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Monday, February 08, 2010, 11:45 am PT (02:45 pm ET)

Amazon rethinking Kindle in the wake of Apple iPad

Amazon is being forced to rethink many of the design decisions of its Kindle e-book reader after the introduction of Apple's iPad.

The New York Times reported that Amazon assimilated multitouch screen maker Touchco into its Kindle engineering team last week; since then, it reports the Kindle group has posted over 50 job openings for positions related to hardware design.

Among the job postings is a Hardware Display Manager position, which asks that applicants "know the LCD business and key players in the market." Up to this point, Amazon has touted the Kindle's quirky e-ink screen as a major feature, promoting its readability and power savings that enable the device to coast for days without charging it.

If the next Kindle moves to conventional LCD screen technology, it will enable Amazon to keep up with the iPad in terms of displaying color, animation, and video. An LCD would also be required to support a touch interface, as e-ink isn't responsive enough to respond to touch gestures; the display lags even with the existing button controls.

Amazon's Kindle group is also looking for WiFi specialists, presumably to help move the product from being 3G-only (and tied to a bundled mobile plan) into a hybrid or even WiFi-only lineup. That might enable Amazon to lower the price for users who don't need to download books from anywhere, and who use their e-book reader within an area that already has WiFi service.

Other job postings support Amazon's recently unveiled Software Development Kit plans for Kindle, intended to create accessory applications for the product. Any apps will almost certainly require existing Kindle users to upgrade to new hardware, as the technical constraints of e-ink would greatly limit what kinds of useful apps developers could create.

Having to rebuild the Kindle from scratch in order to make it more competitive with the iPad as an e-reader would seem to be an expensive proposition for Amazon, particularly given the relatively minor sales it has achieved over the last two years. In developing an entirely new device, Amazon will also face competition from the conventional e-ink readers from Sony and Barns and Noble, leaving some analysts to speculate that the company will need to maintain an e-ink model.

The iPad splash

The announcement of Apple's iPad is having a similar impact on other company's products. For example, the iPad is forcing Acer to rethink what kind of tablet devices it could introduce for $500 in competition with Apple's existing iTunes infrastructure. Other netbook makers are also likely to feel the pinch once the similarly priced iPad hits consumers with new multitouch features, rich media playback on a larger screen, an iBooks shelf, and the ability to play large format games with rich interactivity.

Outside of consumer e-book readers and netbooks, the iPad is showing promise to replace custom devices in medicine and in education, two fields where tablet devices seemed to show promise but never really gained much traction.

The impact of the iPad on the plans of other manufacturers was foreshadowed by the iPhone, which entered the smartphone market at a time with everyone's offerings were dominated by mini-keyboards and small screens. Within a couple years, pundits changed their tune on how terrible the iPhone's virtual keyboard was and every manufacturer has since shifted its smartphone development to focus on large screen devices with touch interfaces in the shadow of the iPhone.