Book 'em Bezos


It’s likely that at least as many of you will read this column online as on paper. So, what’s keeping you from reading your copy of “War and Peace” or the latest bestselling crime thriller in digital format rather than in paper and ink format? Well, according to Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, you’ve been waiting for the right device to make your e-books a part of your everyday life, and he thinks the Kindle is that device.

newspaper: Amazon’s new Kindle device is made to mimic the properties of a printed page to make e-reading easier on the eyes.PHOTO COURTESY OF AMAZON.COM
Amazon’s new Kindle device is made to mimic the properties of a printed page to make e-reading easier on the eyes.

Bezos introduced the Kindle — its name apparently selected to convey both a sense of exciting innovation and the “kindling” of knowledge — last week in a splashy front-page cover story in Newsweek magazine, and immediately set of debate in the tech and publishing industries as to whether the time is ripe for the device, or e-books in general.

Bezos told Newsweek: “This is the most important thing we’ve ever done. It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.”

Despite the hyperbole and nearly three years of development on Amazon’s part, the Kindle is just one in the latest generation of dedicated e-book devices, utilizing a new display technology called E-Ink. Indeed, the Sony Reader, which used a first-generation E-Ink display when it was introduced in 2006, also recently had its second edition released, using a very similar display as the new Kindle.

The E-Ink experience is designed to mimic the paper book-reading experience as closely as possible. The technology uses two layers of real pigment — black and white — with a layer of clear fluid between them and the whole sandwiched between two electrodes. The electrodes control which of the two colors appears in a given location, rendering black text on an off-white background, on a surface that reportedly closely resembles the semi-glossy page of a magazine.

The E-Ink Corporation, which developed the technology and sells it to developers such as Sony and Amazon.com, says the result is a display that produces “superb contrast in both high and low lighting conditions, together with extremely low power consumption and a very thin profile.”

The power consumption of E-Ink displays has been one of the biggest breakthroughs of the technology, since they only use up power when changing the contents of the display. This means that the device can remain static, displaying a single page, for a virtually unlimited period of time — at least a week with modest use, according to Amazon, in the case of the Kindle — without draining its battery. Only when the reader moves between pages and the screen is redrawn with the new contents is power being used by the display.

That means the Kindle’s specifications call for about 30 hours of active reading before the reader needs to plug the device back in for a recharge. Of course, that battery life period does not count one of the other big developments of the Kindle: always-available Internet connectivity.

Amazon.com, with the blink-inducing device price of $399, provides free, unlimited lifetime access to a wireless connection on its own Whispernet EVDO cell-phone network through Sprint.

With that access, the Kindle can connect directly to Amazon.com’s online book store, allowing the device owner to browse available Kindle-formatted titles (88,000 total, with nearly all current bestsellers included as of its launch) and download them for roughly $10 each, directly through the device and even using Amazon’s 1-Click system for established customers. Downloads take about a minute, and the EVDO can be shut off when not in use to help preserve battery life to the full week or so they say it should last for reading alone.

Because of Whispernet, no computer is needed to download new books, though an included USB cable also allows Kindle users to download audiobooks from Audible.com that can be heard through the Kindle’s speaker or through headphones, or to download books via computer when they’re outside of Whispernet coverage areas. With EVDO turned out, the Kindle even automatically downloads subscription material.

Whispernet is, according to Amazon.com’s coverage maps, available throughout most of the country, including most of this area, with some spots of unavailability. That means that sitting on the beach and cracking open a brand new book just took on a whole new meaning.

That thought is even more workable with the Kindle and other E-Ink displays, since they aim to have a paper-like reading experience, with a wide viewing angle of 180 degrees, combined with sunlight readability, in a thin form that allows e-book devices to more closely resemble a paperback book or notepad.

E-Ink displays are even being designed in a roll-out format that could allow future cell phones, media players and other similar devices to shrink to new pocket-size form factors that could open up to much larger displays for full use, like a window shade or projection screen being pulled down. And color E-Ink displays are on the eventual horizon.
A svelte but ugly duckling?

Kindle has taken a beating in the last week over a number of its design aspects, including the black-and-white form factor. Color illustrations, photography and Web site elements simply don’t translate for those who count on color in their everyday lives. And Kindle does also provide Web site browsing — though, by most reports, it’s a frustrating experience that’s a polar opposite to the as-on-the-desktop iPhone browsing experience that so many have touted this year.

That’s another disappointing aspect for many who have looked forward to the Kindle. While the device offers the chance to download device-specific, pre-formatted versions of a number of popular Web-logs (blogs), those otherwise free (mostly ad-supported) sites also come with a subscription price: 99 cents or $1.99 each, per month.

The Kindle also provides device-specific versions of a number of popular magazines. But as of Coastal Point press time, that selection was limited to just eight magazines, though more are likely to follow in the coming months. There, also, the black-and-white form factor may pose a problem, with color and photography-heavy publications not being in their best form in Kindle format while those pushing heavy quantities of text (as well as most of the available newspaper subscriptions) will translate far better.

On the plus side, the Kindle blows away paper in terms of shrinking library sizes. The Kindle will hold about 200 titles in a device that’s lighter and thinner than a paperback book, at just 10.3 ounces, though its other dimensions are more along the lines of a large trade paperback. (Sony’s Reader comes in a full 3 ounces lighter, slightly smaller and more stylishly rounded.)

As a collector of books who never sells or gives away past reads, that shrinking of the library both delights and saddens me.

I love the aspect of being able to store away everything you’ve ever read to read again in the far-off future or over and over again without damaging a spine or dog-earing a physical page. And I love that I could carry such a huge selection of reading material with me in such a small package.

But the growth of the e-book market could spell the end of the day when most people have at least a bookshelf or two for a home library and certainly could mark the final bow of the dedicated library room still found in a few homes. Will an electronic device loaded with a potentially nearly limitless range of material prove as inspiring to readers as shelves packed with colorful spines, dust jackets and intriguing titles?

I’m also not sure what e-books mean for those who have routinely loaned favorite books to friends or given away a less-favored novel to a co-worker. I imagine that somewhere, sometime, someone is not going to read a book they otherwise would have. With recent studies noting a staggering drop in the number of people reading literature and how much they read — particularly among teenagers and young adults — and also in how well Americans read, even that tiny loss is troubling.

Time of the e-book around the corner

On the other hand, I must admit that I have personally — even well before the Kindle and Sony’s Reader — been a big proponent of e-books.

I downloaded my first e-book so long ago that I can’t actually remember when it was. It was, I believe, about five years ago, when I discovered Microsoft’s Reader software, which allows you to read e-books on both computers and mobile devices. At the time, Amazon.com was firmly behind the initiative, selling a varied — if not substantial — selection of mainstream and specialty books, along with a number of upstart online publishing houses. And I could read them on my PDA or while sitting at the computer.

To my dismay as I began exploring the world of e-books again recently, I discovered that Amazon had not only stopped selling e-books in the Microsoft Reader format but that they’d wiped out of existence what had once appeared to be a permanent repository of all the e-books everyone had ever purchased through the company. If you don’t have a backup copy of that e-book you bought on Amazon.com five years ago, it’s gone. You might be able to find it online at another store, or perhaps formatted for the Kindle, but otherwise, you’re out of luck.

That’s a lingering concern for me as this new wave of e-book reading devices comes into mainstream awareness for the first time. It has haunted Sony and continues to haunt Microsoft as publisher support for its .lit format has waned somewhat, while other formats have slowly grown into more popular use.

As with music, compatibility and interoperability of media files is vital if large-scale adoption of a technology is to become a reality. The MP3 file did that for music, though the industry continues to be divided over issues of digital rights management and device-specific formats, including most of the downloads from Apple’s iTunes store.

But e-books have yet to see their day, despite the fact that the availability of e-book devices is reaching the same lifespan as MP3 players had when digital music became mainstream. And it may just take a device along the lines of the iPod — with its simple user interface and design flair — to take e-books into the mainstream.

Kindle falls short as book and device

Is that device the Kindle? The verdict so far indicates that it’s not. That would be my verdict as well, based on what I’ve seen of the device. Why? The reasons are many.

First off, the Kindle’s beige housing and space-eating keyboard (for entering search information and notes) call to mind more a 1980’s era desktop computer than 21st century design a la Apple. Sony wins the design competition among the two devices, hands down. It’s much harder to sell a $400 device with a design aesthetic like the Kindle, and shame on Amazon for not realizing that, or at least not acting on it.

Secondly, E-Ink — while cutting edge and with the potential to eventually revolutionize most portable devices, if not all electronics — simply won’t cut it when all it can offer is the same black-and-white page that people are already starting to consider passé and boring. While Kindle’s text sizes can be adjusted for those with vision problems, I’m already hearing complaints about insufficient contrast and the lack of lighting for the display, which is about as useful in the dark as a paper book.

Young people read seven minutes a day on average, according to that National Education Association report, while they spend hours in front of the television and computer with full-color media. On that count, when color E-Ink is on the brink, I’ll look at dedicated e-book readers again.

And that’s another failing of the Kindle — it may do adequately as a reader for books and some newspapers, and even device-specific blogs, but it fails miserably at multi-tasking on a larger scale. It cannot act as a fully functional Web access device, and Amazon really wouldn’t want it to, with the company eating the cost of downloads over an EVDO network and even charging customers 10 cents a pop to download e-mail attachments of Word documents and other Kindle-accessible formats.

However, a new generation of ultra-mobile PC’s with tiny keyboards, 5- or 7-inch touchscreens and built-in wireless connectivity provides not only the full-color, backlit displays that e-book readers lack but a full Web browsing experience, games, better interactive features with e-books in many of the available software readers (auto-scrolling, highlighting, full note-taking, the ability to copy and paste passages), productivity applications, media playback and recording, and nearly limitless possibilities.

Those same features are largely also available in today’s high-tech cell phones, including my HTC-manufactured Windows Mobile device. Recognizing that, today’s e-book reader appears to be one case when a uni-tasker just isn’t the best use of a $400 device budget. I give props to Kindle and E-Ink on what most have said is a reading experience that’s easier on the eyes than a traditional backlit screen. But in tackling that challenge, they fell down on so many more.

On the other hand, Amazon has a built-in advantage in their profile with publishers. It was an advantage they could have used to promote e-books in a wide variety of formats, but they’ve chosen to use it to push sales of Kindle-formatted books and other publications. That nets them a huge range of titles available for the Kindle while it doesn’t necessarily open the market for other e-book formats, even if I hope it does help take the concept mainstream.

However, I have to say that after the initial appearance of a dry spell for e-books when they didn’t immediately take off into the mainstream a handful of years ago, it appears that publishers are finally starting to get on the e-book bandwagon in general.

A visit to the online store of eReader, which makes reader software for Windows Mobile and other operating systems, revealed to me this week a healthy supply of major bestsellers and a substantial variety of more niche genres — even more than Amazon.com once offered for Microsoft Reader. And independent writers, as well as small publishers, are realizing that e-books all but eliminate printing and storage costs for their stock, enabling them to do business on a shoestring budget but still reach a substantial number of readers.

To top it off, eReader’s “pro” version for Windows Mobile even offers the same kind of direct purchase and download service that the Kindle offers through Amazon.com, if you have Internet access for your device through cell service or WiFi connectivity. And it stores your purchases on an always-available bookshelf, secured for your use on any device in the future.

The need for immersive experience

Perhaps the biggest test of the world’s readiness for the Kindle is the simple reality of the existing book-reading experience that most of us are familiar with at this point. Can the Kindle measure up?

I’m already hearing complaints about the wait times between screen refreshes as readers move from one page to the next. I’m hearing complaints also about the time it takes to find a particular point in a book, since that requires bookmarks to be set or exiting out to a table of contents. Otherwise, moving forward or backward is a page-at-a-time experience on the Kindle.

Traditional headings and page numbers? Bizarrely absent from the Kindle. And convenient side buttons for paging have already netted complaints about accidental page turning. And why not use a touch-recognition or switching device that mimics the page turning motion that we’re all so used to? A hand sweep from one side of a device to the other should be a no-brainer for these designers as a page-turning method.

Issues like this remove the reader from what they’re reading in such a jarring way that no improvement to screen technology can really offset the problem for many, if not most, of us. Hopefully, fixes to these problems are on the horizon for what is still a relatively young type of device.

A case in point: I had a moment of brief confusion this past weekend as my mind shifted back from the television where a news story had stolen my attention to the book I’d been reading for much of the last two days. Where was that tome? Where had I dropped that bundle of paper and ink, about 500 or so pages thick? Had it slipped under the covers? Was it under my cell phone? Oh, wait a minute... It was my phone, thanks to eReader.

I had done exactly what you’re supposed to do with a book: I had lost myself among the words on the pages, lost awareness of the pages themselves, of turning them, and simply followed the absorbing trail of the story from Point A to Point B. I had not only lost awareness of the medium of the story but somewhere in my subconscious had fallen back into the long-familiar comfort of paper page and ink, even though that presence was no more real than the fiction I was reading.

That falling away of the device in favor of the story has long been hailed as the holy grail of the e-book business, and though the newest and upcoming devices are touted as major improvements in that direction, my experience seems to indicate that the long-awaited point is already here for those who are ready to go digital with their books.

I don’t think e-books are a real threat to paper books in the near future, and probably not even in the distant future. But I do believe that Kindle and near-future generations of e-book readers — both in dedicated hardware and in software on our phones, computer and media players — will increasingly find themselves at home in the pockets and beach bags of Americans.