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The End of Print?

by Hervey Evans

I am an early adopter of almost everything. I salivate at the latest announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show and download the entire two-hour Steve Jobs show from the Apple meeting each January.

So my friends were not surprised to see me with an Amazon Kindle early this year. The Kindle is an “electronic book” manufactured and sold by Amazon.com. It joins the Sony e-book and several earlier attempts at a portable electronic reading device. After a rocky start, the little white rectangular device from Amazon has taken off and version 1.0 has sold out.

Frankly, I love mine and have it loaded with about forty (40!!) books from trash to high literature—four or five of which I am reading at any given time.

The screen uses a technology called “electronic paper” and the black and white pixels are rearranged each time you “turn” the page to present you with the next set of text. You can change the font size and can read for hours with little fatigue (unlike reading at a computer), but you do need some source of light (like a “real” book) in order to see the page.

So what?

Well, I don't have to carry as many books around when I travel as I used to do. When the wireless network feature (wow!) is turned off, the battery will last for several days.

Oh, and did I mention the wireless feature? The Kindle comes with a built-in connection to the Sprint wireless network, for which you pay nothing (nada!), and you can use it to buy books, magazines and newspapers directly and immediately from Amazon. You can also download some books that are in the public domain from a variety of websites (Stendhal's The Red and the Black, anyone?) and can even surf the web and check your email on certain sites (for free!).

In the age of “buy locally and reduce your carbon footprint,” an out-of-towner getting the New York Times delivered every morning without delivery fuel or paper is also pretty cool. According to the Bo Sacks e-newsletters (www.bosacks.com ), there are more than 10,000 people doing just that! I don't know that it will save the newspaper business, but there certainly is a new punch line to the riddle “What's black and white and read all over?”

So there I was at a business meeting outside of Kohler, Wisconsin. One of the participants mentioned that her book had just been published the week before. I quietly opened my Kindle and, within 30 seconds, had purchased and downloaded the book—for $9.95! (Nine dollars less than the retail price of the print book.) It was cool!

The Killer App? No, I don't think so. The Kindle does represent a risk to book publishers and to printers, but, like a lot of these technologies, it will probably increase the size of the market more than it erodes any particular niche.

And magazines do not work well on the Kindle—at least the graphically complex and engaging ones that I like to read. The images are only black and white and the graphical rendering software is linear rather than spatial. But there are promises, promises...

I have heard of a prototype system (or maybe I imagined it) that is about the size of my favorite magazine (~ 9 x 11) and images graphically—and in color. I can download magazines and newspapers and can read them easily, checking the web for background or links to advertisers or current events with the click of a button. And when I turn it sideways, it turns into a tablet computer.

Oh, yes—and it will make a great cup of coffee.

Postscript: Yesterday, February 9, 2009, Amazon announced Kindle 2. I ordered it immediately. Lighter, with a longer battery life and a stronger (3G) wireless connection, the Kindle 2 has better greyscale, more memory, and a speaker. It also has an indefinite shipping date.