I’ve been writing recently about Amazon’s Kindle. I wrote an article when Amazon announced the International Kindle – important for me because I live in France – and another when I got my Kindle, and quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. But today, sitting in a hospital waiting room, waiting to have a test, I was reading a book on my iPod touch using Amazon’s Kindle app, and I started thinking about the device.
The ebook concept is something I’ve been interested in for more than a decade. For a while, I worked with Les Éditions 00h00, a French ebook publisher and distributer of the early Rocket ebook reader. I did some writing for them, and translated a few books from French into English. The company is gone, having gotten into the market a bit too early, but the experience was interesting. I saw how books could be dematerialized, and realized that part of the future of publishing would involve ebooks.
Fast forward a few years – nearly a decade – and we’ve finally reached a place where ebooks are a part of the standard publishing arsenal. The Kindle is reportedly selling very well (Amazon does not release sales figures), and Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPhone and iPod touch allows users to read books without a dedicated device. (Other ebook readers exist, but in my opinion they don’t have the most important feature: content. Amazon has a lock on that for now.)
My brief experience with the Kindle highlights the device’s weaknesses: the lack of a backlight means that the contrast between the gray (why isn’t it white?) page background and anti-aliased fonts makes it hard to read for those of us with poor vision. (I see with only one eye, and the good one isn’t great.) Reading was a chore, and it gave me a headache.
But compare that with the iPod touch I was reading this morning in the hospital waiting room. It’s got a backlight with adjustable brightness, you can set the font size to suit your eyes, and “turning” pages is actually more attractive. On the Kindle, pages flash negative as the e-ink resets and the new page is rendered. On the Kindle app, the current page swipes to the left and the new page is displayed, with no flash or other disturbance.
The future is not with single-use devices, alas, and the Kindle, while popular, is likely to be so with a certain public. Since you can buy books directly from the device, you don’t need a computer. (Buying Kindle books from the iPhone requires passing through another application.) My guess is that a lot of Kindle purchasers are people who don’t have computers, or who don’t use them much, and for whom the idea of a single-use device actually does make sense. For those of us who use computers regularly, however, logic dictates devices that have multiple, even unrelated uses.
Amazon is soon to release a Kindle application for Mac OS X and for Windows, which will increase the usability of Kindle books. And, if the much-rumored Apple tablet comes out, that’ll be the perfect place to read them, because the screen will be backlit, and contrast will not be an issue. I think, however, the Kindle device will not die out quickly. The fact that a computer is not needed with that device, and the screen is fairly large, should keep it as a player. An Apple tablet won’t be competitive in price: at $259, the Kindle is about the price of an iPod touch, but a tablet with a larger screen will cost more; I’d guess Apple is aiming for a $500 price point. For those who find the Kindle acceptable, it will remain an option. But for the rest of us, either today’s handheld or tomorrow’s tablet will be the real beginnings of ebooks in the general publishing landscape.