Sunday, November 18, 2007

This Isn't A Device; It's A Service

Man oh man -- Steven Levy at Newsweek has a seven-page cover story on the new Amazon Kindle e-book reader and the future of books. Read it, then if you're still interested, come back for my take below.


I think the overall analysis of the picture of electronic books is right -- but there is no real reason to think that Amazon is going to be the one to figure this out. Sony, which has honest-to-goodness successful experience designing, making, marketing and selling consumer electronics and a ton of consumer media, hasn't figured out e-books or their readers. Why in the world would Amazon, whose chief material innovation has been the use of giant warehouses in the middle of nowhere, solve the riddle?

You know, everyone's been talking about the Kindle for a long time -- but I've never seen a screenshot of what a book looks like on its screen. For $400, you would think that you could get something with a bit more flair in its design -- rather than something unfortunately resembling a dot-matrix printer and at the very least, a color screen. Do you want to know what electronic documents AND books have that e-books don't? COLOR. Annie Proulx gets a line from a 1994 interview into the Newsweek article: "Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever." Levy dismisses this as quaint, but while the screen might be less twitchy, it looks an awful lot like an old two-tone computer monitor. I am feeling the intellectual lust, but not filled with techno-lust. Not one bit.

Since Amazon's getting into the music downloads business, I think turnabout is only fair play. Apple can start selling e-books on iTunes and come in with an oversized iPod touch (or a mini, highly-specialized tablet) with wi-fi, A/V outputs, touchscreen, color, email, a calendar, a real web browser and RSS, and music and movies at close to the same price point. (Maybe at a $100 premium). Maybe a stylus to highlight text, do crossword puzzles, and take notes. And it won't look like a taupe Etch-a-sketch.

Maybe this is total Apple fanboy stuff, but if anyone has figured out electronic devices + purely digital media sales, it's Apple. I mean, an iPhone with large, readable text? I'd buy my grandma one -- she doesn't need a whole PC anyways! She could sign e-cards, and write and mail handwritten notes as JPGs instead of typing (or use handwriting recognition -- which would also pre-empt a lot of the beef people have with the iPhone keyboard). Seriously -- for an older, book-reading market, who probably listened to their first MP3s through iTunes rather than Napster, who often had Macs for their first computers, are buying new ones with iSights to video chat with their grandchildren (and because the Mac OS is easier to use) -- who else could do this?

Add people who love tablets and want Apple to make them, or who want to watch digital movies on a portable-DVD player-sized screen rather than one smaller than a playing card, smaller children whom you might not want to give either a cellular phone or a laptop or even an iPod, professionals like doctors or teachers or waitstaff, who already often walk around with largish portable devices, and about a hundred other groups of people who might be interested in such a device, and you've got a holiday-sized market just waiting to be tapped.

So, build it, Apple. Show that you're as committed to literacy as you are to media. Give them away to schools, sell them to the literati and older people and college kids. You can make it stronger, better, faster. You have the technology.

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