The Silent Revolution Posted by: Dale Franks
on Friday, May 23, 2008
Chances are that you don't know it, but the world of publishing and news/content delivery has changed, and the future is upon us. The reason you probably don't know it is that, unless you're part of the rather small and insular world of e-book readers, you haven't heard about the change yet. Or, if you have, you've dismissed it as a matter of interest only to the e-book geeks.
Last fall, Amazon.com released their new book reader, the Kindle. At first glance, it's not all that impressive a device. It has a nice screen, coutesy of the e-ink technology that makes the screen display look very paper-like. And the e-ink screen uses no power, except for when you "turn" the page, giving you literally days of reading before you have to recharge the device. But it's a only a first-generation, 4-color grayscale screen, not the second-gen 16-color screen that's been available for several months now. And it looks klunky and clumsy. It's a bad industrial design, and not very ergonomic. With all the sharp corners and edges, it looks like something from the 1970s.
As a book reader goes, it's uglier, klunkier, larger, and heavier than the competing Sony product, which has been out for a few years now (and which I happen to own).
What makes the Kindle such a revolutionary device is that, unlike any other book reader, it interacts with the rest of the world.
Inside that mod-squad-era box, Amazon has stuck a "Whispernet" EVDO cell phone data modem that uses Sprint's EVDO network. That means that, practically anywhere you have cell phone coverage, you can use the kindle, go to Amazon, buy a book, and have it downloaded directly to your Kindle. There are no cell charges or bandwidth charges associated with this. Although Amazon is considering charging bandwidth fees from using the Kindle as a regular web browser, their commitment is to keep the core kindle functions free from such charges. This EVDO modem means that you don't have to search for Wi-fi hotspots, and aren't restricted to using it at home or at Starbucks to get new content.
You can subscribe to several major newspapers, magazines, and hundreds blogs for a nominal fee. For instance, you can subscribe to the Washington Post, or New York Times, or Atlantic Monthly, and the electronic version of the each new edition is automatically downloaded to your kindle, anywhere you are.
When you're reading the book or newspaper, if you run across a word you don't know, the Kindle will retrieve the meaning of the word via its onboard dictionary. Similarly, the Kindle will, if asked, grab appropriate Wikipedia entries for people or other text you select from the text. You can also create bookmarks and annotate text with the small integral "qwerty" keyboard
In addition, when you buy a Kindle, you get an email address for that Kindle. This allows you to email word documents, etc. to your Kindle, and Amazon will automatically convert the document to the Kindle format, and download it to your Kindle when the conversion is complete.
And you aren't confined to being a content consumer. You can be a content producer as well. Amazon is allowing practically anybody to upload their writing, in Word format, or whatever, to Amazon for sale as a Kindle E-Book. You get to pick your own retail price, and Amazon guarantees you 35% of the retail price for every copy you sell.
Whether the Kindle—which seems to be selling much better than Amazon expected when they released it in November—is successful or not for Amazon, specifically, the implications of this device are enormous.
It is a working proof of concept device that allows ubiquitous access to the internet, obtains content instantly and wirelessly, and fits in a pocket. For the moment, Amazon is the only company that has a device like this, which means that every content provider has to go through the Amazon gateway. But it's only a matter of time—especially if Amazon's success with the Kindle continues—for someone to get together with, say, Verizon and Motorola to produce a similar device with more open standards, access to a greater variety of file types, and a cheaper price.
The Kindle, at $399, is still a bit pricey, although I suspect a good portion of that price covers EVDO bandwidth usage up front. After all, many people will front-load their initial usage of the device.
One thing this does is go to the heart of the major difficulty content providers, especially newspaper organizations, have had over the last few years. They've faced declining readership, increasing transportation, printing, and materials costs.
The Kindle points to the real possibility of a move to electronic, rather than physical delivery of content. Moreover, it removes the biggest bar to electronic delivery that has existed so far: the need to have a computer to receive the content. Most people don't have laptops, so they can't receive content on the go, and aren't extremely interested in subscribing to electronic content that requires them to sit at their computer to access it. And, even for people who do have laptops, like me, it's a bit of a pain to lug a laptop around everywhere, just to read a book or a magazine, and the battery is only good for a couple of hours, anyway.
With the Kindle and its successors, whatever they might be, you now have a device that is small; lightweight, and easily portable; has a paper-like, easily readable display; has extremely long battery life; and has the ability to access the user's content from practically anywhere at any time. It combines convenience, portability, and access to content in a way no device has ever done before.
Right now, there's only the Kindle, and only e-book geeks really know much about it. But this is a quietly revolutionary device, and one the points the way towards ubiquitous and convenient access to content in a way that has never existed before.
Looking it over in the link, I think I know part of the explanation for the clunky shape. To make it ergonomic for stacking with other books (and notepads, etc) which are all square themselves. In fact the buttons are on a sloped section that it appears would make it less likely a book placed on top of the Kindle would contact the buttons.
Most modern electronics get their styling from some degree of rounding the edges. That makes them stack and carry less easily in a stack of books by hand. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are hoping it catches on in academic or library settings.
I have no doubt this is the wave of the future, but there are folk like me who like actually physically owning their books. My books are my friends, I can go back anytime and reread them, I can admire the cover art, if any. I can lend them out. They fill many huge bookcases that would just have to be an ugly wall.
I will stick to having real books.
I could see myself getting a much later generation of this device if it becomes a whisper thin web browser/mp player/crackberry type device.