For years now, electronics manufacturers have struggled to develop "electronic readers"--handheld devices that could function, in effect, as iPods for books and magazines. I have written about their efforts a couple of times for the magazine (click here and here). As I noted, the first generation of the devices was a terrific flop, mostly because they were so primitive and difficult to actually read with. However, in 2005, Sony brought to market in Japan a technology called E-Ink, which replaces glowing screens with something that looks much more like paper. Reading devices using it first became available in the U.S. last year, and now there are several in competition. I use the latest iteration of the Sony Reader, which is small, light, has a battery that lasts for days, and can store hundreds of books at a time. It allows one to download one's own files as well as commercial books, then read them in comfort--just about anywhere except the bath. Downloading any of the tens of thousands of classics available from Project Gutenberg takes seconds (plus, admittedly, a few tweaks).
Even so, up until today the "e-book" movement has remained a tiny one. With less than $20 million a year in sales, it barely even registers on the collective bottom line of the publishing industry.
Today, however, Amazon has taken a big bet that E-Ink readers are the future. It has launched a new device called the Kindle, and is promoting it heavily-notably with a cover story in Newsweek. The device is basically similar to the Sony I use. It is slightly heavier, and has a somewhat larger screen. It also comes with a keyboard, which you can use to search texts and also, apparently, to annotate them (the Sony lacks both these capacities). The biggest difference, however, is that you can download books directly to the device using a wireless internet connection, while with the Sony and its competitors, you need to hook the device up to a computer. Amazon also has a larger selection of books to download-nearly 90,000, compared to less than 40,000 for the Sony.
As a fan of these devices, I hope that the Kindle succeeds. While I love paper books, I don't always like having thousands of them in my house and office, and would happily replace all but my most treasured ones with electronic versions, as long as I could read them as easily as I do the originals.
I do have my doubts about whether Amazon can succeed, though. One problem is that 90,000 books, while a great deal, is of course a tiny proportion of all the books in and out of print. A universal library this is not. And unlike iPod owners, who can rip any CD they want in seconds, Kindle owners will have no easy way to make electronic copies of their paper books. Logically, a device this limited, in comparison to an iPod, should have a correspondingly lower price. If Amazon priced the Kindle at, say, $99, I suspect that it would be an enormous hit, thereby pushing publishers to make far more e-books available, and spurring the revolution that Jeff Bezos is clearly hoping for. But instead, Amazon is charging a colossal $399, the cost of a cheap laptop. How many people are going to shell this out for a device that only lets them read a small proportion of the books in print, and will require a certain level of technical savvy to read the books and documents that they might want to find on the internet themselves? My suggestion to Amazon: if you're not ready to take a big initial loss on the hardware, this "revolution" is going to prove much less than revolutionary.
-- David A. Bell