Rethinking Kindle

The Kindle20 years ago we were told printed books were on the way out. 10 years ago we were told the same thing again. And when Amazon announced the Kindle would be their entrance into hardware, the very same warning began emerging again. However, on the way home all 3 bookstores I passed appeared to still be open for business. Believe it or not, I am a big believer in power of the Web and digital information changing our physical landscape … just not when it comes to the imminent demise of the print industry. It simply isn’t going to happen anytime soon, not until something drastic happens (for example, some kind of environmental demands). There are all sorts of reasons I believe this, but the most basic one goes back to Marx: we like to touch and hold things, especially things we own. Needless to say, when Amazon announced their next big thing, I was of the “so what” opinion.  But after some thinking, I’ll admit that maybe – maybe – Amazon’s Kindle will indeed change publishing. Just not the way they hope it will.

First, let’s review the big obstacles:

Design. It’s not quite modern, nor really retro – it reminds me of some strange early (or late) prototype of a gameboy. Interface seems a bit awkward, and its doesn’t seem as sturdy where it needs to be sturdy, nor as lightweight where it needs to seem lightweight. But hey, it is the first gen version. I’ll give them a pass on that. For now.

Content. This is a big area where I believe they are making a mistake. As I understand it (and I realize the system is constantly being further developed and changing), it only has certain Amazon-associates-only blogs available for the feedreader. PDF viewing is experimental. Experimental? That should have been a full-working function before it rolled out of the workshop.  PDF has become the standard for certain documents, so it only seems natural you would want the standard reader to open these. Files via e-mail (sent wireless) are 10 cents each. This sounds like a spam nightmare waiting to happen – but I’m not familiar with how this process works, so maybe not. Lastly, color; nuff said.

Price.  Hand in hand with limited content is price. Right now, a Kindle goes for $400.00 from Amazon. And they are out of stock. $400 is steep, especially for a “revolutionary” device meant for “everyone.” The printing press didn’t become revolutionary until it was able to deliver to – and in turn be consumed by – the lower economic populations. At four-hundred bucks, right now the Kindle is essentially a way businessmen can have a book to read on their flights or read a favorite newspaper in their hotel room. See, I like to believe most people don’t think of going inside a bookstore or library as an inconvenience.  In fact, most see it as a pleasurable experience. There is no necessity for a device like the Kindle, and for the average reader, the choice between their weekly visit to the bookstore versus a $400 first-gen device isn’t a choice at all. 

I can let a lot of Kindle’s flaws slide on the assumption that Amazon will solve most of them over time – a Kindle 2.0 or something. Besides, developing both hardware and device OS is an enormous task involving numerous stages, changes, and mistakes. Hell, it took Microsoft a few years to iron out the major bugs in their Xbox 360 (and some would argue they still have some major ones that have been around since they launched the console): consoles with new heat sinks (to reduce widespread overheating issues) are essentially just now hitting the market, and the 360 OS wasn’t able to play simple file-types like divx until December of 2007 – nor is it able to play all of the original Xbox games. In fact, due to their inability to effectively solve hardware problems, they extended all 360 warranties to 3 years. My point is that if a software mega-giant like MS still fumbled significantly in the launch of their hardware, it is understandable Amazon would as well. So, for now we’ll just wait and see what they learned from this first gen of devices.

But like I said, I do still see a way, if marketed right, that the Kindle can become a necessity of publishing – and necessity is an attribute it lacks. Recently my girlfriend was discussing shop talk from her office (she works for a university press) that involved whether or not they should get more Kindles – they already ordered one. She remarked how much easier it would be if they could get a Kindle for each editor and submission reader, and even have ones to loan out to authors they are working with as a way to send drafts back and forth. Furthermore, the cost of printing manuscripts for contests would certainly exceed the price of a few Kindles, after a while.  Why not loan out a Kindle to the three or so judges of a short story competition, and simply transmit them to the device? It would certainly beat printing out 3-4 copies of 100+ manuscripts (a very conservative number), then mailing a copy of each manuscript to the readers. It is this manner – becoming integrated into the back-end of publishing – that I could see a device like the Kindle becoming “revolutionary.” 

Sure, we already have e-mail, we already have PDF, but right now these seem more as ways to deliver a document still destined for being printed multiple times. Few people I know have the wherewithal to sit in front of the desktop or laptop and read a book-length document.  So while the Kindle utilizes the ease of duplication and delivery found in current technology (though technically it uses a cel-phone-type signal, rather than wireless broadband), its strength is exactly what is supposed to be – being a small, portable document reader.

Amazon should go full-speed at trying to work their way into small presses, university presses, and publishing offices; they should set up packages with universities much the way Microsoft has, offering vastly discounted costs, even if it makes Amazon temporarily go in the red as far as the Kindle’s profits. If they can buy their way into being a standard for publishers to reduce printing, shipping, and storage costs, then Amazon will indeed be sitting on a gold nugget of the future. But if they are waiting around for readers to get excited about ditching their paperbacks, well … I’d expect Godot to show up first.

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