Emory Report
January 22, 2008
Volume 60, Number 16

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January 22, 2008
Kindle fires up digital readers

Alan Cattier is director of Academic Technology Services in University Technology Services.

Looking back over the last 10 years, there has been a dizzying parade of devices and approaches that announce themselves as the ultimate solution to reading in the digital age. Yet the reading public has resoundingly rejected these innovations in favor of the more tried and true physical book.

As one who loves books, I participated in that rejection of the early e-book text and e-book reader. I was like many readers thinking, ‘who could possibly want a dialog box that says their text has just run out of power if I could have a physical book that would always be on?’

Recently I had a chance to extensively use Amazon’s new portable e-book reading device, Kindle, and it changed my view. For the experience of reading from Kindle is to understand that the reading public has been asking the wrong question about these devices. For many, the rise of the e-book begs the question, ‘what is happening to the physical book in our digital culture?’ The Kindle refocuses that question in a more tangible way, instead asking ‘what is happening to the act of reading?’

Amazon’s answers to these questions are by far the most intriguing and compelling of any e-book initiative up to this date. Kindle is the first to include a ‘free’ (part of the initial purchase price) built-in high speed cell service that allows for fast downloads of more than 90,000 texts that Amazon has prepared for sale.

In addition, Kindle offers daily and weekly paid subscriptions to national and international magazines and newspapers so that a morning cup of coffee with The Wall Street Journal is just a download away. Provided you have left the cell service in Kindle with available power, the text arrives while you sleep and is ready to read on waking.

I say ‘ready to read’ deliberately, for Kindle’s implementation of digital ink is the finest of any e-book reader commercially available. In a variety of lighting conditions, varying from direct sunlight to the dim lighting of an airline seat, the text was incredibly legible and offered no problems with glare. The controls, though quirky, offer full and agile access to a download as hefty as a Sunday New York Times.

Surprisingly, where Kindle falls down is in its ability to fully support reading on the Internet. One would have suspected that Amazon would have focused its efforts most strategically in this area, for what is most revolutionary about the device is that it acknowledges that the act of reading online has become as important as reading a physical book. Instead, Kindle offers access to a limited subset of blogs, all by paid subscription, and allows limited surfing of the Web through a built-in browser that is truly first generation and nearly unusable.

In the evolution of technologies, one often looks for that moment when the device or the approach matures such that it is not only ready for adoption, but also that the likelihood exists that it actually will be adopted. No e-book device or approach preceding Kindle excited the reading public, but Kindle is different. The user interface behind this device is relatively easy to use, a huge range of content is easy to access, the reading experience is the best it has ever been for e-books, and the device is lightweight and easy to carry.

If it is not the future, it surely offers the shape of the future to those of us reading both online and off.