Kindle ain't no e-book reader
All your Wiki are belong to us
Amazon's Kindle has been widely derided as a below-par e-book reader which compares badly with the competition and ignores a history of failed attempts to produce an electronic book. But Kindle isn't really an e-book reader at all, rather the physical embodiment of the Web 2.0 ethic.
The giveaway is the use of a 3G telephony network, rather than Wi-Fi or similar, providing a network connection which is active whenever the device feels like activating it, without the user being aware. That makes for a very different experience than deliberately connecting when the user wants to, one which Amazon calls Whispernet - as Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, puts it: "This isn't a device, it's a service."
But it is a device, and one which is intended to act as a depository of books, so why would it need such ubiquitous connectivity? The gushing Newsweek article on the Kindle references a 2004 study which discovered that only 57 per cent of Americans read a book, any book, in the previous year. Previous e-books have attempted to appeal to that 57 per cent, replacing their paper-based equivalents, but Kindle is hoping to create something new, which might appeal to the rest as well as driving the reading majority to buy more books.
One plan is to reduce the cost of books though advertising: while in-book advertising is generally limited to "other books by this author", and the occasional free chapter to bulk out the page count, books in Kindle can contain adverts which are updated daily. Every time you open a book a different advert can appear amongst its pages (just like this article). But it's not just the bits between the text which Amazon can reach out and alter: even the prose itself will no longer be inviolate.
Authors could update their books while you're reading them; responding to reader feedback, litigation, or even whim. A book could be updated daily, or chapters added when the author has time - readers might subscribe to a book rather than buying it outright.
For technical manuals there is a real value there. Being able to send out errata and updates makes sense, but for the traditional fiction novel it's hard to see the value - unless you've got your Web 2.0 glasses on.
The Newsweek piece quotes Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, who "envisions wiki-style collaborations where the author, instead of being the sole authority, is a "superuser, the lead wolf of a creative pack". Readers will no longer be passive consumers of writing, but active participants able to annotate and add to the content, sharing their thoughts with the world (perhaps why the Kindle has a keyboard?) According to Newsweek this would make authors very happy, as "you'd need to buy [the] book in order to view the litany of objections", but in a world where the vast majority of authors never make a profit anyway, they might prefer their masterpiece to remain their own.
So Kindle is not designed for reading boring old manuscripts written by someone else, but as a tool for participating in the exciting world of Web 2.0. Books might be available on the device, but they'll be no more important to Kindle than their dead-tree equivalents are to Amazon these days.
Kindle users can subscribe to magazines, automatically updated over Whispernet, which are much more likely to appeal to the non-book-reading audience and might be more conducive to the Web 2.0 paradigm where readers can add their comments to stories. They can also pay for RSS feeds from websites, though asking users to pay for something they are used to getting free won't be easy. If the platform achieves any success then perhaps those sites can be convinced to create a Kindle-edition: a transition from the web to a magazine form.
Despite all the hype it seems unlikely that Kindle will be a success, at least in this incarnation. The device is ugly and as long as it's considered an e-book reader it's going to pale beside the competition. It might be on the most-wanted list at Amazon.com this Christmas, but it's hard to believe many people will really want to spend $400 on it.
But next year, when Google snaps up that nice 700MHz frequency block, and launches a device based on Android with the same kind of capabilities as Kindle - perhaps even with a licensed Kindle engine - then we'll see the two biggest players in Web 2.0 promoting its hardware incarnation, and it's hard to imagine what could stand in their way.
As Ben Bova put it in his book, Cyberbooks, almost 20 years ago when publishers held a lot more power then they do these days:
For a long moment Malzone said nothing. Then he sighed a very heavy sigh. "You're saying that a publisher won't need printers, paper, ink, whole-salers, route salesmen, district managers, truck drivers - not even bookstores?" "The whole thing can be done electronically," Carl enthused. "Shop for books by TV. Buy them over the phone. Transmit them anywhere on Earth almost instantaneously, straight to the customer." Malzone glanced around the shadows of the room uneasily. In a near whisper he told Carl, "Jesus Christ, kid, you're going to get both of us killed."