Will Amazon.com's Kindle Spark the Future of Reading?

Posted by: Rob Hof on November 19, 2007

I’m as interested as the next gadget watcher to see if Amazon can fulfill the sweeping promise Newsweek outlines for its Kindle e-book reader, coming out Monday. (BusinessWeek wrote about it a couple months ago. TechCrunch and Engadget liveblogged the New York event.) But like Rex Hammock, who articulates his uncertainties better than I did in a post that a computer crash just wiped out, I’m going to have to reserve judgment until I try it out myself. And at $399, I’m not sure how soon that’s going to be. Meanwhile, as Rex notes, Google and Apple could easily play here if they’re so inclined. Stretch out an iPhone Touch and you’ve got a very nice-looking e-book reader. (However, my colleague Steve Wildstrom, whose review is posted now, notes that E-Ink screens are much better for this purpose because they’re more readable and use far less power than conventional screens—because who wants their book to run out of power in the middle of a chapter?)

I like the idea of something relatively light device (relative to a laptop, say) that is eminently readable and can hold many books at once. Plus, the idea of an Internet-connected reader has interesting possibilities, such as the always-on, interactive book. I still wonder if a 10.5-ounce reader is light enough for how most people like to read books. I’m doubtful that I’m going to hold that sucker up over my head lying in bed, though a hardback, at least, is probably comparable in weight and more awkward to hold open. Plus, oddly enough, books’ disposability can be an advantage, for example, on a trip, when a book suddenly can become weightless when left in an airport lounge.

I’ve gotta think Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has much more in mind than an e-book reader. I’m all the more certain of this given the quote attributed to him in Newsweek, in which he calls the Kindle “the most important thing we’ve done.” I’ve known Jeff for years, and he never says anything lightly, and certainly never so over-the-top.

There’s a clue in his assertion that the Kindle is more of a service than a product. I can see it hosting subscriptions of many kinds—not just books but music and video eventually—which would be a considerable boost to its retail business model. (Analyst Scott Devitt of Stifel Nicolaus comes to the same conclusion in a report Monday morning.) Bezos’ ultimate vision of a device on which you could get any book—especially out-of-print books—on the device in less than a minute is also more compelling than you might imagine, as Cynthia Brumfield at IP Democracy explains, though it appears that you won’t have nearly that broad access to Amazon’s book offerings at the outset.

You can also imagine communities of interest—otherwise known as social networks—developing around such an interactive service, and there are 15 billion reasons why that’s a worthwhile direction for Amazon to consider.

So the Kindle bears close watching, and perhaps only incidentally because you can read a book on it.

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Reader Comments

Dane

November 19, 2007 03:28 PM

Agreed! I think "comfort" and "usefulness" are going to determine how well-accepted e-book readers are going to eventually be, and of course, price, which for this genre of electronics is still unreasonably high.

I think it’s all about form factor, and the standard size and shape of the traditional book is pleasing. The book evolved to its present shape and form because it works well with the size of our hands, has a page width our brains comfortably scan, and a range of text size that suits our eyes when the book is comfortably readable in a resting-armed position, etc. On the other hand, books have some serious drawbacks that have always bothered me, ever since I was a kid. You have to wrestle them to keep them open, sometimes cramping your thumbs...or you have to practically break the binding of them to get them to lay fairly flat in your hands so you can read all the way to the inside of a page. They age, yellow, get musty, store poorly, take up amazing amounts of space if you have a lot of them, and weigh a ton if you have to tote them around. Their covers wear, their bindings fail, and their pages wrinkle. You can stop to scratch your nose, accidentally close your book, and lose your place. Some books are printed with squintingly-small text, which gets annoying as you hit your middle-ages. Books also have the unfortunate quality of being fairly linear and difficult to search. How many times have I read something in a book and later wanted to refer to it, or tell someone about it, and spent ages trying to find the passage again.

I think the form factor and features of Kindle and some of the other book readers that have come out of late seems just about right. I can imagine snuggling up in a chair and reading from one, just like I would a book. It’s the right physical dimensions and page size (I have difficulty picturing myself curling up with a nice PDA), can adjust its text to my eyesight, holds a whole library of books in a 10 ounce package, is just as clear to view outdoors on the patio as it is in the den, will undoubtedly remember what page I’m on if I get distracted, will let me mark my place without having to use a comb or whatever’s within reach, and will let me skip around in it rapidly, leaping to chapters rather than flipping and thumbing a lot..

While I haven’t learned all the features of Kindle yet, I have to assume that if it can search Wikipedia, it may also be able to search its own contents, meaning the reader should be able to rapidly find something he/she read earlier. That’s a real plus.

To me, the larger issue isn’t whether this type of device is valuable; it is to me, definitely. I’ve wanted a paper book substitute for a long time. It’s whether Kindle is the right one. Amazon is playing Apple here. It wants to lock readers into a format and force them to buy their books and publications through them. They’re so protective of their book reading format that you can’t even read a PDF unless you first submit it to them for proprietary conversion to Kindle format. If I’m going to spend that sort of money on an e-book reader, I want it to be universally useful. There’s something a little insulting to be about being told, we’re going to sell you this at a premium price, and then charge you for the privilege of only being able to get your content for it by purchasing it from us.

doog

November 19, 2007 04:50 PM

I still say a high priced hardware device (sorry, Amazon, but $400 is too dear) just will not cut it.

The majority of book readers (those of us who are left; unlike music, this seems to be a smaller market segment every year) will read most books a total of once. Having a device that can carry my whole library of music, like an iPod, is useful to me; the songs take little time to listen to, I do not need to direct my complete attention to the device, and most of my library I actually do want to listen to more than once. I can take my personal music collection on CD and rip them to my iPod with very little difficulty.

An e-book reader gives me something that will take hours, if not days, to complete while needing my complete attention. I cannot take my personal library of books and easily prepare them to take on the road with me on the reader. And, even if I did, I only want to read most of my material once anyway.

Anybody who thinks that e-book readers and iPods are comparable markets with comparable pricing demands is simply not seeing market realities.

Wake me up when the hardware costs no more than the price of, say, an iPod Shuffle, I can get titles at a nominal cost, and I can somehow get e-copies of titles I already own on paper at a very nominal cost.

Brandon W

November 20, 2007 09:02 AM

"e-books" strike me as a gadget nobody really wants. Some things make beautiful sense to engineers but simply don't work the way people WANT to work. I think the e-book is one such case. Especially at $400.

Reader.Learner

November 20, 2007 11:28 AM

70% of what I read is non-fiction. Much of this is material I wish to integrate mentally. The books which I find intensely stimulating end up with much of their empty white space, (margins, front pages, etc.) being completely filled with my own notes and ideas, and frequent underlining or highlighting of passages, and an indexing system of my own between different references in the book. I want these ideas & notes to remain with the book for future reference. Unless this can be part of my reading experience, I would not be interested in e-books.

Nathaniel CJE Culver

November 22, 2007 05:58 PM

While I understand the business model Amazon is trying to create -- Bezos says the Kindle is more a content-delivery system than a product -- it's not a model I'm interested in, especially if it's going to cost me $400 just to join up.

1) The Kindle is restricted to proprietary commercial content available only through Amazon.com. The Project Gutenberg DVD I just downloaded -- with more than 19,000 public domain ebooks -- can't be read on the Kindle.

2) DRM shackles. EBooks I buy from Amazon can't be loaned or resold -- or even backed up on my own PC (Amazon stores them on its servers in the even of data loss). DRM places burdensome restrictions on what I can do with my own stuff.

3) Long-term viability. This really goes to the issue of ebooks in general. Any physical book I buy can sit on my bookshelf for ten years and remain just as accessible as the day I bought it -- and I won't even have to change the batteries. As big a fan of technology as I am, I invest in books for the long haul, and I'm not sure my Project Gutenberg DVD will still be readable in 5 years.

4) The whol EVDO/Sprint thing means Kindle content is only available in the US. Kinda leaves out the rest of us.

No, the Kindle won't revolutionize the book. Won't even make a dent.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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