Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos loves to talk about the Kindle e-book reader. He's even got media mogul Oprah Winfrey pitching the device: "I'm telling you, it is absolutely my new favorite thing in the world," she recently said.
Every time I go to Amazon I am greeted with a huge Kindle ad that takes up most of the screen space. Amazon's computers know that I have seen this ad hundreds of times but they persist in showing it to me instead of products that are based on my viewing and purchase history and would have a higher probability of getting me to spend money.
At the same time, Amazon refuses to talk about the number of Kindles sold, but willingly discloses that the wireless device provides instant access to more than 185,000 books, blogs, newspapers, and magazines.
Apple, on the other hand, is happy to let the world know that 6.9 million iPhones and 11 million iPods were sold in the last quarter, and the iTunes catalog has 8.5 million titles.
One can only presume that Bezos worries that the sales numbers are not sufficiently stellar to share with the world. Disclosure of what could be perceived as lackluster Kindle or e-book sales would heap a lot of negativity on the fledgling device on Amazon, which pulled in $4.26 billion in its last quarter.
For Bezos, the Kindle is a second revolution. He started Amazon more than a decade ago as an online bookstore, and gradually added other product lines. As iTunes and Netflix took off, Bezos moved into digital music and movie delivery, and with the Kindle he is laying the groundwork to empty Amazon's warehouses of physical books.
During the Q3 earnings call, Bezos downplayed any cannibalization of print book sales by the Kindle: "Kindle's effect is additive to physical book units. Post the purchase of a Kindle, owners buy 1.6 times as many book titles and the same amount of physical books."
Reading his statement, it's apparent that Kindle buyers are already book lovers, and haven't yet weaned themselves off of print. But Bezos is very patient, and clearly willing to invest long term in his Google-like vision--digitize the world's information and sell it through Amazon.
Perhaps with Oprah's help and a new and improved version due next year, the Kindle will achieve escape velocity and Amazon can stop showing me the annoying Kindle ad and disclose how many units have been sold.
As for eliminating physical books from the warehouses, books are lagging music and video. The end of print is not near, but the writing is on the virtual wall. The economics of the Internet, as well as technology innovations such as improved virtual paper, instant translation, and always on, fast connections to a universe of knowledge indicate that Bezos is on the right track, just as he was in creating a virtual shopping mall for physical goods in 1994. And, he will have lots of company, or competition, as the digital age gets into full swing.