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We Didn’t Start the Fire

(Someday I’m going to have to stop using these cheesy titles for blog posts. But not today.)

UPDATE: Amazon’s official Kindle page. After watching the video demo, calling it ugly below was harsh, but it still looks strange. Also, this feature that I didn’t notice earlier is pretty cool besides just being an eBook reader.

  • Includes free wireless access to the planet’s most exhaustive and up-to-date encyclopedia—Wikipedia.org.

Amazon introduced a new eBook reader called Kindle. The device is portable and has a wireless connection using cellular technology that should work almost everywhere in the U.S. It’s an interesting idea and I think it’s one that will gain traction in the future. I don’t know how likely this device is to succeed, but it has some good things going for it.

Here at the vital stats:

Amazon Kindle
Price: $399
Size: 7.5-in. x 5.3-in. x 0.7-in.
Weight: 10.3 ounces
Battery: 30 hours, charges in 2 hours
Memory: Stores 200 books on internal memory, with a slot for an SD
memory card
Display: 6-in. screen, 4-level grayscale (black and white)
Supported Formats:
HTML, Word, Plain Text, MOBI
Connectivity: Built-in EVDO broadband access via Whispernet
Audio: Plays MP3s through built-in stereo speakers or headphones

The size and weight are good for portability. Having Amazon behind it bodes well for the array of books that will be available. There are about 90,000 titles available from Amazon right now, with more to come. The “E Ink” display technology is supposed to be the most readable technology for eBook readers to date. Storage capacity of 200 books seems more than adequate for carrying around. The question of whether or not it can replace/contain your entire library is something I address later. It has a built-in keyboard to allow searching within titles and basic web browsing. Battery life is good and the wireless capability seems like a really nice feature, especially if the rumors are true that there is no additional charge to use it. You can even subscribe to blogs, newspapers and magazines for a monthly fee and new content is automatically downloaded to the device.

I obviously have only web reports to go on, but here are some problems I see with this device.

  • It’s ugly and looks cheap. Something that attempts to replace the unparalleled human interface of a book is probably going to require a genius on the level of the Apple folks to make it really work. Perhaps the photos on the web don’t do it justice, but it’s got odd angles, a weird shape and cheap-looking plastic that reminds me of an old PC clone.
  • Kindle? The name is supposedly supposed to conjure images of reading a book beside a crackling fireplace, but that’s too cute by half. Another quite common association of fire with books is people burning them. Is that the idea you want in the consumer’s head?
  • Ninety-thousand titles is a lot of books, but its necessarily going to have a heavy emphasis on current and in-print titles. I don’t know for sure, but it has to be a small fraction of the number of books that have ever been printed. How long it takes to digitize older works and make them available is going to be a key development. Textbooks and other academic works will probably be among the last to be available.
  • Amazon is using a proprietary format (MOBI) developed by a company it bought a couple of years ago, instead of an open standard. That’s not necessarily a showstopper since eBooks are relatively new and the open standard isn’t dominant. But what if you wanted to read an existing eBook on Kindle? There are thousands of eBooks in the public domain that are freely distributed on the internet in a variety of formats. Translating them into text or Word doesn’t seem like a great solution. Also, how can you create a device like this that can’t display PDF documents?
  • It’s also not clear how you load new titles, other than by downloading them directly using the device. Titles can be swapped using the memory card, but if you can’t directly connect it via USB and backup/transfer titles that is a big drawback.
  • Finally, $399 is a hefty price. This is at the end of the list of CONS, because it will drop to $200 or so within a relatively short period of time. Early adopters bear the pain as usual.

I’ve never paid much attention to eBook readers and that’s probably true for most consumers. It’s good that a company with the footprint of Amazon has released something like this because it should really get the ball rolling on something that will eventually make it easy to carry your library around in a backpack.

I haven’t really addressed the issue of the attachment that readers have with physical books. Without a doubt, there is going to be a difference between the tactile feedback of the binding and the paper with something made of plastic. Saying that the display is the best yet for an eBook reader isn’t the same thing as saying its better than printed text on paper. It’s something that individuals will either choose to get used to or not, but in my opinion the benefits of portability and storage will likely win over the majority of readers. I’d sure like to try one out.

Web links:


Popular Mechanics

Instapundit – He also points out that the iPhone may have a future as a competitor. I see two main problems with that. The first is the size and screen of the iPhone not being as optimal for reading books as Kindle is supposed to be. The second is the format issue. If Amazon achieves any kind of market penetration with Kindle and the MOBI format, will Apple be willing/able to make the format available on the iPhone?


One Response

  1. Totally agree about the price, but I am glad to see that books are going to be taking a new leap soon. I don’t think we will get rid of actual books any time soon (50 years or so?), but I like that this is making it easier for people to store the E books, and encouraging reading. That is never a bad thing.

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