Last August, The New Yorker published Nicholson Baker’s extensive, very mixed, review of my brand-new birthday present–an Amazon Kindle 2. The article mentions a YouTube of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos laughing freakishly hard. I thought it appropriate to find and share the freakish laughter video with you on Halloween, just after Barnes & Noble has announced their competing e-book reader, the Nook, will be available Nov. 30. The race to find the perfect hardware/software combination is on!
Jeff Bezos was laughing all the way to the bank when he visited Jon Stewart on this show–and when he had a near-monopoly on the early e-book market. But in the technology world, the West is a Wild place, and the Halloween cackle you hear tonight might be coming from Barnes & Noble or Apple. Oooh, Jeff Bezos, scary!
After three months, three purchases, several free books, and a brand new iPhone, I am still experimenting with e-books. My review will not explain how e-paper works or what is in the technology rumor mill about new products. I’m far from a geek! But I am a “user” (“Hi. My name is Shirley, and I try to stay young by adopting technology slightly ahead of my age-group”). Below is a list of things the Kindle gets right:
1. Ease of purchase! I have wireless access in my home and a one-click account with Amazon. I have used my Kindle primarily for book club selection purchases. Why? The closest decent library is ten miles away. Same for bookstore. My time is precious to me. Do I want to spend at least an hour finding the book (building in some browsing time to make it a good experience), counting the cost of gas in dollars and damage to the environment, or do I want to hear the title, type in the name of the book, and have the book in my Kindle in under a minute? Easy choice and good expenditure of $9.99 each time.
2. You can read a Kindle outdoors. I did this a few times this summer. I never got to the beach, sad to say, but it would be fun to have a Kindle there, I think.
3. I enjoyed the text-to-speech feature on a book I was not captured by but wanted to “read” as a good book club member. I let the voice drone on as I fell asleep and then picked up the text where it left off the next day. Too bad the function doesn’t have a sleep timer on it. I had to recharge the Kindle the next day.
4. The charge lasts a long time–long enough to get you across the Atlantic or Pacific. I will be testing my thesis on that when I go to Prague in ten days. Using the comments section below, I’ll report on that experience.
5. Light weight, size, readability are all fine by me. It’s great to have one place to “store” old books and to collect new ones. Some day, I suppose, we will carry the Library of Congress around in one small device. This one is the Model T that makes us imagine an infinity of words–the best (and worst) of what has been thought and said–available to us at all times. What Google did for fragments of quotes, e-readers (and Google book scanning) can do for whole books. Think of one, download one, ad infinitum.
What the Kindle can’t or doesn’t do well:
1. No color and poor graphics. That didn’t bother me in my first books, but having it show up (as in Barnes and Noble’s forthcoming Nook) would be a definite enhancement. Black and white (or grey on grey) never competes when color is an equal option.
2. Exclusivity. Amazon went the way of IBM’s early personal computer software philosophy. Make it proprietary. Programmers can’t add features and users can’t share books. Nook will allow readers to share a book with one other reader, supposedly. Amazon may be forced to change if competition gets stiff on either front.
3. The keyboard is stiff and clunky. If Apple had designed this thing, it would link to everything other digital function you’ve got at the touch of the screen. My guess is that some day/month/year soon we will see an enlarged iPhone or a smart iReader that blows the Kindle out of the water. In the meantime, I have downloaded the Kindle for iPhone app and will compare the two ways of reading. iPhones can be read in the dark (although I wonder what extended use does to the eyes??), whereas Kindles need either overhead or little reading lights. Nicholson Baker preferred the iPhone read. I am not sure I will, but I’ll let you know if I do.
4. All electronic devices share the problem of toxic waste/poor recycling options. Baker predicts that five years from now Kindles will be buried in Nigerian landfills. Balance that damage against that of killing trees and producing ink and hauling books around the world. Perhaps a little less environmental harm, but a definite flunk on the “do no harm” test.
5. The Kindle without any competition could become a monster. Talk about too big to fail! Amazon is currently charging three dollars less for my copy of The Lost Symbol than they are paying the publisher!! This kind of tactic is just that–a temporary loss leader used by giants with monopoly signs in their eyes. When they control the market, they have the power to dictate to everyone else–writers, editors, publishers, and maybe even consumers. I did not think of this when I asked for a Kindle for my birthday last year. But I just might ask for a newer, competitor’s model also–or maybe I’ll enjoy the Barnes & Noble e-book reader I already downloaded on my iPhone for free!
Jeff Bezos, I know you are still laughing out there. But I think I hear the thundering of hooves from Cupertino, too!