Can Oprah overcome the Kindle’s looks?

So what happened when Oprah, the Queen of All Media, mentioned on her show that the Kindle is her “new favourite gadget?” According to Ad Age, the amount of traffic to the Amazon website was about six per cent higher than usual on that day. That’s not a huge amount — but the article also mentions that the number of searches for the keyword “Kindle” rose by close to 500 per cent, which is a pretty big number. Traffic from Oprah’s site to Amazon’s, meanwhile, went up by more than 15,000 per cent.

As Greg Sandoval of CNET points out, Oprah is hugely influential with a certain demographic, one that is much larger than the initial geek/early adopter crowd that gravitates to things like the Kindle. The biggest issue for the device, in my view — apart from the fact that we can’t get them in Canada, of course — is that the Kindle is, well… butt ugly. Seriously, the thing looks like it was designed back in the 1970s, by someone who had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey too many times.

Obviously, people are going to buy the Kindle for other reasons apart from its looks. But if nothing else, Apple’s success with the iPod and iPhone (and too many other devices to mention) has shown that design is a key ingredient in whether gadgets are adopted by mass audiences or not. There were lots of ugly mp3 players before the iPod — I know because I had one — but only geeks used them. That’s because geeks will use things regardless of what they look like, and even take pride in how ugly they are. Normal people like things that are a pleasure to look at, to hold, and so on.

As Virginia Heffernan notes in her piece in the Sunday New York Times magazine, people love Apple products so much that “users have long reported desires to chew them, lick them, even copulate with them. No such urge possesses the Kindle user.” She also sees the Kindle’s lack of any real Web access as a positive thing — since it allows the user some non-Internet downtime — while some would no doubt see it as a tragic flaw. Can Oprah’s endorsement overcome the Kindle’s lack of sex appeal and make it the first mass-market book reader? I’m skeptical.

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