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Kindle - The Future of Ink, part 2

Michael H. Suo's picture

A year ago in my first post, The Future of Ink, I explored e-ink technology and the e-book concept when the potential was still largely unseen. But since then, the industry has completely transformed, and the prospect of the e-book is beginning to be realized.

When I last wrote, a few companies were messing around with e-ink technology but only two had actual products in the works. One was the iRex Illiad, and the other was the Sony PRS-500. I commented on the initial reaction, which seemed to be . . . tentative. A year later, where are we?

Well first off, I have a PRS-500. I was somewhat of an early adopter, but my impression was the same as I thought it would be: the PRS-500 is an incredible piece of hardware, but the software--the content distribution--was severely lacking. Personally, I loved it: for over a year now it's never been far out of reach. The device felt well-made and the industrial design was right on. However, the Sony Connect software was slow and bloated, and the digital bookstore had a tiny selection. This wasn't a problem for me, since I already had a large collection of e-books, but I can see how a small selection would be off-putting to the mainstream consumer. 

Sony--having spent a relatively high amount on marketing for such a niche product--experienced "more sales than expected", although they decline to release actual figures. The Illiad, on the other hand, was a flop, many considering it to be overpriced and under-developed. However, both companies now have a new generation of e-ink-based products: Sony has released a slicker, faster PRS-505, and iRex has announced a more user-friendly Illiad Second Edition.

Others have entered the e-ink space as well, with the Cybook, the Hanlin eBook, and the STAReBOOK. However, none of these products have really broken into the mainstream; they remain novelty gizmos that only a few power geeks (like me!) would even consider buying.

I haven't mentioned the new titan entering the e-ink arena, but some of you may have already heard of the product. Amazon, the largest book retailer in the world, recently announced the Kindle in a media extravaganza, with a cover story in Newsweek and a huge launch party reminiscent of the keynote speeches given by Steve Jobs. The buzz has been enormous ever since a picture of an early prototype Kindle was leaked over a year ago.

It's obvious that Amazon put a lot of thought into the product. The selection--easily the most impressive part of the whole package--is good even by bookstore standards, with around 91,000 titles, and almost all of the current New York Times bestsellers. In addition, Amazon added wireless connectivity, which the PRS-500 was sorely lacking in. However, instead of using Wi-Fi, which would require a hotspot somewhere in the area, the Kindle uses an EV-DO cellular connection built on top of Sprint's high-speed network called the Amazon whispernet. This is the feature that distinguishes the Kindle from the competition; the Wi-Fi that some other readers use pretty much only works inside the house and office.

It makes sense that Amazon would include EV-DO, since it pushes their biggest advantage: Amazon is huge. EV-DO subscriptions run around $60 a month, but Amazon opted to pay for that themselves, something other companies could never do. The wireless connectivity allows for two key things: web browsing and the purchasing of books. Web browsing, while slow on an e-ink screen, is a huge plus, as is the purchasing of books without a computer.

However, there are still problems that will need to be addressed. Those of you who clicked on the product page for the Kindle may have noticed the mediocre average review score: 2.5 out of 5. Unsurprisingly, most of the low review scores are random spewings from people who just saw the product and didn't like the idea of it, and decided to give it a 1 out of 5 to gain some sort of satisfaction. However, a few of the reviews, especially an independent one from MobileRead, hit a few key things to worry about.

The first is the price: $400. For someone who reads maybe ten books in a year, there's absolutely no reason to pay so much for something they won't use that often. This is probably the single biggest impediment for Amazon to overcome before it hits the mainstream, but currently the cost of e-ink technology and the free wireless drives costs too far up. One could argue that cheaper books make up for the high price, but although it's true you save around $15 on new releases, used paperbacks can go for one or two dollars, a price that e-books currently don't match. The only kind of person who can justify that cost is one who reads a lot of books, all the time.

The second problem is that the Kindle is a monopoly for Amazon: you buy both the e-books and the product from them. This could potentially put consumers at the Amazon's mercy, and although no one else sells e-books with any success yet, the landscape could change, especially if the Kindle does well. Also, Kindle books that you've bought come in .AZW format, which cannot be read by anything else on the market yet. However, this is relatively common amongst e-book readers; since the industry hasn't yet matured, there aren't any standards. It's not all bad, though: the Kindle can recognize formats besides .AZW, so if you have .DOC, .TXT, or .HTML files, the Kindle will display them for you.

Another complaint is the lack of PDF support. Being an owner of the PRS-500, I can tell you that on a six-inch screen, PDFs look absolutely awful. The format was designed to preserve page formatting no matter what, but unfortunately this doesn't translate well to a smaller screen. For those who need PDF support, however, the alternative is to convert the PDF to the more e-book-reader-friendly .MOBI format.

In the Newsweek covert story, Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) called the print book "the last bastion of analog", adding "Gutenberg would still recognize a modern-day book". Bezos, who built Amazon from the ground up, believes that the Kindle is the future. And it shows; Amazon has invested massive amounts of money to build up a buzz for the product. They sacrificed prime front-page real estate for a long announcement about the Kindle, calling it "the most important thing we've ever done". They've collected dozens of wildly positive reaction blurbs from Pulitzer Prizewinners and Nobel Laureates. They've cut deals with some publishers and strong-armed others, all in an effort to make the Kindle the best e-book reader ever created.

With some calling the Kindle "the worst thing to ever happen to e-books" and others calling it "the iPod of e-books", only time will tell whether it's successful or not. Much hangs on what Amazon decides to do: will they move toward a more open enviroment, or will they strangle the Kindle with restrictions? If Amazon chooses the former path, it would only a matter of time until the death of the printed word.


Zhigang Suo's picture

The future of knowledge?

I have been using this slide in my talks on large-area electronics.  The slide is not about future; it is about the present.  On the left are books, magazines, newspapers, maps, etc., the technologies that we have been using for centuries to distribute and display knowledge.  These technologies have been with us for so long that we almost forget that they are just displays, rather than knowledge itself. 

On the right is a LCD, a display technology so pervasive today that we tend to forget that they are in the mass market only for about 10 years.

We live in an exciting time.  For all these centuries we had no computers.  Now we do.  In last decade or so the Internet has in effect made the whole world into a single, giant computer.  An individual person is at the same time a user of this computer and a part of this computer.

While I'm trying to extrapolate from what I see to what and how I will teach next year, Michael and his young friends are talking about the ultimate method of learning

What will be the future of display?  What will be the future of knowledge?  What should we teach? 

I  read  Kindle yesterday in local newspaper. It makes e-reading much like paper-based, what's more, it saves a lot.

Zhigang Suo's picture

The Best of Technology Writing 2007 is out.  One particular selection caught my eyes:  "Scan This Book!" by Kevin Kelly, published in the New York Times, on 14 May 2006.   The article is truly delightful and thoughtful.  Kelly is an exceptional writer and a visionary.   Another one of his articles, "We Are the Web", inspired me in early days of iMechanica.

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