowing process. Competing e-readers punish thrifty readers with additional steps to download loaned books from the local library — the Nook, for example, makes you sign up for an account with Adobe, something even Adobe's own apps don't always require. With a Kindle, you typically have to take out the book using a separate device, such as a phone or computer, and then it automatically downloads to the e-reader the next time it's online.
But there's still something punitive about requiring a non-Kindle in order to borrow a book for your Kindle. It's an obstacle for users who don't have another device handy (like kids, who might only own a Kindle), and just enough of a hurdle to discourage a large number of readers from taking advantage of libraries, which are making a serious effort to stay relevant by way of digital loans. But if book borrowing were about as easy as grabbing books from the Kindle store, Amazon would be supporting a flagging, but clearly noble institution, and promoting reading for the widest possible audience.
The software and regulatory hurdles related to a streamlined library borrowing process would be non-trivial. Amazon would have to interface with library networks who are already committed to their proprietary apps and user interfaces, and library membership might have to be merged with Amazon credentials. But Amazon has already proven its ability to handle complex interactions, including paying for products with Discover card cash rewards (without being redirected to Discover's site), and the Amazon Smile program, which gives you the option to automatically donate a portion of your payment to your choice out of hundreds of searchable charities and nonprofit organizations. If Amazon wants Kindles to become fully synonymous with reading, whether that means buying from Amazon or borrowing from a library, a few hassles today could cement that legacy for good. Whatever tiny proportion of sales it might lose in the short-term would be offset by the boost in brand loyalty — or total brand dominance, really — in the long run.