11.23.2007 | Fired up about Amazon's Kindle

Poster child: Bezos' new toy
Leave it to Newsweek to try to get out in front of a technology trend. But this time they may have gone too far.

It began innocently enough — without notice or a buildup of anticipation that normally accompanies the introduction of such gadgets, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a new eBook reader at an Apple-like special event Monday. What followed was predictable — gadget sites online got their hands on one ASAP to give their take on the device. The verdict? A great leap forward, but not the be-all end-all of eBook readers. (Sony, after all, has had theirs out for a while now; Microsoft took a crack at it with their Reader software nearly a decade ago).

So I walk into a drugstore today, and see this on the cover of Newsweek: "Five centuries after Gutenberg—" stop right there. If anything should be compared to the invention of the printing press, it's the digital word, a phenomenon that goes way beyond any one device. The hyperbole left me wondering whether Newsweek was incapable of making a good analogy at best, or allowing themselves to be used as a free advertisement at worst (c|net's Amy Tiemann "had to check twice to make sure the article wasn't a paid product placement").

I can't be sure how the Kindle will fare, but my guess is that it will remain a niche product for the following reasons:

  • One screen is not enough. You read a book two pages at a time; an electronic reader should have two screens (or at least a wide screen that folds in the middle) with opposing faces.

  • It should be familiar. Open the cover of a Kindle, and it doesn't feel like a book. It feels like a PDA. People like the way the weight of a book feels in their hands. They like to take the book in their hands and flip through the pages. Until a reader mimics these existing ways of interacting with the medium, I don't think it will have mass appeal.

  • Ditch the keyboard. Like Apple's brilliant stroke with the iPhone did to the smartphone, an e-reader should not have a keyboard that distracts you when you're trying to focus on reading the screen. It should just be you and the words. Even Bezos said he wanted the Kindle "to disappear in your hands — to get out of the way — so you can enjoy your reading." It's hard to do that with a keyboard staring back at you at the bottom — and what about accidental taps? Like the iPhone, fixing this will require a touchscreen replacement (all the better to simulate flipping pages with?) — Apple's approach in a recent patent filing is one way.

The X factor in all this is Apple's response. The Kindle's launch has inspired comparisons to the iPod, and reviewers have mentioned the iPod and iPhone's potential to be used as an eReading display. I, for one, wouldn't mind using a click wheel to scroll down a chapter of text after selecting it from a playlist-like selection menu (are you listening, Apple?).

Whatever the case, the Kindle did get two things right: wireless downloads wherever you are, and page-turn buttons that don't leave you feeling all thumbs. Is that enough to spend $400 on a device that looks like it would have been at home next to a 1980s PC? Time will tell. But at least for now, it seems the reports of the book's death at the hands of the Kindle are greatly exaggerated.

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