The Kindle’s place in Innovation history

My innovation hype detector went off in this NYT piece on the Kindle. The offending quote is as follows:

Today’s idea: The advent of e-books and Google’s online book archive mean “2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the book since Gutenberg hammered out his original Bible.”

Anyone who makes a quote like this should be expected to spend at least 60 seconds reviewing the history of books before uttering a phrase such as “…the most significant since”, don’t you think?

Frankly it’s a stupid comparison.  The Kindle is, or is not, awesome based on how it makes reading easier or better, which I’m pretty sure it does. Why drag Guttenberg into this yet again?

Here’s a quick run through of book innovations history to help frame the kindle:

  • Movable type – Gutenberg should be taken down a few hype notches. China had working presses for centuries before he was born (around 1000 AD). It just never took off, in part because written Chinese language has hundreds of characters, compared to Germans 26.
  • Gutenberg – Deserves credit for the Western, as in European, printing press. He made several very clever enhancements never seen before, but did not invent the book nor the press.  He was also not much of a philosophical hero or idea liberator – as best we can tell he was just a fine craftsman mostly failing to make a living printing bibles.
  • The invention of cheap paperback books, Penguin makes books cheap enough for the average citizen (1935). This was a revolution in the U.S. as in made books cheap, portable and part of middle and lower class culture.

If anything I think paperback books are the best comparison as they were a revolution in distribution, access, convenience and portability much like the Kindle is. They also revolutionized the business model for authors, publishers and bookstores, much like Kindle will if it’s success continues.

10 Responses to “The Kindle’s place in Innovation history”

  1. Kai

    Another country heard from… “Guttenberg should be taken down a few hype notches.” Indeed, he’s only the German Minister for Economics and Technology. So, yeah: “Why drag Guttenberg into this yet again?” 573 years and one “t” separate him from some guy who’s credited with being the first European to use movable type printing. – It DOES sound funny to your German audience… ;-)

  2. Kerry

    Guttenberg is still not fixed everywhere ;-)

    I’m waiting to see what Apple comes up with in this space…

  3. Maxim

    I think Kindle’s biggest merit is that it brought public attention to ebook readers. Before Kindle very few people knew or heard about them.

    Amazon did amazing job nurturing market at it’s very early stage by making it widely known and easy to use, but we are still not quite at “ebook revolution” (we are coming closer though).

  4. Scott Berkun

    Maxim: You might be right. Innovation history isn’t kind to products that played similiar “first on the map” roles. Xerox Star, Creative Labs MP3 player, and on it goes.

    But of course there are many factors involved other than how early in the world’s awareness a product is released.

    And often the first well known entrants don’t come from big players like

  5. Scott Berkun

    Bill: One argument that comes up now and then is that the Protestant reformation’s shift away from priests and to the bible, allowing individuals to read the bible themselves, played a critical role in literacy.

    There are some sketchy bits to this theory, but the basic premise that this shift must have raised literacy rates and given people motivation to learn to read has some merit.

    This fits with Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation theories in that its really social changes and constructs that make enable the technological changes to happen.

  6. Bill Petti

    Scott: Ah yes, the Reformation angle. However, some versions of that theory argue that the push to the bible was only possible because of the advent of movable type–so we are still left with a technologically-driven version of the story. Or I guess you could read it as a happy coincidence–both of these innovations happened to come together at the right time, which amplified the impact of both. At the end of the day, as you’ve pointed out, timing plays a significant role when it comes to innovation.

  7. Krzysztof Niemiec

    I think that what Gutenberg did have very similar impact to invention of ‘cheap paperback book’. Before Gutenberg era books are extremely expensive and very rare goods available only to very tiny part of population.
    Gutenberg invention enabled proliferation of books. In some way even Protestant Reformation make use of printing because Bible was quite widespread and everyone might read and interpret it itself.



  1. […] a Comment Tags:, Innovation, kindle Scott Berkun discusses what he sees as the highest impact innovation in terms of books prior to the Kindle: The invention of cheap paperback books, Penguin makes books cheap enough for the average citizen […]

Leave a Reply

* Required