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Waiting for the e-book

My Kindle from Amazon is fun. It’s usable. And when I use it in a public place, it makes me a geek magnet, the way a puppy attracts smiles and small talk. .But the Kindle is a big, big step away from showing us what real e-books will do for us.
The Kindle’s achievement is that it actually works. The screen isn’t all that much worse than paper, it holds scores of books (and with an added memory card can hold a small library), battery life is good, and it works as smoothly with Amazon.com as the iPod works with iTunes. In fact, if Amazon’s One-Click ordering process got any easier, it’d just stamp the book’s contents directly into our neurons. Having a dozen books or more within a finger’s reach, weightless and ready, is great if you are a restless reader or confined in an aluminum tube 35,000 feet above the earth.

Considering it merely as a usable device, there still are lots of rough edges, besides the fact that it’s over-priced. Most famously, the physical device itself seems to have been designed by someone who never used one (as my father would have said). The buttons that turn the pages forward and back line the left and right edges. "Make ’em nice and big," you can almost hear Jeff Bezos commanding. Fine, except it’s hard to hold the device without accidentally turning the page. So, it comes with a leather binder that gives your fingers some button-free gripping edges, but—again, famously—the case has been cheaply manufactured and is just a little too small for the device. Jeez.

Likewise, while much of the user interface is serviceable, there are some unexpected curves in it. For example, the home page lists the books you have available, but if you want to do something with a book other than read it—for example, delete it from your Kindle because you’re done with it—you have to go to another page, which is just like the home page except with different menu choices. I’m sure they had a reason, but I’m sure I don’t know what it is.

These are the sorts of issues the next rev will get right. The bigger issues will require bigger changes.

While the Kindle includes the ability to store and play MP3s, when it comes to books, it expects you to be a passive consumer. It does have a keyboard, and it does let you highlight sections and make annotations. It even saves your mark-up when you delete a book from your device; all books you’ve purchased from Amazon remain available for re-downloading, and they arrive with your prior notes. Very nice in theory. In practice, however, the tools are as crude as the keyboard. You can only highlight blocks, not smaller pieces, and it takes so many button clicks and wheel drags that rather than being a way of increasing your focus, highlighting becomes a chore that interrupts your absorption of the book. And while you can make notes using the pathetic, slow keyboard, you can’t see them again except by jumping through UI hoops. Highlighting and annotating are thus checklist items and nothing more.

In fact, the Kindle is hopeless for scholarly reading. Not only is it too hard to make marks in a book, Kindle doesn’t keep track of the original pagination. It is a virtue that Kindle lets you change font sizes on the fly, reformatting the pages appropriately. But no scholar is going to be able to cite a reference to an e-book by using Kindle’s own segment numbering scheme. For the Kindle to catch on for more than pleasure reading, it will have to record the original page boundaries, even as it’s reformatting pages for our viewing pleasure. At some point, we will have to come up with a standard way of indicating citation positions, but for now, paper books remain the reference items. The Kindle’s assumption that books are just for reading keeps it from becoming the e-book reader we need, one that assumes readers are in constant dialogue with what they’re reading. Kindle in this regard adheres too closely to the old publishing model.

In fact, the Kindle acts as if the network itself is an afterthought. Even though it seamlessly attaches to Sprint’s EVDO network to download content, and it provides one of the worst (albeit "experimental") Web browsers ever invented, the Kindle assumes reading is a solitary act. The e-book we need—the one we’ve been waiting for—will instead make the world of readers constantly available to us. The e-book we need will not think that its job is to channel content to us. It will be based more on Flickr, Facebook and LibraryThing than on Adobe Acrobat, marshalling the network effect of connected readers who are jointly building up what they know and are revving up their shared enthusiasm.

This is something Amazon.com knows about, having pioneered open reviews, user-based classification and social book browsing. If Kindle is going to take the big steps required to become the e-book we need, Amazon is going to have to learn more from Amazon.com than it has from the purveyors of static reading formats such as PDF. Amazon needs to start imitating itself rather than imitating paper-based books.

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