Redefining Electronic Communication

I have a few entries to write on this topic, but this first one will focus on a specific form (and soon to be forum) of communication, books.

Originally, I was going to begin this entry with a line about how I’ve never actually used an Amazon Kindle, but it seems like a cool concept in need of some improvements (note: I’ve already discussed the Kindle in one entry, but these are new improvements I’ll discuss). However, I had the good fortune of holding and using a Kindle today. One of my coworkers recently bought one, and I had to see it.

Let me tell you…despite the lack of the aesthetic “cool” factor that Apple has mastered, the Kindle’s screen looks great. To have a good idea of what it looks like, open a book. Yeah. That’s what the screen looks like. Seriously. Particularly the typeface. It’s incredible.

I didn’t buy a book while using the Kindle, but I’m sure you’ve heard by now how easy it is to do. Without paying a monthly service charge, the Kindle is always connected to the internet, and if you want a book, you click a few times on the Kindle, find the book on Amazon (there are over 90,000 titles available, and counting), and download it within 1 or 2 minutes. This is huge–this is the reason why Kindle will be successful. Because one of the few things a book can’t do is be in your hands in 2 minutes no matter where you are.

On my previous blog entry about the Kindle, I complained about the price. Having seen a Kindle, and having thought about it some more, I’m not as concerned about the cost. It’s a cost, sure, and you can’t exactly convert your current library to the Kindle, but it’s not that big of a deal.

So that left my other concern, the design. Having seen the Kindle, that complaint stands. It’s all too obvious to me that Amazon was testing the waters with the Kindle, and there’s going to be an updated version that comes out in the future. When that happens, in addition to it looking good, I see the following as a few other improvements that should be made before I’ll buy a Kindle. Keep in mind that I fully understand that Kindle isn’t trying to be an iPhone–it’s not trying to be the be-all and end-all of portable electronic devices. Kindle is trying to be an electronic book, and it’s trying to do that one task very well. The steps to getting there:

  1. Touchscreen. I’m not even sure if this is possible with the E-Ink technology, but right now it’s fairly laborious to highlight a passage on the Kindle. This would be improved if you could use a plastic “pen” to underline and write notes on the screen, by why not eliminate the need for such a device by using a built-in device: your finger. You could highlight a line by running your finger across it.
  2. Audio. Imagine you’re at the park, reading my novel on your Kindle. You check your watch. Jeepers! It’s 1:30, and you have to run to your pirates class. It’s 20 minutes away by car, so you hop in your Prius and start driving. But wait–you were really caught up in the gripping passages in my novel, and you want to keep reading it. If you had an old-fashioned book, there would be nothing you could do about it. But you have the Kindle 2.0, and it will read the text to you as you drive. Sweet sweetness. The key to this idea is that you’re not buying an audio book, because then you’d be buying the same book twice (one text, one audio). Publishers will never agree to wrap the two into the same cost. But the software for reading text to you has improved by leaps and bounds over recent years, so this could be installed on the Kindle. Sure, you wouldn’t be held spellbound by Jessica Alba reading War and Peace (why not?), but you could set the voice to something nice, like you can do on GPS devices.
  3. Backlight. Amazon advertises that you don’t need a backlight for the Kindle because it looks like a piece of paper. But you can’t see a piece of paper when you’re reading late at night with your girlfriend snoring next to you. I know that it would suck up the battery time, but the Kindle should have a backlight. It’s a huge advantage over paper books.
  4. Forum Connectivity. I’ve been thinking a lot about how people like to talk about things on the internet. There is a small, select group of people who go out of their way to chat about things on the internet. The other people–millions and millions of them–are looking at and listening and watching information on the internet, but they’re not interacting with it. This blog gets about 30 hits a day, but only one or two people comment on it (more on this on a later edition of “Redefining Electronic Communication). My thinking is, though, that a lot of people may have things to say, but most web pages don’t make it very easy to say those things. Today I’m focusing on books, so with the Kindle, you now have an electronic device that can download a book from anywhere–why can’t you upload your thoughts on the book while you read? You could read a moving passage in The Time Traveler’s Wife and want to express that connection to the world, and within a few clicks, you could post a comment on the book to the world. Amazon could connect all readers of all books on Kindle. Currently, you have to go to the website and type a comment. Why not make the book a living, breathing thing, something with a pulse–something with a thousand pulses? And sure, there will be many people uninterested in commenting and uninterested in reading other people’s comments. But I think that group would grow smaller and smaller. The danger, of course, is that if you don’t monitor what people are saying on the internet, you can have big problems (i.e., if you give your kid a Kindle, and in the margins of his Roald Dahl book, someone in New York has inserted a comment about bitches and hos). There would have to be some security settings for kids using Kindle Live, as well as the Wikipedia-like capability of being able to tag and delete inappropriate comments. I really believe that the potential for this is amazing. Currently with the Kindle, if you see a word you don’t know, you can highlight it to immediately see what it means. Imagine if you could highlight a word and immediately see what it means to the world. To a professor at Yale. To a hitchhiker in Prague. To a Tibetian monk. The potential for connection truly excites me.

I may end up buying a Kindle before these things improvements happen. Maybe they never will. But I see so much potential in this device, and I’m excited that Amazon has created it for the world. I can’t wait for Kindle 2.0–that’s when I’ll be able to determine if Amazon is working on taking Kindle to the next level, or if they’re just going to produce the same thing in a slightly more sexy package.



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