Amazon’s Kindle reader isn’t going to get amenities like color, video capability, a camera, or an accelerometer in the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see a rich variety of specialized applications for it. A recent high-profile hire at Amazon offers one possibility for the future of Kindle apps, while two Kindle-watchers have offered different forecasts.
Amazon recently hired away Andre Vrignaud, Microsoft’s Director of Game Platform Strategy. Now, Vrignaud worked on many different platforms at Microsoft, from XBox and XBox Live to PCs and mobile phones; presumably, he’ll do the same for Amazon, especially since Amazon already offers casual game downloads for Windows PCs. A revitalized, multiplatform game streaming or download service for Amazon is intriguing, but let’s set it aside for now to focus on gaming for Kindle.
Here, Vrignaud and Amazon face a challenge, as they have to chart a game platform strategy that works within the Kindle’s limitations. These aren’t just technical, but are circumscribed by the Kindle’s user base, few of whom are likely to use the Kindle for heavy gaming even if they’re interested in it.
The sweet spot seems to be black-and-white word games, like you might find in a book or newspaper. The Kindle already has two word-puzzle games available, Every Word and Shuffled Row. It’s easy to imagine crosswords, Sudoku, Scrabble, and the like for Kindle — it’s almost unfair to call this casual gaming, since its fans are so passionate. And I’d wager there might even be a market for vintage text-based computer games, many of which are terrific to play for a few minutes at a clip. Any five-hour airport delay would be a lot more interesting if I could bang out Zork or A Bard’s Tale or entertain my son with Oregon Trail on that terrific Kindle battery while I was waiting. (Note: I’m deliberately the pit of hell that is casual gaming for Facebook, but clearly those companies could clean up here too.)
But games are just the beginning of an ecosystem of Kindle apps. We’ve already looked at a few ways you can make Kindle 3’s much-improved browser work like a champ for news reading, but just like with smartphones, a dedicated RSS application could potentially suit some users even better.
At iReader Review, RSS readers are listed along with email clients, weather apps, finance apps, and chat as functions currently performed using the browser that would make natural apps for Kindle. The author makes a strong case for these apps as indicative of the kinds of apps that will do well on the Kindle — providing focused information in a client specifically tailored to the Kindle device and Kindle user.
Livescribe’s app store provides a potential model for the Kindle; an array of pencil-and-paper games, translation services, and reference applications, all perfectly suited for a simple text interface and black-and-white display.
Finally, there’s the one-in-a-million possibility. One of the biggest knocks on Amazon had been that its Kindle supports its own unique formats but not ePub, an e-book standard many other companies have rallied around. There’s no way Amazon would ever allow an application that duplicates its e-reader function, allowing you to read DRMed or cracked Amazon e-books. Amazon even has a clause in its terms of service forbidding generic readers.
Popular Sun-Times tech columnist Andy Ihnatko, though, recently claimed in a podcast that several app makers were working on building an ePub client for Kindle — and that Amazon had given them the go-ahead.
Now, some people think Ihnatko was confused or misinformed, and it’s quite possible that Amazon could allow a reader for open, non-DRMed ePub files while still barring all the books you bought from Barnes & Noble.
Still, it’s an intriguing possibility — and Amazon could certainly use an App marketplace to open the Kindle to becoming a general document viewer (and casual writer) of a wide range of files without writing a line of code themselves.
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