When Apple Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs showed off the new iPad -- complete with built-in bookstore -- on Wednesday he praised Amazon.com Inc. for pioneering the electronic book business with its popular Kindle reading device.
But moments later, the compliment took on an ominous tone when Jobs added, "We're going to stand on their shoulders and go a little further."
At first glance, the multimedia iPad -- with its fast, colorful touch screen and built-in Web browser and video player -- would seem to outshine the slower Amazon device.
"It's like comparing Kansas and Oz," Stacey Higginbotham wrote on the GigaOm blog in a post titled "Will the iPad kill the Kindle? In a word, Yes."
But not everyone is ready to let the Kindle burn.
The Kindle "is optimized to do one thing and do it very well, and that is reading," said Jagdish Rebello, an analyst with market research firm iSuppli. "If the user is interested in buying a device for books, the Kindle is a no-brainer."
Amazon's blockbuster product didn't become the world's most popular e-reader for nothing, analysts said. It boasts a relatively long battery life, a free wireless connection to Amazon's extensive online bookstore, a screen that's supposedly easy on the eyes -- and a relatively palatable price. The Kindle costs $259, while the entry-level iPad will retail for $499.
Although Apple wouldn't comment on the price of books in its new store, some screen shots the company displayed at its introductory news conference showed prices ranging upward of $14.99, a detail Amazon pounced on.
"Kindle editions of New York Times bestsellers and most new releases are only $9.99," said Drew Herdener, spokesman for the Seattle online retailer.
It also remains to be seen whether Apple will be able to offer the range of titles its more established competitors now do. Amazon's bookstore features more than 400,000 Kindle-ready books.
To compete, Apple announced its online iBookstore, with titles supplied by Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster Inc., Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers and Macmillan.
But other major names such as Random House Inc., publisher of Dan Brown's bestselling "The Lost Symbol," were not in the mix.
Since the Kindle was launched in late 2007 its advocates, including Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, have said that to reproduce the quiet, solitary experience of reading a book, e-readers should not tempt users with a panoply of digital distractions.
The iPad, on the other hand, is by design a multimedia device, equipped with dozens of entertainment features and primed to offer thousands more in the form of add-on applications.
Critics say that's not going to help anyone get to the end of the chapter.
"If you like your kids, get them an iPad so they can play games," said Russ Wilcox, the head of E Ink Corp., which created the digital paper technology used by the Kindle and many other e-ink-based readers. "If you love them, get them an e-reader so they can actually read."
Wilcox also pointed to the iPad's weight: At 1 1/2 pounds, it's more than twice as heavy as the standard 10-ounce Kindle. "It's going to be noticeably too heavy to use for extended reading," he said.
The Kindle and other low-power e-ink readers also retain a distinct advantage in the battery department. A single charge will allow one week of continuous reading on the Kindle, while the iPad's glowing screen and powerful internal computer will deplete its battery in closer to 10 hours.
A perhaps more dubious strike against the iPad is that the light from its screen could put strain on users' eyes after prolonged periods of use. Electronic ink, which was created to mimic the visual properties of a printed page, has been praised by critics and consumers as being more eye-friendly.
But the science does not yet support the idea that backlit digital displays are bad for your eyes, said Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at UC Davis.
The idea that computer screens cause eyestrain "is more hearsay and anecdotal," he said. "I don't think the screen is any more toxic to the eye."
And, Schwab noted, whereas many people have no choice but to stare at a computer monitor for hours a day at their jobs, readers can rest their eyes at any time by putting their book down.
But even if the iPad turns out to be the "Kindle-killer" that some are predicting, Amazon has a backup plan: The online merchant, which already has a free application that lets its customers read books bought from its Kindle store on the iPhone, says it will have a version for the iPad shortly.