Amazon: Forget Analysts, Kindle Still Irrelevant

| About: Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN)

Goldman Sachs analyst James Mitchell is out with a report that estimates sales of the Kindle electronic book reader from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) were between 25,000 and 50,000 in the first quarter. This is hot on the heels of another estimate of 30,000 from Citi analyst Mark Mahaney.

I certainly can’t fault Mitchell’s methodology, which backs out non-Kindle items from Amazon’s unearned revenue line to arrive at an estimate (roughly 10% of that line item) for Kindle revenue and units. Except to note that he’s made some rather broad assumptions about the other items. If so, his subtraction is suspect. Notice also that Mitchell assumes his estimates of unearned revenue for the Kindle could be higher (up to 20%), but not lower, which reveals his bias.

Citi’s Mahaney has even gone so far as to suggest 3% of Amazon’s revenue (about $750M) will come from Kindles within 2 years. Worse yet, he assumes a sales ramp roughly half of the original iPod. Frankly, he’s smoking crack.

If Eliot Spitzer hadn’t brought an end to the practice some years ago (cough, cough), I’d almost think these two were trying to drum up business for their investment banks. Instead it’s probably something much more innocent, like say pumping the stock for the traders.

Why do I think e-books are, at best, a niche item? Because end users don’t need them. Yes, it saves money for publishers and retailers; it’s unclear whether the savings that trickle down to users overcome the hassle of another $300+ device that needs to stay charged. Plus I like paper. Apparently, so do the multitudes who continue to print things out instead of reading them on a screen. (Remember the paperless society that computers were going to bring?)

Think about it: what problem is the e-book solving for consumers?

  1. Gee, if only my book was portable, I could take it with me…
  2. Pushing a button to bookmark my place is SO much easier than bending a page corner.
  3. Those nasty paper cuts.
  4. I can take my whole library with me. (Sure, I often read 10 books at a time. And I wish I could read fast enough to finish several books on a long flight.)
  5. I can download a new book whenever I need one. (Yep. And how long does that take over a pokey wireless link? EVDO isn’t everywhere. And can I read the first page while the rest is downloading?)
  6. It’s cheaper. (True, true. Unless you want to read blogs at $2/week or newspaper feeds at $15/month. That’s a lot to pay for portability.)

Kindle isn’t going to take off. Yes, there will always be technophiles and other early adopters that get one because it’s new, or somehow cool. But regardless of whether the Kindle succeeds or fizzles, the buzz-induced sales ramp will look about the same at this early a stage.

Have you seen any gadget geeks flashing a Kindle around the way they did iPods or Razrs in the early part of the adoption cycle? I sure haven’t.

But let’s assume for the moment that the analysts are right, that Kindle will ramp smartly, that reports of large orders from Chinese manufacturers are accurate, and that Amazon won’t take a bath on the units.

Let’s even go so far as to assume e-book sales are completely complementary to paper books, that Kindle entices people to read more books and doesn’t cannibalize the traditional book revenue stream. (Live dangerously, I always say.)

How does that move the needle for Amazon? Whether you think the stock is a buy or not, is 3% of revenue really going to make it a game-changer? I don’t think so. Amazon’s a visionary company, they do a lot of things right, and I wouldn’t bet completely against Jeff Bezos.

But place your money on the whole company, and don’t pay attention to the noise.

Disclosure: I hold no position in any of the stocks mentioned here.