Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Kindle

As always, I'm a touch behind. I'm sure that I won't be the first place that you read about Amazon's new e-book reader, Kindle. Most of the blogs I read have already chimed in. Short-Schrift is thoughtful and insightful as usual, and there's a robust conversation going on at Snarkmarket.

(As a supplement to Short-Schrift's list of links, let me add Farhad Manjoo on Salon and an update on the NYT's Bits blog.)

The first paragraph of Steven Levy's article in Newsweek echoes the argument that I tried to advance in response to the Sony Reader:

"Technology," computer pioneer Alan Kay once said, "is anything that was invented after you were born." So it's not surprising, when making mental lists of the most whiz-bangy technological creations in our lives, that we may overlook an object that is superbly designed, wickedly functional, infinitely useful and beloved more passionately than any gadget in a Best Buy: the book. It is a more reliable storage device than a hard disk drive, and it sports a killer user interface. (No instruction manual or "For Dummies" guide needed.) And, it is instant-on and requires no batteries. Many people think it is so perfect an invention that it can't be improved upon, and react with indignation at any implication to the contrary.

It may not come as a surprise that since I've entered the e-book business, I've softened my hard line stance against e-readers a bit. A bit. Still, Kindle is expensive. At $399 for the hardware, and $10 per title (for frontlist titles, many backlist titles appear to be available between $1 and $2), you have to buy 27 frontlist books to justify the purchase price of a Kindle, and if you're a mass market paperback reader, you don't catch up until the 67th book. In either case, I'd like to suggest that's two to three years worth of reading, at which time a new, cheaper, better Kindle will likely be available.

Most electronic gadgets overcome this early-adapter penalty through a certain coolness factor, and while the Kindle aims in that direction, I don't think it's there yet. A text search function like Kindle's certainly has the potential to make up for the inability to place my own markers in the text, but there's something strangely authoritarian about the way that the Kindle deals with text formatting and display.

I was really excited when I stumbled across the Digital Text Platform at Amazon—a setup for writers to make their own work available for sale as e-books. If you buy the argument that the Kindle's real innovation isn't the device itself, it's the wireless delivery system (and I do buy that argument—the Kindle as a whole is an improvement over the Sony Reader, but considering the additional time they've had for development it's a disappointment that the e-paper itself is basically the same), then opening up access to the e-book format and a listing on Amazon to individual authors and indie publishers would be the single biggest push that a Book 2.0 format could get. Amazingly, however, Kindle seems to be using HTML as its basic delivery language. (Check out the formatting quickstart guide here, and the all-but-condescending tone of the formatting FAQ here, or the blink-and-you'll-miss-it mention in Levy's article that Kindle only supports one font.)

At first blush, something like the Kindle would seem to be the perfect delivery system for Revelator's titles, which, while beautiful as PDFs, are not entirely at home either on a computer screen or on an 8.5 x 11" piece of paper. We could probably even make the prose work, but the poetry would be a problem. Resizable text in Kindle is great, but it requires that the text be wrappable, which means giving up control of the line. PDFs may be clunky, but until e-paper catches up with the PDF's ability to play with font, line, and color, I don't think that an e-book reader will really be able to place itself as a killer app, especially since, as Short-Scrift points out, the iPhone and tablet PCs are already converging on what I think the ideal e-book reader would look like.

Addendum, 3:56p.m. I had meant in my original post to comment on the name Amazon's chosen for their e-book reader. Amazon claims that that the Kindle was "named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge," but I can't help but pick up Fahrenheit 451 overtones. I'm not trying to says that Jeff Bezos is the kind of guy who would burn the Library of Alexandria. (Levy's article actually makes him out to be something of a bibliophile.) I do think, however, that the choice of name for the device is not only awkward, but unfortunate.

Update, 11/28 Salon's Farhad Manjoo discusses the Kindle in depth. His math is a bit different than mine, but he still thinks that the Kindle is way too expensive.

No comments: