Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is on the cover of Newsweek this week discussing his company's new eBook effort. As usual, you have to get past Steve Levy's unnecessarily weighty prose to find out what's really going on, so let's skip all the exposition and get to heart of the matter:
"Music and video have been digital for a long time, and short-form reading has been digitized, beginning with the early Web. But long-form reading really hasn't." Yet. This week Bezos is releasing the Amazon Kindle, an electronic device that he hopes will leapfrog over previous attempts at e-readers and become the turning point in a transformation toward Book 2.0. That's shorthand for a revolution (already in progress) that will change the way readers read, writers write and publishers publish. The Kindle represents a milestone in a time of transition, when a challenged publishing industry is competing with television, Guitar Hero and time burned on the BlackBerry; literary critics are bemoaning a possible demise of print culture, and Norman Mailer's recent death underlined the dearth of novelists who cast giant shadows. On the other hand, there are vibrant pockets of book lovers on the Internet who are waiting for a chance to refurbish the dusty halls of literacy.
"If you're going to do something like this, you have to be as good as the book in a lot of respects," says Bezos. "But we also have to look for things that ordinary books can't do."
First, it must project an aura of bookishness; it should be less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture. Therefore the Kindle (named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge) has the dimensions of a paperback, with a tapering of its width that emulates the bulge toward a book's binding. It weighs but 10.3 ounces, and unlike a laptop computer [or every Apple device on earth --Paul] it does not run hot or make intrusive beeps.
A reading device must be sharp and durable, Bezos says, and with the use of E Ink, a breakthrough technology of several years ago that mimes the clarity of a printed book, the Kindle's six-inch screen posts readable pages. The battery has to last for a while, he adds, since there's nothing sadder than a book you can't read because of electile dysfunction. (The Kindle gets as many as 30 hours of reading on a charge, and recharges in two hours.) And, to soothe the anxieties of print-culture stalwarts, in sleep mode the Kindle displays retro images of ancient texts, early printing presses and beloved authors like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen.
E-book devices like the Kindle allow you to change the font size: aging baby boomers will appreciate that every book can instantly be a large-type edition. The handheld device can also hold several shelves' worth of books: 200 of them onboard, hundreds more on a memory card and a limitless amount in virtual library stacks maintained by Amazon.
Some of those features have been available on previous e-book devices, notably the Sony Reader. The Kindle's real breakthrough springs from a feature that its predecessors never offered: wireless connectivity, via a system called Whispernet. (It's based on the EVDO broadband service offered by cell-phone carriers, allowing it to work anywhere, not just Wi-Fi hotspots.) As a result, says Bezos, "This isn't a device, it's a service."
So, that's interesting. The "breakthrough" I was really hoping for was a non-ghosting screen. This, in my mind, is the biggest issue with the Sony (aside from cost): The screen looks horrible during transitions. Anyway.
The Kindle, shipping as you read this, costs $399. ... No way around it: it's pricey. But if all goes well for Amazon, several years from now we'll see revamped Kindles, equipped with color screens and other features, selling for much less.
It's an overly long article (again, it's Levy). But it's worth reading (pardon the pun), something we're apparently not doing enough of these days. I might have to get one of these things.