Amongst other things that I was checking out during my book-writing sabbatical was Amazon's Kindle portable reading device, courtesy of the Westport Public Library's lending desk. I checked out the unit for a few days, which actually turned into about two weeks due to a bad cold that caught me unexpectedly, but it was long enough to appreciate the ins and outs of this increasingly popular device.
A Kindle starts up easily enough by sliding a slim switch on the back of the unit, though its being next to a switch that activates the unit's wireless networking capabilities makes this something a bit awkward to do by habit. You have to flip the Kindle unit over to make sure that you're hitting the right switch most time. There are a lot of little ergonomic issues like this in the Kindle, ideas that look good in the design phase that perhaps could have been better thought out in real life. The keyboard of a Kindle falls into that category also, being barely usable for hunting and pecking but with a slippery and ambiguous feel that makes it unthinkable to use it for more than a few must-do tasks.
Overall, though, many of the key features are remarkably easy to use. The unit boots up quickly and its basic page turning functions are remarkably intuitive, with large broad keys on each side of the unit for turning forward and backwards. A Kindle will boot up to where you were last looking at content, so it's not always necessary to bookmark where you were last reading - same when you return to a specific book. There is a small scroll wheel at the bottom of a thin channel that parallels the main screen: scroll the wheel and a kind-of cursor will move up and down next to the screen and allow you to select from pop-up menus or to click on links. I thought that this would be a really inconvenient interface but you get used to it fairly easily. I can see how its steadiness will be useful in bumpy environments like subway trains. So for basic functions and navigation control you can give it a "weird but usable" rating for the most part.
The eInk display was somewhat disappointing in that the background was rather grayish rather than whitish, which made many illustrations almost impossible to make out clearly and made it a little more difficult to use in dim light. But in spite of this the display was remarkably readable for text - especially when the font size was bumped up a bit. Whew - for those of us who rely on reading glasses or progressive lenses, this is a blessing. There are plenty of great books that I'd love to pore through that have bitsy little print that wears my eyes out very quickly. With a Kindle you don't get print fatigue or the fatigue of looking at a backit screen. With bumped-up font sizes there's not that much information on any given page but the ease of turning to a new page of content makes up for that mild inconvenience easily. I found that I really enjoyed reading materials on the Kindle once I got settled in for a good sit-down.
The early Kindle models now available do provide Web access, but except for a handful of Web sites well adapted to the unit it's largely an exercise in fumbling through awkwardly formatted content - and also a feature that led to the unit freezing twice. A push of a bent paper clip into the unit's reset hole got it back to good order, but this is not a unit meant to replace mobile units with more robust Web browsing capabilities. Still, for a quick sneak peek at the headlines, it beats going back to the PC sometimes. The wireless service was quite good at my home, so chances are it will perform reasonably well with its network connectivity turned on wherever broadband services perform well. However, leaving the wireless connection does drain the batteries far more quickly than normal local -only reading would. In reading-only mode the Kindle batteries last for many days of typical use.
It's certainly a unit that I would consider as a convenience for future book purchases, especially given Amazon's pricing that enables one to purchase both a printed book and a Kindle-compatible copy for one purchase price, or get a Kindle-only copy for an even steeper discount. But what of gift books - or, for that matter, the huge library of printed books already at my disposal? The huge gap in Kindle's market strategy is a lack of "hooks" to keep people attached to their existing libraries and to be able to move on to new books once their usefulness has run their course. There's no real concept of a "used" market for Kindle books, much less the ability to add significant value to them in a way that could be onpassed to others.
More importantly there is little ability to use a Kindle book to activate online content. For example, if I am reading a passage and would like to research a specific person or historical event mentioned in the book, there are no "hooks" to online content that would make that easy - nor any way to store that research with my Kindle book copy for future reference. It's still a fairly unimaginative approach to book marketing. This may reflect the generally conservative approach to book packaging and marketing that still grips many publishing houses, but this conservatism now competes with a demographic curve that is racing against the clock.
Like the music industry print publishers have locked in their future to proprietary technologies to protect existing business models, but in the process of doing so they may have sold away their futures. With an explosion of different kinds of portable devices reaching the marketplace today and the promise of an even more complex array of devices fitting people's lifestyles in the future, why on earth would an entire industry select a proprietary platform to develop their future revenues? In a few years I believe that we will look at experiments such as the iPod and the Kindle much as people today look back on proprietary electronic content services such as Compuserve or the original AOL and ask themselves, what were we thinking?
The future of book publishing will rest on more open publishing platforms that enable book content to move to the contexts and popular devices in which it's valued most far more effectively and that will enable others to add value around a given book independent of its initial publisher. Book publishers already are more aware that their best strengths lie in talent management, providing services that leverage as many aspects of an author's value as rapidly and as effectively as possible through the lifecycle of a given work of authorship. But expect that more nimble companies who see the ability to manage talented authors more effectively through a variety of publishing media to challenge traditional publishing houses over the next few years, especially those who are best able to leveral social media outlets to build and maintain loyal communities of readers and commenters. The Kindle is a nifty little device, but it's just a hint of where the future of book publishing could take us in the not too distant future.