The Future of Reading
Amazon's Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind's most divine creations: the book itself.
By Steven Levy
Updated: 12:53 PM ET Nov 17, 2007
"Technology," computer pioneer Alan Kay once said, "is anything that was invented after you were born." So it's not surprising, when making mental lists of the most whiz-bangy technological creations in our lives, that we may overlook an object that is superbly designed, wickedly functional, infinitely useful and beloved more passionately than any gadget in a Best Buy: the book. It is a more reliable storage device than a hard disk drive, and it sports a killer user interface. (No instruction manual or "For Dummies" guide needed.) And, it is instant-on and requires no batteries. Many people think it is so perfect an invention that it can't be improved upon, and react with indignation at any implication to the contrary.
"The book," says Jeff Bezos, 43, the CEO of Internet commerce giant Amazon.com, "just turns out to be an incredible device." Then he uncorks one of his trademark laughs.
Books have been very good to Jeff Bezos. When he sought to make his mark in the nascent days of the Web, he chose to open an online store for books, a decision that led to billionaire status for him, dotcom glory for his company and countless hours wasted by authors checking their Amazon sales ratings. But as much as Bezos loves books professionally and personally—he's a big reader, and his wife is a novelist—he also understands that the surge of technology will engulf all media. "Books are the last bastion of analog," he says, in a conference room overlooking the Seattle skyline. We're in the former VA hospital that is the physical headquarters for the world's largest virtual store. "Music and video have been digital for a long time, and short-form reading has been digitized, beginning with the early Web. But long-form reading really hasn't." Yet. This week Bezos is releasing the Amazon Kindle, an electronic device that he hopes will leapfrog over previous attempts at e-readers and become the turning point in a transformation toward Book 2.0. That's shorthand for a revolution (already in progress) that will change the way readers read, writers write and publishers publish. The Kindle represents a milestone in a time of transition, when a challenged publishing industry is competing with television, Guitar Hero and time burned on the BlackBerry; literary critics are bemoaning a possible demise of print culture, and Norman Mailer's recent death underlined the dearth of novelists who cast giant shadows. On the other hand, there are vibrant pockets of book lovers on the Internet who are waiting for a chance to refurbish the dusty halls of literacy.
As well placed as Amazon was to jump into this scrum and maybe move things forward, it was not something the company took lightly. After all, this is the book we're talking about. "If you're going to do something like this, you have to be as good as the book in a lot of respects," says Bezos. "But we also have to look for things that ordinary books can't do." Bounding to a whiteboard in the conference room, he ticks off a number of attributes that a book-reading device—yet another computer-powered gadget in an ever more crowded backpack full of them—must have. First, it must project an aura of bookishness; it should be less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture. Therefore the Kindle (named to evoke the crackling ignition of knowledge) has the dimensions of a paperback, with a tapering of its width that emulates the bulge toward a book's binding. It weighs but 10.3 ounces, and unlike a laptop computer it does not run hot or make intrusive beeps. A reading device must be sharp and durable, Bezos says, and with the use of E Ink, a breakthrough technology of several years ago that mimes the clarity of a printed book, the Kindle's six-inch screen posts readable pages. The battery has to last for a while, he adds, since there's nothing sadder than a book you can't read because of electile dysfunction. (The Kindle gets as many as 30 hours of reading on a charge, and recharges in two hours.) And, to soothe the anxieties of print-culture stalwarts, in sleep mode the Kindle displays retro images of ancient texts, early printing presses and beloved authors like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen.
But then comes the features that your mom's copy of "Gone With the Wind" can't match. E-book devices like the Kindle allow you to change the font size: aging baby boomers will appreciate that every book can instantly be a large-type edition. The handheld device can also hold several shelves' worth of books: 200 of them onboard, hundreds more on a memory card and a limitless amount in virtual library stacks maintained by Amazon. Also, the Kindle allows you to search within the book for a phrase or name.
Some of those features have been available on previous e-book devices, notably the Sony Reader. The Kindle's real breakthrough springs from a feature that its predecessors never offered: wireless connectivity, via a system called Whispernet. (It's based on the EVDO broadband service offered by cell-phone carriers, allowing it to work anywhere, not just Wi-Fi hotspots.) As a result, says Bezos, "This isn't a device, it's a service." ...
Levy does a great job moving from the gee-whizness of the device to the social, intellectual, and commercial processes and transactions that are in so much flux. Best of all, he talks to Bob Stein and Ben Vershbow of the Institute for the Future of the Book.
Still, I wonder if Levy missed some important issues here. I appears that Amazon has forged its service with essential yet potentially frustrating links to Sprint for wireless connectivity and the major publishers for supplying digital text in the right formats. That means digital rights management. That means consumer frustration and massive failures.
Is there really an industry out there that still believes DRM can be effective and consumer-friendly?
And, as Levy points out in the article, publishers are hardly playing this game smartly. They have refused to lower prices for electronic distribution. And much of their back valuable back catalogs include classics still under copyright yet lacking explicit permissions for electronic rights.
As far as the dream of textual connectivity and annotations -- making books more "Webby" -- we don't need new devices to do that. Nor do we need different social processes. But we do need better copyright laws to facilitate such remixes and critical engagement.
So consider this $400 device from Amazon. Once you drop that cash, you still can't get books for the $9 cost of writing, editing, and formating. You still pay close to the $30 physical cost that includes all the transportation, warehousing, taxes, returns, and shoplifting built into the price. You can only use Amazon to get texts, thus locking you into a service that might not be best or cheapest. You can only use Sprint to download texts or get Web information. You can't transfer all you linking and annotating to another machine or network your work. If the DRM fails, you are out of luck. If the device fails, you might not be able to put your library on a new device.
All the highfallutin' talk about a new way of reading leading to a new way of writing ignores some basic hard problems: the companies involved in this effort do not share goals. And they do not respect readers or writers.
I say we route around them and use these here devices -- personal computers -- to forge better reading and writing processes.