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Amazon Works to Kindle Interest in Its New Digital Reader
by
Posted On November 26, 2007
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After many months of speculation and anticipation in the blogosphere (and even leaked specs and photos), Amazon.com, Inc. has formally introduced its new digital book reading device, called the Amazon Kindle (http://amazon.com/kindle). While Amazon clearly hopes that it kindles folks’ interest in reading books sold by Amazon, the launch of the reader has sparked a veritable firestorm of comments and reviews that range the gamut—from gushy praise (how about that Nov. 26 Newsweek cover story), to lust for the new gadget, to outright dismissal due to price (a hefty $399) or the features it doesn’t offer—and all this intense interest came during Thanksgiving week in the U.S. when people’s thoughts usually turn to family gatherings.

"We’ve been working on Kindle for more than three years. Our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands—to get out of the way—so you can enjoy your reading," said Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder and CEO. "We also wanted to go beyond the physical book. Kindle is wireless, so whether you’re lying in bed or riding a train, you can think of a book, and have it in less than 60 seconds. No computer is needed—you do your shopping directly from the device."

The Kindle is about the size of a paperback. It weighs 10.3 ounces, holds more than 200 titles with more possible via optional SD memory cards, and uses high-resolution display technology from E Ink Corp. (www.eink.com). A big selling point that gives it an advance over the Sony Reader (which launched last year and also uses E Ink technology) is its wireless delivery system. Amazon Whispernet uses Sprint’s nationwide high-speed data network (EVDO) used by advanced cell phones, and Amazon is covering the connection costs. Kindle customers can wirelessly shop Amazon’s Kindle Store to download or receive new content—without a PC, Wi-Fi hotspot, or syncing. The Kindle Store currently offers more than 90,000 books, as well as hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and blogs. The "buy now" in the Store reportedly operates much like the Amazon.com site, as does Amazon’s recommendation feature.

The Kindle also has a keyboard (lacking in the Sony Reader) that lets users search the Kindle Store, their library of content, and Wikipedia.org. Customers can add annotations to text and then edit, delete, and export these notes; highlight and clip key passages; and bookmark pages for future use. Kindle has built-in access to The New Oxford American Dictionary, which contains more than 250,000 entries and definitions, so readers can easily look up the definitions of words while reading. Kindle reportedly has a limited Web browser and lets users listen to MP3 files while they read. Users also can download thousands of audiobooks from Audible.com. Due to their file size, audiobooks are downloaded to a PC over an existing Internet connection and then transferred to Kindle using the included USB 2.0 cable. Listen via Kindle’s speaker or plug in headphones to the audio jack on the device.

I was unfortunately unable to get my hands on a Kindle to verify its capabilities. At least some early adopters have decided the device is cool, since the site says the units are sold out with a waiting list. (Reports said they sold out in just 5.5 hours.) Even review units for the press are out of stock.

Amazon said the content offered in its store are compelling offerings—included are 101 of 112 New York Times best sellers for $9.99 each, delivered in less than a minute. Customers can download and read the first chapter of most Kindle books for free. Newspapers delivered to the device include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and San Jose Mercury News—subscriptions cost $5.99 to $14.99 per month. Magazines are $1.25 to $3.49 per month. Blogs cost as little as $0.99 each per month and include a free 2-week trial. This is the full content of the post pushed to a device (Slashdot, Boing Boing, The Onion, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, etc.), not an RSS feed, and updated throughout the day. (But with the limited Web browsing already available, it’s not difficult to see that clever users would find ways to bypass paying to read freely available Weblogs.)

Customers can email Word documents and pictures directly to their unique Kindle e-mail addresses for $0.10 each. Kindle supports wireless delivery of unprotected Microsoft Word, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP files. The documentation notes that "PDF conversion is experimental … You can email your PDFs wirelessly to your Kindle. Due to PDF’s fixed layout format, some complex PDF files might not format correctly on your Kindle."

As for the USB connection on the device, the Gadget Lab at Wired reported in its blog (http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2007/11/the-ultimate-ki.html) that, "In preliminary tests, the only thing it would consent to be synched with over USB were text files and MP3s. RTF, DOC, PDF and so on don’t even appear in the Kindle’s file browser." According to the Kindle site, it can natively read the following file types: documents in text (.txt), Amazon Kindle (.azw), unprotected Mobipocket books (.prc, .mobi), Audible Audio books (.aa), and MP3 music files (.mp3).

Reading rights are one issue that some critics have seized upon. Obtaining content for the Kindle is not like acquiring a printed book. Here’s the fine print (italics added):

You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

And here are some additional statements from the Kindle Terms of Service that definitely give me pause (thanks to some bloggers for reprinting). I’ve added the italics:

The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files, and signal strength) and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service…

Your rights under this Agreement will automatically terminate without notice from Amazon if you fail to comply with any term of this Agreement. In case of such termination, you must cease all use of the Software and Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Service or to Digital Content without notice to you and without refund of any fees.

At this point the Kindle cannot be used for reading ebooks loaned to patrons by public libraries, because of the digital rights management (DRM) involved with controlling the lending period. An Amazon spokesperson responded to me about this issue via email: "This lending model is not something that is available today, but we will listen carefully to our customers and innovate accordingly."

While Amazon has clearly improved on a number of the limitations that reviewers found in Sony’s Reader, this is still version 1.0 of this product. Amazon will be tweaking, improving, and making adjustments to it. Features will be added, and the price is likely to fall. At this point it’s a fairly expensive single-purpose device, so I’ll wait it out. As one of my colleagues put it, "Until this device comes with a library of some free content or allows easy connection to free libraries, I’m not interested." At last check, there were more than 700 customer reviews posted to the Amazon site—the average being 2 and a half stars out of a possible 5.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.



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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Jill ONeill11/27/2007 3:52:49 PM

Part of me is enamored of the device, just on the grounds that it has adjustable font size, portability and a huge collection of content already engineered for the device. Had it been priced at $250.00, I would have ordered one immediately and figured on amortizing out the cost over five years. I have no desire to read books on either a cell phone or on a PDA because the screens are so small, but this doesn’t look too bad to me. It isn’t a whiz-bang design like the iPhone, but it does what I would want an e-reader to do. Legible, portable content with a wide range of titles from which to choose.

I do sort of roll my eyes over some of the associated DRM and licensing terms. (I really do.) But in this instance, Amazon is acting as an aggregator of content and I am licensing individual titles from Amazon, a third–party with limited control over the actual product being furnished. I’m not going to own the titles that I read on a Kindle and Amazon may not be the one dictating the terms of use. Licensing as a business model tends to be more restrictive than ownership, whether we’re talking about use of a copy of Moby Dick or a Mercedes-Benz. I am quite sure that publishers (particularly those in trade publishing) are scrambling to figure out a new economic structure for delivery of text that will maximize a predictable revenue stream and keep production costs low. I know that there are book publishers out there who will never go electronic without legal protections.

I don’t like it but, in my opinion, we’re headed towards a model where certain types of use will incur certain pricing models for content. What do you need to do with this piece of content? Just read it? Or do you expect to incorporate it into another document? The prices for each activity will be different. Trade publishing has never worked like that before, but I could see a future where it might be an accepted aspect of determining whether a consumer buys or licenses a text.

I read somewhere that Amazon has quit discounting mass market paperbacks at the same time as they are releasing the Kindle. I imagine that was the trade-off that Amazon had to make with the publishers to get the volume of content they needed. The powers-that-be, the decision makers at Random House and Time Warner and their ilk are shifting the economic structures of reading in the interests of sustainability, just as we saw happen with journal publishing ten years ago. One price for print, one price for electronic, one price for a combination thereof, until the publishers have navigated us through the transition to a new business model.

The book publishing community is facing significant business challenges and they are trying to transition from one business model to another while sustaining predictable revenues. As a consumer, I can’t afford to spend more than $35.00 on a hardcover book and my book-buying budget each month is restricted to $50.00. Where does that leave the publishing companies when a true hard-core consumer of books, such as myself, someone who regularly reads and frequently buys between forty and fifty titles a year, starts to hesitate over purchasing the product strictly on the grounds of price?

Publishers and, indeed, some authors have complained about library lending and used book sales for years because such practices cut back on revenue. This device is intended for just one person to use and is aimed at a particular kind of customer. Amazon wants to attract and keep the customer who *doesn’t* use libraries, someone who buys books rather than borrows them, and who seeks maximum portability. I don’t think the Kindle was intended to be the only mechanism for reading – just to be the device of choice for a certain demographic.

Jill O'Neill
Director Planning & Communication
NFAIS


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