Monday, May 4, 2009

Kindle Meets the Kodak Brownie


One of the great consumer products of the twentieth century was the Kodak Brownie camera. It premiered in February 1900, cost one dollar, and did for picture-taking what the Model T would soon do for American driving. 

When I was very young I owned a Brownie Bullet, purchased for a special family visit to the New York World’s Fair in Queens in 1965.  I adored that camera, even after I dropped it on the ground near the Westinghouse Time Capsule, cracked its case, and took another three years of pictures with a sun streak down the right side of every print.

So, the other day when I accidentally dropped my Kindle 2 (to no great effect, fortunately), the Brownie flashed before my eyes.

Not so long ago, when Kodak sold millions and millions of boxes of film, the company used to try to calculate how many pictures were “stuck” in peoples’ cameras.  A family would go off on a trip, bring along three rolls of film, shoot two and have a few frames left on the third roll (still in the camera).  Then the camera and undeveloped film would get stuck back in the closet for the next vacation.

As a nation currently suffering under a glut of recession-induced inventory, imagine Kodak’s struggle: They were fully in control of raw materials and production (making the film), fully in control of finished product (making the prints), but essentially excluded from the work-in-process.  In fact, WIP walked out the door of the retailer and disappeared into the Rambler American headed for Niagara Falls.

Certainly Kodak could influence the pace of picture-taking through advertising, selling books, hosting photography classes, and by establishing Kodak “picture spots.”  But in the end it had control of only two of the three stages of its “forward” supply chain, and had to wait for consumers to “add value” and return WIP to finished goods .


This has, I think, much in common with books and what's going on today with our Kindles.

Have you ever gone to a bookstore, found and bought three books that you might like, begun one and parked the other two on a shelf?  Are they still there, unread?  Are they still there despite you having subsequently purchased five more books at the bookstore? 

This is a slightly different problem than Kodak had, of course.  Where most 1960s families owned a single camera, most twenty-first century book-buyers have lots of shelves, as well as closets and basements.  So the warehousing capacity for unread books is much larger than that for untaken pictures.

Peter Drucker noted American’s weird relationship with books in his Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985). When TV first appeared in the early 50’s, Drucker wrote:
“Everyone knew” that book sales would drop drastically. . .But instead of collapsing, book sales in the United States have soared since TV first came in.  They have grown several times as fast as every indicator had predicted, whether family incomes, total population in the ‘book reading years,” or even people with higher degrees.  No one knows why this happened.  Indeed, no one quite knows what really happened.  Books are still as rare in the typical American home as before.  Where, then, do all their books go?
Now, enter the Kindle.  Depending upon how snoopy Kindle’s Whispernet is, or one day can become, Amazon—for the first time in book-buying history—could know the following:
1. What books I own.  Not my family.  Not my wife and me.  Just me.  And, how many hours a week I really read, instead of those lies I tell to market researchers.  
2. The order in which I read my books, including skipping among them.  And, as I mentioned in my last post on Kindle, which books I have that might influence additional purchases. 
3. The other reading media (like magazines) that influence the pace of my book reading. 

4. Which books I don’t finish (like Gravity's Rainbow; three valiant starts, never past page 50). 
5. Which books I finish.  Which I finish quickly.  (In other words, imagine a publisher knowing what’s really being consumed, and at what pace, instead of simply purchased.)  Information could be sent back to the author: more scenes with saltwater and sharks. 
6. (Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. . .) What sections of a book slow me down, speed me up, or cause me to skip over. 
I’m not saying Amazon and its Whispernet are doing (or can do) any of this; this is all just speculation of what I suspect will one day be done.  And it’s not necessarily 1984 stuff, either.  There are undoubtedly a number of folks who would volunteer to become “Kindle Readers,” just as today people become “Nielsen Households.

Still, this ability to mine “data emissions” where none existed before is changing our world.  Imagine a football player with sensors in his helmet who gets pulled in the last quarter of a game because his “tackle impact" has fallen below the median.  Or one who is retired at 29 because his “aggregate impact” over the season is in the lowest quartile of 28-30 year old linebackers? 

I don’t know what Amazon would find from their Kindle Readers—perhaps still a lot of unread books sitting on our digital bookshelves.  But such insight into “work in process” would have been a godsend for the old Kodak.  Perhaps they could have moved more film.  Perhaps they could have dreamed up new marketing campaigns to get us to empty our Brownie Bullets at the end of vacation.

Perhaps they would have known that I'd dropped my Brownie at the 1964/5 World's Fair, taken pity, and sent me a new one.  But now, of course, we're really talking science fiction.

(2016 update: See this post about Jellybooks, a reading analytics company.  It took only seven years for the speculation in this post to become reality."