Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Amazon Kindle? Seriously?

"This is the future of book reading. It will be everywhere." - Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker.

You know, I enjoyed Moneyball. And Liar's Poker looked pretty good. But my stock in Michael Lewis's judgment just went into freefall. Does he really think the Amazon Kindle is the future of book reading? Man, first Ben Stein comes out as a creationist and shatters my impression of him, and now Michael Lewis comes clean as a moron. What's next? Steven Hawking announces his favorite movie is Norbit?

eBooks. What a tremendously stupid idea. Does anyone actually believe that reading books via portable back-lit monitor is somehow superior to reading ink on the page? I'm typing this on a monitor and I already have a headache. You're reading this on a monitor and even you are already feeling the twinge of eye strain. Who would want to read an entire novel this way?

The modern book has been around since, oh, 1450 AD. It's pretty well tested. It's fairly tried and true. Sitting in a library, or in a cafe, or on the back porch, or in bed, and turning the pages on a good book... does Michael Lewis really think that we're going to give up that unique pleasure, en masse, for some kind of gussied up Apple Newton that also checks email? Is he out of his cotton picking mind?

I know what's going on. Somebody thought that this was a natural evolution of book reading. Somebody figured that books were due for a revolutionary step forward. After all, VHS made the transition to DVD. CDs gave way to the iPod. The cell phone replaced the land line. Email replaced snail mail. Online news replaced newspapers. It was only a matter of time before someone figured that the "book" was ready for some similar makeover.

But is it? When it comes to "revolutionizing the way people do X" the internet has a spotty track record. Sure there are successes: Google, eBay, YouTube, etc. But for every MySpace, aren't there 10 or 20 "Gourmet-Meals-Delivered-To-Your-Door".com's? Or Find-a-land-surveyor.com's? Or Used-Office-Furniture-Exchange.com's? Isn't recent history littered with these failed grand ideas? To me, the Kindle feels like it belongs in 1997, with 4 engineering college drop out buddies in rented SoCal office space, tinkering with sautering irons and old PC parts trying to cook up a working prototype, while one of them sits on the phone making desperate cold calls to potential investors. That's where the eBook belongs. An idea whose inevitable failure was baked into the very concept: that book-reading was something that needed modernizing and revolutionizing.

Amazon is trying sooooooo hard to convince me that the Kindle is a must-buy. Don't I realize that I can download new books wirelessly? Don't I know that as soon as I'm done with one I can load up another? You see, the Kindle solves an age-old problem that has hindered mankind for centuries. It used to be, before the Kindle, that when you were finished reading a book, the book was still there in your hands and it didn't go away. Yes, you could dispose of it, but what if you wanted it later? Well, then you were stuck with the ownership of a "book". Many people, again, before the Kindle, would have to keep all manner of books stored in their homes for just this reason, sometimes even installing a "book-shelf" for the very purpose. I think we all know the shame of having someone visit our homes and seeing row upon row of "books" on shelves or in specialty cabinetry, unused and inert, a physical monument to inefficiency and waste. Again, before the Kindle.

And of course, Kindle apologists wouldn't sit still for my comments about getting headaches from reading off a monitor. Don't I know that the Kindle uses a revolutionary new kind of electronic display? A display so advanced it's virtually indistinguishable from paper, with the same hues, opacity, refraction and albedo? Have I even looked at a Kindle?

Of course I haven't looked at a Kindle. And what, it's got a display almost as good as paper? And pressing "page forward" becomes almost as second-nature as turning a real page? And the battery life is 16 hours, almost as good as infinity? All that for only 400 times the price? This is a no brainer! Where I can I sign up?

The Kindle is a solution to problem that doesn't exist. Useful innovations tend to be born out of need. Kindle-style innovations aren't midwifed by necessity. They're born out of pure greed and shortsightedness. Now it should be said, I have nothing against greed. I'm a Gordon Gecko man all the way. But Gordon Gecko would have never hawked eBooks. The entire Kindle concept has no more underlying logic than a Madlib: "The internet will revolutionize the way we experience books." It isn't compelling. It's unnecessary and unwanted. And, no offense to Steve Gibson, nobody will want it.

Prediction: Amazon slowly scales back their promotion of the Kindle. They will drop price, hoping to generate more interest, but it won't work. Ultimately, a niche market will appear for the Kindle. It will be a) the elderly who need larger, manipulatable font, b) disabled people who can't operate normal books easily, and, c) well, Steve Gibson. So Amazon will come out with a new version with enhanced features for those people, price will go up slightly, we'll never hear about eBooks ever again, and the world will be well.


Patty Ayers said...

Your perspective on the Kindle is a bit shortsighted. True, you might never need one. True, a traditional book will probably always be more appealing on many levels. But what if you don't have access to bookstores or libraries and are a voracious reader? I'm going to be in that position soon, and in the midst of trying to figure out how many pounds of books I could carry on a plane to a remote town in Mexico - and decide ahead of time which ones I want - I remembered about the Kindle. I rest my case. :-)

Rowsdower said...

Thank you for the comment Patty. I don't doubt for a minute you will enjoy your Kindle. But I should probably point out again that Amazon.com and that Moneyball guy are touting the Kindle as "the future of book reading". If they had limited the boast to "the future of book reading for international travelers who read voraciously and who need to pack light" then I guess I'd be with you. But no, Amazon wants to render all traditional books obsolete.

It's as if the company who made those airplane rubber neck-pillow things called them "The Future of Sleeping". I'm unpersuaded that the Kindle has anything other than a few niche uses.