Amazon Revamp Puts Apple On Notice

Amazon announced some excellent new Kindle Fire tablets and phenomenal pricing on Thursday. But make no mistake: Its battle with Apple centers on content services.
X-Ray Books
Those who have discovered the beauty of reading digital texts, where it's easy to highlight and mark up sections, define words, and share content so elegantly, will be equally impressed with Amazon's new X-Ray technology. When applied to a book, it provides what Amazon terms the "bones" of the text, so you can get even more information about characters and terms. Say you're reading Hilary Mantel's Wolfe Hall/Bring Up The Bodies series, with its myriad of historical characters, many named Thomas (Cromwell, the main protagonist; Cranmer; Boleyn; Howard), and you need to sort them out--turning on the X-Ray feature provides a thumbnail of the character, who he is, and even lets you skip back to other references of him in the book for better reference. My very surface impression of this after very brief use was positive; only time, and more in depth use will determine how useful this feature really is. Also, the user interface is a little--pardon the jab--skeletal.

Amazon VP Jay Marine said that X-Ray doesn't require the book publisher to do anything differently--the burden of work is on Amazon. Behind the scenes, it is using things like Shelfari, Amazon's community-powered book lover encyclopedia, and Wikipedia to build its metadata, and that gets sent as a sidecar of the book, which Marine says "becomes a dictionary of the future."

Amazon is adding features like X-Ray to try to reduce the friction that still exists for those still making a transition away from paper books. The company also added a little timer that shows how long you have left in a chapter, based on its sense of how fast you read. I'm almost convinced, but I'm not sure what I'll do with my bookshelves now--firewood, anyone?

Kindle Success
Kindle equal more reading
Not that Amazon has failed to drive the digital reading revolution--it showed a chart depicting Kindle book sales outpacing physical book sales (presumably books bought on Amazon) within a year of the original Kindle's arrival. Amazon also provided data that showed Kindle owners increased their reading volume by a factor of 2.56 times in 2008, and that climbed each year to a factor of 4.62 times in 2011.

Amazon is hardly satisfied with that. It also announced WhisperSync for Voice, which lets you listen to audio books (Amazon has added 100,000 new audio books to the Kindle Fire HD), and seamlessly switch to reading mode, and back without losing your place. An Immersion Reading feature highlights words as the audio track plays; Amazon pointed to studies indicating that this method can help enhance reading and retention capability. Amazon is adding the Immersion feature to titles as fast as it can. For now, Amazon says nearly 15,000 Kindle books are available in Immersion mode.

So Amazon's got the digital book market pretty well cornered. If it can continue to pressure Apple on music, movies and TV shows (for purchase, streamed, and otherwise), by being just as inventive, we might have an entertaining, competitive battle. On Thursday, Amazon did announce X-Ray for movies, which is somewhat similar to the service on books. The movie version uses IMDb meta data, but it applies it on a scene-by-scene basis: just touch an actress on your screen (keep it clean, please), and it brings up information about her, including a list of every movie she's been in. Once again, the content creators don't have to do a thing here.

Here's something parents should love: Kindle Free Time. This is basically parental control. You can go into the Kindle Fire and restrict the amount of time that specific device users (like each child) can consume particular types of content. You might choose unrestricted reading, for example, but only an hour of games or movies.

Kindle Free Time

And while Kindle Free Time is intended as a parental tool to govern a child's use of the addictive device of the moment…well, I'm sure you might easily see where this could go in an enterprise setting. But perhaps we're teetering into Hollywood screenwriter territory now.

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