Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is Kindle the one?

By Joe Moore

kindle Amazon recently announced the introduction of their new Kindle e-book reader. If you visit the website and watch the promos including the impressive endorsements from James Patterson, Toni Morrison, Anita Diamant, and others, you’ll see that this is a cool device. Yes, there’ve been other e-book readers in the past, but this one has some special features that are unique. Besides the light weight, large storage capacity, and “electronic paper” display, the thing that really got my attention was its wireless capacity to download from anywhere without the use of a PC, cell phone, or any Wi-Fi hotspot connection. Wireless download from just about anywhere is included in the cost of the device. It’s also got a built-in dictionary, wireless access to Wikipedia, and other nifty features.

So is the Kindle the one? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a sure sign of things to come. Especially if a giant like Amazon gets behind it. The biggest hurtle that the Kindle and similar devices have to overcome is the technology itself. A book is probably the most ingenious storage device ever invented. Why? Because the basic format has not changed in thousands of years. And a thousand years from now, someone can pick up a book printed today and read it. There’s no guarantee that the technology supporting the Kindle will last a decade. What if batteries are suddenly no longer made to power the Kindle? What if the format is no longer efficient to archive the written word? What if a new device comes along that holds a thousand times more data at a fraction of the cost? What if it simply isn’t manufactured anymore and you still have one that needs servicing.

Remember 8-track audio cassette tapes? Betamax? 78 RPM phonograph records? VHS? Heck, it's even getting hard to find a CD anymore now that MP3 has come along. How about CRT video monitors? Anyone you know still have one now that the cost of LCD flat monitors are approaching the price of a McDonalds Happy Meal? If the device that's needed to play the media is not preserved along with the media, you're out of luck. There's no chance of that happening with books because they are their own storage device.

But before we cast judgement on e-book readers like Kindle and say they're a passing fancy that will quickly go the way of the rotary dial phone, let's revisit a few pieces of innovation from the past that didn't catch on at the beginning.

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
-- Western Union internal memo, 1876

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
-- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
-- Bill Gates, 1981

"But what... is it good for?"
-- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
-- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
-- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible."
-- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp)

"So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'"
-- Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
-- Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899


Candy Calvert said...

Timely and interesting post, Joe.
I am currently exploring the process of uploading DRESSED TO KEEL to Kindle. Since it has sold out and will not be reprinted, this seems like a unique opportunity to make it available to new fans of the Darcy Cavanaugh mystery series.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to sound like a Luddite, but I get the feeling that this thing is just technology for technology's sake.

What does the Kindle provide that a book doesn't? It's meant to mimic a book, so why not just hold a book in your hand? It's not as convenient as a book (batteries, fragility). I don't suppose you can make notes in the margin or underline passages, can you? Libraries are everywhere and you can get books at the local convenience store.

I suspect the real purpose of the Kindle is to be in place for a shift in the delivery system for reading material. As you noted, music is downloaded. Movies will be almost exclusively downloaded soon. Newspapers and magazines. So books will likely be next. The Kindle isn't the end, it's the means.

Paul Lamb

Mark Terry said...

I would also include that Bill Gates tried to sell his original operating system to IBM and they turned him down, so he formed Microsoft.

Anyway, I'm inclined to agree with Paul here. I'm interested in the Kindle (although aesthetically, it sucks) primarily because of that wireless download. Although I think the electronic ink look is a step in the right direction, I would really want one to be backlit so I could read it in a dark room (or an airplane, assuming they'll let you run it on an airplane).

At the moment their prices for hardcover downloads aren't bad--about $10--but their prices for newspapers are ridiculous, although it's a start.

My gut feeling about the Kindle is that it's the first e-reader that might find a market, but it's still a long ways from being the "killer app" that's needed. But it looks like a step in the right direction.

And if I were a college student and could get my textbooks loaded into it, I'd be on it like a pike on a minnow.

Felicia Donovan said...

The Kindle has made a dramatic appearance. I'd like to think I could carry 200 books with me at a time as well as go on-line, though for now the "on-line" part is limited.

The Kindle is far more palatable than what Sony or any of the other eBook readers offered but it is most certainly not the final product we'll see. Like all other technology, I'm holding out for version 2 (or 3, or 4).

When I first watched the "title" list it was somewhere around 10K. Now it's 90K. That's a pretty good market. Very tempting, indeed.

Felicia Donovan

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Loved the post, Joe. Just thinking back 15 years, progress in technology of all types has been AMAZING! Even just in the past 5 years.

And why not the Kindle or it's descendants to come? True book lovers will still buy books, but I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't regularly buy books who might if they could carry them more conveniently. I know a lot of people who don't read traditional books but who devour books on tape on long commutes. Some of these travelers(and I used to be one of them)"read" 4-6 books a month this way.

The Kindle won't replace books, but it will be a means to reach another market.

Nina Wright said...

Joe, I smiled at your contention that books are "the most ingenious storage device." Somehow I had never looked at them quite that way.

I suspect that once an entire generation has grown up using electronic readers, we will witness the waning of conventional books. But not the extinction, one can hope.

Consider the current trend with newspapers: most readers under age 35 never had the habit or knew the comfort of reading an actual newspaper with their morning coffee and are thus content to get their news online, along with their email, etc.

Watching the technical evolution of electronic books will be interesting, indeed. Thanks for the insights.


Mark Combes said...

As a fellow "Luddite" I'm going with Paul on this one. All of these devices are about the same size and weight as a book and you can only read one book at a time (Luddite here remember?) so I don't really see the point. Give me a paperback (with big enough font please - older Luddite here) that I can stuff into my backpack and take to the beach and not worry about spilling my margarita on it.

Spy Scribbler said...

Hey! We have three CRT monitors. But if you know an LCD monitor anywhere close to a happy meal, will you pass it along?

E-book readers will have their day, especially as the younger generation grows older. It might be the Kindle, maybe the iPod, who knows.

The Kindle is a great step in the right direction. I'd like to hear Amazon promise to convert the ebooks we buy into whatever technology comes next, so sixty years from now, we can still read them. That would be my dream.

Joe Moore said...

Thanks for the comments. As writers, it’s hard to envision our work being presented in any other manner than the printed word in a bound book. But I think it’s important to always be ready to adapt to new methods of delivering our message. I never thought anything could be better than analog until digital came along. CDs were such a major advancement over vinyl that it was hard to believe something as simple as a little MP3 file could ring their death knell. And if you don’t believe it, keep in mind that Apple has sold 100,000,000 iPods to date. The Kindle may not be it, but you can bet “it” is coming. And as writers, we need to be ready to embrace it. Happy Holidays.