Whither the Book? One Future of Reading

The Amazon Kindle’s Direct Internet Connection Promises to Propel E-Readers from the Margins of Geekdom to the Mainstream

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By Keith Larson, VP

For those of us who derive a paycheck from the publishing business, the headlong rush toward digitization is at once exhilarating and terrifying. The once-dominant print publishing paradigm of ink on paper is under slow, but inexorable siege, as ever-younger, screen-comfortable information consumers (and even some of us old guys) go digital.

Through websites, RSS feeds and email updates, much news consumption and other short-form reading already is done online. Indeed, magazines such as Control today are reaching a larger, far broader international audience with their content, even as print advertising business models are reinvented for a digital world.

But the book—itself a highly evolved piece of technology and the most stubbornly analog bastion of the publishing business—has escaped relatively unscathed. Until now, that is.

Over the past decade, digital readers and various e-book incarnations have made inroads on the geek margins, but Amazon’s recent introduction of the Kindle electronic reader is more than just another shot across the book’s bow. The Kindle’s direct wireless connectivity to the Internet—no host PC required—represents the functional tipping point that is poised to propel e-readers into the mainstream.

Frankly, one fun part of my job is that I simply must stay on top of emerging technologies that might impact our business. So it was that my Kindle arrived in February, having been back-ordered since its launch late last year.

At 10.3 ounces, the Kindle’s heft is comparable to a paperback book, although it has the capacity to hold some 200 books right out of the box—far more if you add an optional SD memory card. The user interface itself consists of a 600x800 pixel e-ink display, together with a Blackberry-style full-text keyboard at the bottom. Paddle-style buttons on either side of the display allow one to comfortably progress from page to page, while the visually challenged will appreciate an easily adjustable font size.

I won’t pursue a full functional critique of the user interface in this venue. Suffice it to say that it is clean, user-friendly and sufficiently transparent that the device effectively “disappears” when in use, allowing the reader to seamlessly connect with the author’s words and ideas. (Isn’t this, after all, the key value proposition of a book relative to most screen-based alternatives?)

But it’s not the user interface that represents a fundamental advance over existing e-reader. The Kindle’s built-in wireless connection (using Sprint’s wireless phone network) is the real game-changer. Because the Kindle has no installation CD-ROMs or drivers for users to futz with, it greets current Amazon.com users like an old friend right out of the box.

Any of its e-book recommendations can be directly downloaded with a single click and charged to your current Amazon.com account. My purchases showed up in mere seconds, and at $9.99 for current New York Times best sellers, prices represent a significant discount from hardback. Older classics are available for as little as a buck or two, and you can even subscribe to several popular magazines, newspapers and blogs—all of which are automatically downloaded wirelessly so the latest edition is always at hand. Run into a strange word? You can easily access the onboard dictionary or wirelessly connect to the relevant Wikipedia entry. You can even email your own reference documents for conversion, and they magically appear on your Kindle.

Compared with the millions of printed tomes published each year, the Kindle’s current library of 60,000 titles and smattering of newspapers, magazines (not Control just yet!) and blogs does represent a significant bottleneck to wider acceptance. But Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t become a billionaire by thinking small. “The vision is that you should be able to get any book,” he told Newsweek in a recent article, “not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print—on the Kindle, in less than a minute.” Just keep that battery charged. 

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