Rekindling the Flame – Amazon Introduces Kindle 2

By Jonathan Spira on 10 February 2009
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When the original Amazon Kindle was introduced, I tried very hard to like it.  While there were many things that it did well (see my original review), the reader experience was ultimately unsatisfying.  At the time of its introduction, however, the Kindle was certainly the latest and probably greatest eBook reader, a concept that goes back to Sony’s introduction of the Bookman in 1991 and the Sony Data Discman in 1990.

The new and improved Kindle

The new and improved Kindle

The original Bookman weighed two pounds and could play full-length audio CDs.  It was, essentially, an 80286-based, MS DOS-compatible computer with a 4.5″ monochrome display.  Even before the Bookman, Sony had introduced the Data Discman Electronic Book Player.  The Discman weighed only 1.5 pounds and books had to be created using the Sony Electronic Book Authoring System.  Its three-hour battery life, relatively low resolution, and limited content greatly limited its utility and, ultimately, its lack of success.

All of these designs, including the newest Kindle, overlook the rather profound question of what makes for a satisfying book-reading experience.

It all boils down to the fact that reading a book is just that, something one does with paper.  No amount of searchable text, clickable links, and video wizardry will replace that experience, and putting a table of contents, page numbers, and an index around words that come to the reader electronically is a different reading experience.

Books also have other advantages, including a drop-proof, shock-proof chassis, extremely low power consumption, and a bulletproof operating system.

What we read from did migrate once before. By the end of antiquity, the codex had replaced the scroll.  The codex user interface was improved over time with the separation of words, use of capital letters, and the introduction of punctuation, as well as tables of contents and indices.  This worked so well, in fact, that 1500 years later, the format remains largely unchanged.

With the original Kindle, the reader experience, while light-years ahead of reading a book on a laptop, was still greatly lacking compared to the pleasure readers continue to derive from paper books (it appears we are at the cusp of having to create a retronym, “paper books,” to describe the non-eBook variety).  My 1996 “invention” of the Lazerbook , an in-home device that printed books on demand on reusable paper, has still not yet been built but I suspect that, were it to arrive on the scene today,  readers would still prefer paper.

This week Amazon introduced Kindle 2.  Although units are not yet available for purchase (although Amazon is accepting pre-orders now) or for testing, I suspect that I will like this Kindle a whole lot more.  In addition to the new Kindle, Amazon said it would start to sell e-books that can be read on non-Kindle devices including mobile phones.  It also announced an exclusive short story by Stephen King.

Kindle 2, sporting a new design with round keys and a short, joystick-like controller, has seven times the memory of the original version, a sharper display, and it turns pages faster.  Despite these improvements, the price remains the same: $359.  At the launch, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told the audience that “our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”  Amazon also announced Whispersync, a feature that allows the reader to start a book on one Kindle and continue where he left off on another Kindle or supported mobile device.

Apple and Google, not traditional book publishers, represent the greatest challenge to the Kindle beyond, of course, the codex.  Google has, to date, scanned millions of books, many out of print and hence not easily available in traditional form.  Readers can find several e-book programs online for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

What will the future hold? Check with me in, say, 1500 years.

You can order the new Kindle from Amazon.

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.

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