Amazon's Kindle aims to bring ebooks to the masses. But do the masses really care?
I had my first hands-on experience with the Amazon Kindle ebook reader this morning, while filming a 'Big in 2008' piece for CNN. Is it the end of paper? Erm... no.
Kindle is hardly a revolution - Sony's similar Reader has been out for a while in Japan, and the iRex Illiad is already available over here in the UK - but it does mark a turning point for electronic books. Why? Because its wireless connection allows you to download titles direct from Amazon's eBook store. After all, there's not much point in an ebook reader when there are so few ebooks.
I assume Amazon's Kindle store will quickly expand beyond standard eBook fare (think out-of-copyright classics and in-flight thrillers). To be fair, a large proportion of the bestseller list is already available, but compare the catalogue of 94,000 e-titles to Amazon's paper listing of almost 20 million books and you'll see there are quite a few holes yet to be filled.
And then there's the price - most ebooks are around $10, which means you're sometimes paying more than you would for a paperback. Shame.
The hardware itself is ok. There's a nice A5 leather binder, the screen uses the same e-ink technology used by Sony and the Iliad, and although there's no touchscreen you do have a keyboard for making notes. E-Ink screens look like paper - they're really easy on the eye, work in all light conditions, and have as close to a 180-degree viewing as you can get. They also require almost no battery power.
There are some unique touches in evidence - the cool silver scrollbar and a rather lovely rubberised back are my favourites - but the whole package still looks like... well, an ebook reader. It's never going to look as cool as reading a dog-eared copy of On The Road or Hitch Hiker's Guide.
Kindle seems to be doing well at the moment - the $400 device is sold out on amazon.com - but it's never going to be a mass-market product. The reason is simple: paper rocks. If we were all using Kindles today, and Amazon invented paper, we'd be going crazy for this renewable, recyclable material that makes books cheap, portable and battery free.
Nonetheless, the Kindle could be the start of something groovy - particularly when the flexible e-ink screens - which I've seen in prototype - finally come to market. Imagine being able to fold an ebook reader - or web browser - into your nano-sized mobile... only then can we even start to talk about paper as an outdated technology.