Can Amazon save the e-book?

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
Nov. 26 2007 5:40 PM

Can Amazon Save the E-Book?

The online retailer takes a crack at selling a portable book-reading gadget.

The Amazon Kindle.
The Amazon Kindle

Amazon.com unveiled its Kindle e-book reader last week with a PR extravaganza that might impress even Steve Jobs. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos brandished his first hardware product on Charlie Rose and the cover of Newsweek, and secured testimonials from such dead-tree luminaries as Toni Morrison and Lemony Snicket. The marketing seems to have worked. The $400 Kindle is already enough of a success that, as I write this, it's back-ordered until Dec. 17.

If you go by the wisdom of the blogs, however, the Kindle is less the iPod of books than the Apple IIc of books. Early adopters have groused about the oversized PREV PAGE and NEXT PAGE buttons, which make it tough to pick up the device without accidentally paging through the book you're reading. They've also sneered at Amazon's copy protection, which is so crippling that you can't even buy an e-book for a Kindle-owning pal.

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My first six days with the Amazonian e-reader have confirmed that these criticisms are on target. I'd be startled if, at least in the pricey gizmo's initial incarnation, this is the product that gives e-books iPod-like ubiquity. Still, unless Amazon caves quickly, it will probably be the closest thing to a mainstream e-reader yet. For everything Kindle isn't, it remains the best attempt so far at making e-books make sense. To borrow the famous left-handed compliment that Alan Kay gave the original Macintosh, it's the first e-book reader that's good enough to criticize.

Amazon's e-reader doesn't look special from the outside. It's plasticky, white, and a bit chunky, about the size of a 200-page trade paperback and weighing in at 10.3 ounces. The device's greatest innovation is hidden inside. Earlier e-readers—including Sony's svelter, cheaper, still-extant Reader—made you buy your books on a PC and then copy them to the unit via a cable. Kindle, though, has built-in wireless broadband, courtesy of Sprint's nationwide EVDO network. Preconfigured and provided at no additional charge, Amazon's Whispernet service lets you browse for e-books and other content on the device itself. You can download a book in seconds anywhere Sprint has coverage.

It's a remarkably seamless experience, the purest expression of Amazon's 1-Click approach to shopping. Roaming the aisles of a local Borders with Kindle in hand, I bought and downloaded Elmore Leonard's Up in Honey's Room in a lot less time than it would have taken to locate it in the stacks and make my way through the checkout line. I also paid $9.99, rather than Borders' $25.95 plus tax.

When it comes to book selection and pricing, Kindle is far superior to its predecessors. At launch, almost 90,000 books are available for purchase compared with 20,000-plus at Sony's online store. That's puny compared to the millions of volumes that Amazon sells in printed form, and the selection is strongest in high-profile books and public-domain oldies. You can buy 100 of the 112 titles on the New York Times best-seller list, for example, but Vladimir Nabokov and Ian Fleming are both missing in action. On the plus side, almost everything is a tempting $9.99 or less.

Beyond books, Amazon has sealed deals to deliver 11 newspapers via Kindle, including the New York Times ($13.99 a month) and Wall Street Journal ($9.99). Eight print and Web-based magazines (including Slate) are available for between $1.25 and $3.49 a month, as are 300 blogs, for 99 cents or $1.99 apiece each month. Most of this content is available for free on the Web and in some cases via full-text RSS feeds, with better formatting and more interactivity. But Kindle's approach offers something of the convenience of traditional newspaper and magazine subscriptions. As long as you leave the wireless connection on, fresh content is downloaded silently in the background even if Kindle is turned off, so it's ready to read when you are.

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