29 November 2007

Book to the future

    "Do you ever read any of the books you burn?"
    He laughed. "That’s against the law!"
      Fahrenheit 451
      by Ray Bradbury

It occurs to me just now that Kindle is a pretty ironic name. You normally don't want to evoke fire imagery when dealing with books. Nonetheless, that's what Amazon.com is calling its new electronic book reader. Maybe somewhere deep in their product design offices, someone really does see the death of paper books.

Last week I read Newsweek's article on the Kindle, and I've been trading long argumentative comments with Rob on his post about the Kindle. You should read his post, but I'll go so far as to say he thinks the Kindle is not the right product for reading books electronically. I'm not certain that it is the device, but I think it's a lot closer to the mark than Rob. I find the whole prospect interesting on several levels.

First, I think the E-ink or digital ink technology is really cool. It's very efficient, requires no back lighting, and once the image is rendered, it no longer needs power. That last feature is particularly intriguing. Currently graphics processors everywhere spend countless cycles painting and repainting a screen thousands of times each second. A digital ink display opens whole new windows of possibility.

Second, I like the some of the ideas brought forth in the Newsweek article about the paradigm shift that can occur with eBooks (regardless of what device they're on). Possibilities like the automatic distribution of corrections and additions is cool. Imagine a new appendix suddenly appearing in your book. Also, books are never truly out of print. Bits take up a lot less space than books in a warehouse. I also imagine stuff like the newspaper you see in Minority Report, the one that changes on the fly with breaking news.

Finally, it will be interesting to watch the continuing evolution of our everyday electronic devices. I remember when a phone was not a ubiquitous handheld device. I remember when a personal music player held one and only one album at a time. I remember when calling up satellite imagery in the palm of my hand in the middle of New Hampshire was the stuff of science fiction. I wonder if I can even imagine what will be commonplace to my children.

Anyway, I'm interested in what other people think of this latest attempt to digitize one of the last mechanical mediums left....


Rob said...

And now we can go back and forth on your blog! ;-)

I think the device is flawed because it doesn't solve the problem in the right way. All of the things you say about the Kindle as advantages can be done with existing devices except for the e-ink. I can read the NY Times on my Razr right now and have updates appear almost instantly. Why couldn't I be reading any book Amazon offers as well? The article talks about the paradigm shift of e-books - yet we've been able to read e-books for almost 10 years. I've read many books on my trusty ole Palm IIIXE, even going so far as to download the last three Harry Potter books to do so - because it was so much more convenient to read them there and carry around the Palm then the actual big bulky book. I don't need to be sold on the e-book thing - but the Kindle is not the answer.

In your last comment to me you talked about the article I mentioned and the iPod. The thing is - the iPod, or any portable music player - solved the problem of carrying around hundreds, maybe thousands of CDs, and the paradigm shift of listening to music in a portable fashion had already occurred with the Walkman. It just improved upon the idea by being a better solution.

The paradigm shift of reading books on a mobile device hasn't really occurred much yet - and we're only part of the way there with newspapers and magazines. Mobile communication devices provide a much bigger gateway then a device like the Kindle, and that's my ultimate point. I don't think it's about the device - e ink or not - it's about the delivery mechanism and the "always available" nature.


Andrew said...

First off, let me suggest that the walkman didn't make music portable, the cassette tape did*. That format made albums small enough to transport and use in mobile players like the walkman, but also in boomboxes and car steroes. The corresponding technological advance in books has likewise occurred. The advent of cheap paperbacks made books portable. That paradigm shift already happened.

The iPod, then, represents a second shift I'll call the "one to all" shift. Where once took some of your music with you, now you take all of it. For this shift to occur with books, we need two things. As you say, a delivery mechanism is key. However, there needs to be a device that most people will be comfortable with.

Broad acceptance of the device is why I place so much stock in the display. I think you underestimate its importance. You're right: people can get instant updates, up-to-the-minute news, etc. on existing phones and PDAs. So why aren't more people reading eBooks on them? It's not delivery. For most people, the screens are too small for long term reading. Let's face it: who really wants to read War and Peace on a Razr? Phones and PDAs are great for short-form text like e-mail, news, and sports scores, but they are ill-suited for long-form, when you're reading for hours.

For that you need a display more like the printed page. It needs to be larger, high resolution, and visible in direct light. This is exactly what the Kindle offers with its 6" diagonal screen. It's not the first; Sony introduced a comparable device last year. So what distinguishes the Kindle?

To begin with, there's the always-availble aspect (which you also noted as key). The Kindle is on the EVDO network, so it is online as much as any mobile device. You can get up to date news, subscribe to RSS feeds, etc., etc. And you can buy books anywhere - no sync required.

That's delivery. You stress the importance of delivery, and rightly so. Well, the Kindle simplifies the purchase process like no device before it. And let's consider who you're buying from: Amazon.com. (Or maybe I should say, "Frickin' Amazon, dude!") You cannot deny they are a serious force. They pioneered online sales and distribution and proved skeptics wrong many times.

At any rate they enter this market with way more than Apple had when it launced iTunes, and look what happenned there.

* CDs were an important advance in quality, but made little difference in portability.