Amazon Kindle: It’s not for us, Jack

With any technology, there's a time for the masses to jump in and a time for early adopters with cash to burn. In the case of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, that time is more of the latter than the former.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

My grubby hands on the Amazon Kindle at Continental Airlines' Presidents Club Lounge at  Newark Liberty International Airport.

See Jason's Amazon Kindle Gallery.

As I've discussed in this column before, I spend about 4 days a week away from home and about 8 to 10 hours a week in airplanes and airports.

Among my "Kit" of stuff that I drag around with me every day in my overstuffed backpack are a laptop, a digital camera, portable hard drives, numerous battery chargers, media readers, a portable GPS, and any number of other knicknacks including printed work documents, books and magazines, which add considerably to my schleppable footprint.

There's certainly a limitation to the amount of documents and reading material a traveler can reasonably carry with them, and that's why technologies such as handheld e-book readers which can store tens of thousands of pages of content on them are compelling.

But with any technology, there's a time for the masses to jump in and a time for early adopters with cash to burn. In the case of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, that time is more of the latter than the former.

The Kindle is not a new product -- the company released it in time for the 2007 holiday season, at an entry price of $400. A year later, the unit sells for $359, a whole $60 discounted off of the full retail.

As my frugal grandmother, Sylvia Perlow, who survived through the Great Depression used to say to my grandfather when questioning a potentially frivolous purchase, "It's not for us, Jack."

This is not to say that the Kindle isn't an impressive piece of technology -- it is. The black and white "Electronic Ink" display is as close as you can get to looking at printed bond paper, and the device is a pleasure to use.

The Kindle store has over 180,000 titles available, all easily browseable through the device's UI and search engine, which is delivered through Amazon's "Whispernet" Sprint EVDO wireless service in a matter of seconds -- a SF novella was bought and delivered to my device in less time it took to read a single page of text, and it happened transparently in the background while I was doing something else.

But the Kindle is still too expensive for mass adoption, particularly as it is an entirely closed system that mostly limits you to reading content you buy from the Kindle store. Current release best-sellers are $10 each, with older content ranging from $2.00-$6.00 depending on length, licensing costs and age.

For example, the 160-page Robert Silverberg novella ""=""> which was published in 1971 cost me $1.60. Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 "The Fountains Of Paradise" sells for $7.96. Major newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cost $9-$14 per month. Newsweek is $1.49 per week.

Even blogs which are normally free to read on the Internet cost 99 cents per blog for a monthly subscription. The Kindle does have a basic web browser, but using it with the e-book controls is awkward and it can't really render anything but the most basic HTML sites.

The price of the unit and the accumulating content costs aren't the biggest negative -- despite the Kindle being powered by embedded Linux, as I said before, it's pretty much a totally closed unit and makes the iPhone look like a Open Source oasis by comparison.

You can't develop software for it, although you can load and listen to MP3s, Audible audiobooks and read converted Office Documents and PDFs using the SD expansion card interface.

And even though you've purchased any number of books from the Kindle store, unlike a real book, you can't "lend" them or "give" them to someone else with a Kindle, which leaves out the possibility of having friends and family content-swapping clubs.

Ideally, I should be able to add someone to my "library" list, and authorize them to remove the book from my content manager for their use, or at the very least, Amazon should implement some sort of electronic Half.com bartering service where if I buy a book for 10 bucks, I get $5 credit when swapping it with someone else who wants to get rid of a book of comparable value they've already read.

The dynamics would have to be worked out, but any kind of interactive Kindle community where content could be swapped and shared would make the unit much more attractive to prospective buyers.

The current going rumor is that in early 2009, the next-generation Kindle will sell for $100 less than the current model. If that rumor is indeed true, then I definitely think that most potential buyers should give the current model a pass, given the fact that the content costs are high and the device itself isn't cheap either.

In addition to slashing prices on the current unit, Amazon could considerably lower costs by removing the EVDO module (which Amazon incurs overhead and does not currently charge data service fees on) and replacing it with a combo Wi-Fi transmitter/Ethernet jack, which is entirely ubiquitous these days, although coverage isn't going to be as comprehensive as Sprint's data service.

However, given that most users are likely to download content when they are at their workplace, homes or hotel rooms, or in airports or Net cafes with public Wi-Fi access points like Starbucks, this would probably would be a good compromise.

Such a change would require a better embedded web browser which would allow users to agree to the usual billing agreement home pages to grant them full network access. Also, being able to read my GMail from a Kindle or browse my favorite web sites in a useful manner would sure beat squinting at a Blackberry or an iPhone.

An Open Source developer kit would allow creative "Mashup" apps to be written for the device, as well as the potential for Java-based MIDP applications such as Google's native mobile phone UI for GMail.

Are you already a Kindle early adopter or are you going to bypass the current generation? Talk Back and let me know.

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