Kindling Desire

Will the Amazon Device Herald a Reading Revolution?

By Dan Friedman

Published May 17, 2009.
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The only meaning listed in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun “kindle” is: “The young (of any animal), a young one.” And, despite Amazon’s best efforts, it’s still much easier to find out that information on my phone or my PC than it is on their own Kindle.

For those who haven’t yet been privy to the object, the hype or the ads, the upper case “k” Kindle is the purported future of electronic book reading: the iPod of literature. Originally just a compact eight inches by six inches, it now comes in a DX format, intended for newspaper reading, which is 10 inches by seven inches. But, like its lower case homonym the existing Kindle family is still “a young one.”

The iPod comparison is exactly intended and, learning from Apple’s success, Amazon has tried to fetishize the product with a number of flourishes (for example the screensavers are elaborate classical pictures of great writers) and accessories (protective gel sleeves, leather jackets, clip-on lights). But, despite many aesthetically pleasing features (more on those later), the similarity is not the product but the revolution it hopes to herald.

For years now students, academics, and writers have been exchanging, reading and manipulating text quickly, easily and for free over email. During that time publishers have watched Google digitally copy millions of books and noted that Project Gutenberg and a number of other smaller projects are providing out-of-copyright book texts online for free while wondering what would happen to them. Record labels fiddled as their businesses burned, TV networks and film studios are trying to close barn doors on the last lame colts, so is Kindle the book response?

Yes, and no.

Amazon, like Apple, is a distribution system selling a distribution device but the pre-existing competition is different in quality and much stiffer. The iPod replaced shelves of music discs and also the music player for people who wanted to listen to lots of different types of music in a single day when they were on the move. The size and ease differential was vast: a Shuffle instead of an entire shelf unit. A Kindle is only marginally easier to carry than a paperback and a newspaper, because who reads 40 different books for four minutes each in a day?

If someone is going to read multiple pieces of text in a day, she is going to read them on a cell phone (Blackberry, iPhone, Google Phone or even, gasp, an older type of handset!). And therein lies the other problem with the physical Kindles: There are already a number of electronic competitors on the market. IPhones have an application that allows you to read anything available on Kindle, laptops and notebooks are getting smaller and more reader-friendly. Even desktops have software that allows you to read, or be read to using speech software, in the comfort of your own room.

Using pre-existing objects is cheaper but there is a loss of quality. The engineers have done a good job with aspects of the Kindle reader. The screen embodies a beautiful solution to the problem of either dark screens or screen glare. It works differently from all other products on the market and the difference is notable. The Kindle is light, thin and sturdy; it achieves its aim of being easier to carry than all but the thinnest book but without seeming as flimsy as a Dover Edition of a similar size.

For getting hold of the texts, it hooks simply up to whatever WiFi it finds, or downloads through a USB cable and, for a small cost (one that will surely be waived soon), you can send your own documents wirelessly to yourself; so when people wonder whether you are reading Shakespeare or Faulkner on the subway you might, actually be reading your grocery list. The font it uses is specially designed to be pleasing to the eye and works equally well for books, documents or newspapers that are easier to read on the DX but still readable on the 2.0.

But the font is fixed and that’s emblematic of an operating system that is still in its infancy. There is no mouse, trackpad, clickwheel, or scrollball to take you through the options, just a clunky clicker. The “next page” and “last page” buttons are innovative, intuitive and clear, but the rest of the system is difficult to grasp and work.

On a physical engineering front, the ratio of footprint to screen is far larger than is acceptable. The Kindle is book-size but the screen is smaller than any book I’d ever read. Keys that are fiddly and rarely used still take up a chunk of real estate on the front of the Kindle where the screen could expand. There’s no color, which is, as far as I am concerned, an acceptable sacrifice, but that puts it on a par with those older phone handsets in terms of glimpsed screen appearance.

The Kindle is still emerging technology. It will not replace all books ever, but it will replace more and more reading devices as it goes along. At the moment it costs too much ($359) and the books are still too expensive for a device that is patently immature. But it is the future of a specialized niche. Desire has been kindled, demand is growing, satisfied consumption still awaits.


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