I was traveling and missed the big Kindle announcement from Amazon, but my initial reaction was: They’re gouging huge holes in South Lake Union for this? I mean, if Amazon really is the “secret” tenant holding the city hostage over further hi-rise development in Allentown, then it should hardly be mired in the vision of yesteryear, foisting on its weary clientele yet another iteration of 1990s technology no one has ever indicated they wanted or would actually use. As anyone who reads books knows, it’s virtually impossible to improve on a book. Think of all the time, for example, you don’t waste booting up. To be fair, I haven’t actually seen a Kindle (and at $399 won’t be putting one on my Wish List). But if Amazon is going to further desecrate one of Seattle’s remaining shapeable people zones, it had better be talking technology that deposits new books directly into my brain via ubiquitous wireless transmission, so I don’t even have to read. (Didn’t you love the New York Times headline, “Amazon Reading Device Doesn’t Need Computer” — to which should have been appended, “Neither Does Moby Dick.”) Maybe Jeff Bezos, who has always reminded me of what a grown-up Harry Potter, having lost his hair and gained contacts (or Lasik), might look like, should get together with one of Puget Sound’s other fun-loving CEOs, Craig McCaw, and hash this out.
The problem with eBooks isn’t technology. “Paperless ink” could read just as well as print (it doesn’t), and a hand-held device could simulate pages so well you’d find yourself automatically reaching for the pen to underline (it’s been done, but you know, the experience just isn’t the same with pixels as really going to town on dead trees). The problem is that people aren’t reading books, and the future leaders of our doomed society don’t seem inclined to reverse the trend. I found morbid irony in Kindle being announced with great fanfare on the same day as results of a depressingly “alarming” National Endowment for the Arts study showing “the percentage of adults who are proficient in reading prose has fallen at the same time that the proportion of people who read regularly for pleasure has declined.” So Jeff, the booming market for Kindle is what, exactly?
That kind of impertinence got me put on Amazon’s “Do Not Call” list almost from the get-go back in the ’90s, although no reporter I know ever had much luck with its Public Irritations department. As The Times’ Brier Dudley pointed out, his paper wasn’t even invited to Kindle’s big New York hoo-hah. It may have been because Brier beat up on Amazon’s MP3 eulas in a recent column. Or maybe because hometown papers don’t have the headcount and cachet of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. My pet theory is that Amazon wants to drive The Seattle Times out of its South Lake Union headquarters so it can…
Of course, none of the press’ leading lights present at the rollout apparently had the presence of mind to ask Bezos about the decline-in-reading study. It might’ve shown disrespect.
OK, I’ll give the Amazin crew a benefit of the doubt here. What Kindle is has nothing to do with what it’s meant to be. It’s simply placeholder, spaghetti-on-the-wall technology for Amazon to be a player as reading technology evolves. Note Newsweek’s reference to an iPod of reading. eBooks are the focus simply because to show off anything else would’ve gotten Bezos laughed off the stage. For now, the market is people who have to carry around a lot of books — academics, students, avid readers — and may find convenience in having them on a device, whatever its drawbacks. That isn’t a very big market, and from the study is apparently a dwindling one, but it’ll do while literature and books figure out where they stand in the still-chaotic business model of the Web. Google has an obvious stake in this, so does Apple (the iPod Touch and iPhone make pretty good book readers, too), as does the publishing industry (which includes newspapers, don’t forget, even ones that aren’t invited to the rollout). The more deep-pocketed players, the better the opportunity for someone coming up with the true iPod of reading.
P.S. Did I miss it, or has the mystery tenant for SoLa been announced? It was supposed to happen “within days” in early October…
P.P.S.For an alternative viewpoint, Danny Westneat feels Kindle’s burn.