Thursday, November 29, 2007

Taking a Read on the Amazon Kindle

The demise of paper has been prematurely predicted since computers were first introduced into offices. Indeed, we have learned to create, edit and share documents purely in the electronic realm. What wasn't seen was the huge increase in demand for paper created by millions of dot matrix, laser and ink jet printers. Newspapers are now online, but we still get paper copies delivered. E-books are readily available, but bookstore shelves are bursting with good old paper volumes. What is it about paper that just won't go away in the electronic age?

It could be that it's hard to curl up with a good e-book and its attendant PC. It could be that we like scribbling notes all over our disposable paper copies. A lot of it has to do with the fact that books, magazines and newspapers don't give you eyestrain the way reading on a backlit computer display does. It may also be that computers just don't fit well in the bottom of a bird cage.

Amazon believes it has solved all but the last issue. Polly will still get to do her duty on that impossibly frustrating Sudoku in the comics section. But the rest of us may begin to change our reading habits with the introduction of the Amazon Kindle. Others have tried and failed to build stand alone portable document readers. The problems had to do with size, weight, short battery life, low storage capacity, and the infamous eye-straining display. Kindle's design has worked through all of these issues, plus a few others.

The idea behind Kindle is that it looks, feels and weighs-in like a book. A trade paperback, mind you, not a romance novel. Even so, just 10.3 ounces for a 7.5" x 5.3" x 0.7" plastic device sure beats lugging a laptop. The most important feature of emulating a real book is the appearance of text on a page. That's where Kindle has advanced the game. The display has no backlight. It's an electronic paper display that uses a new technology to display black letters on a grayish white background. This isn't liquid crystals. It's ink particles controlled electronically. You can take it out and read in sunlight or under a lamp in the living room. It looks like paper and it doesn't get hot. Eyestrain? No problem. If you want a larger text, you can increase the font size. No need for special large print books.

The Kindle is designed to be held like a book with buttons on each side to advance a page or go back. There's also a QWERTY keyboard along the bottom to take notes or search for text, look up words in the dictionary, or shop for new books. Ah, that's another surprise feature. The Kindle comes with Sprint EV-DO cellular broadband to connect it to the Amazon bookstore and Web resources such as Wikipedia. Before you blanch at the thought of what that's going to cost, I should mention that Amazon picks up the tab on the broadband connection. You don't pay any fees. They expect to recover the cost of the service by making it easy to buy and download books, newspapers and magazines from wherever you happen to be. Think of it like a mobile iTunes for printed materials.

So how much will this portable reader set you back? It's priced at $399 and they've flown off the shelves so fast you have to get on a waiting list for the next shipment. For that you also get access to a download library of 90,000 books with best sellers and new releases prices at $9.99 each. The Kindle holds over 200 titles in memory. If you turn off the wireless between downloads, you can read for up to a week on a single battery charge.

Amazon's Kindle seems perfect for anyone who needs to tote around a bunch of heavy books. I'm thinking college students or those poor hunched over kids in middle and high school trudging home with their fifty pound backpacks. Technical professionals, too. How about the ease of studying for computer certifications or carrying your reference library in your jacket pocket? I did a quick search on "Cisco" in the Kindle bookstore and found 42 results including some popular study guides.

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