20 November 2007

E-book the letter

Amazon has introduced a new $400 ebook reader, aggressively named the Kindle. (So funny, of course, to bring the idea of burning together with the idea of books.) The Kindle is called a “wireless reading device”: I don’t know about you, but I’ve been able to read without needing wires since I was very small. Anyway, we gadgetophiles must bravely acknowledge that the Kindle is certain to fail, since (among other reasons) it is stupidly expensive and relies, as John Gruber points out, on a proprietary file format with insane restrictions on use.

But please don’t imagine that I’m one of those muttering diehards who exhibit an irrational fetish for the book-as-object. Instead, in the hope of hastening the exciting ebook revolution, I here propose a minimal list of features that any really successful ebook device must eventually have. Feature parity with physical books, after all, is surely a reasonable baseline demand. So here is what the electronic book of the future will be like.

1 It will have an inexhaustible source of energy and never need recharging.

2 It will have resolution as good as print. (No, Amazon, really as good as print.)

3 It will be able to survive coffee and wine spills, days of intense sunlight, dropping in the ocean, light charring, and falling completely into two or more pieces, while still remaining perfectly readable afterwards.

4 It will allow me to scribble notes and/or doodles in the margins, with my choice of mechanical pencil or fine Muji fibre-tip pen (black). (Note, typing in the margins with a crappy thumb keyboard is not an acceptable alternative.)

5 It will allow me to riffle through it and thus get a quick, intuitive look at the book’s argumentative or narrative structure.

6 It will allow me to tear off the corner of a page to write down my phone number (or someone else’s).

7 It will display to other people in coffee shops and on public transport the title of what I am reading, so as to advertise my erudition or quirky sense of humour.

8 It will be physically handsome, not drop-dead fugly. (Note to Amazon: for pity’s sake, next time, head-hunt people from Sony or Apple.)

9 Indeed, the books on it will still be designed, by typesetters and graphic artists, so as to feed our aesthetic pleasure.

10 I will still be able to lend or give books to friends, or swap books in and out of the honour library of much-read novels in a Mediterranean seaside bar.

11 I will be able to use the ebook as a reliable flat surface for rolling cigarettes or other leaf-based refreshments, without worrying about debris shorting the motherboard.

12 When I receive the updated edition of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, I will be able to press the previous edition into service as a stand for the left-hand music speaker on my desk.

13 The ebook will function, morever, as both bug-crusher and discretionary hat. Placed on my face, it will make a soft roof against the sun on the beach.

14 I will still be able to hurl a fatuous tome such as Jeff Gomez’s Print Is Dead across the room without thereby destroying my ability to read any other books.

There. Only 14 features to go before we can all abandon paper. Not too much to ask, is it?

Update: via Gruber again, I see that some chucklemeister at BusinessWeek has the horn for the Kindle:

But the digerati don’t get it and don’t like it and that creates a compelling investment opportunity to buy Amazon shares now. The stock market doesn’t appreciate this game changer. Kindle will be the iPod of books — you read it here first.

Ah, the iPod of books. Indeed. How many times have you been sitting on a train or at a café table with a book, and wished to high heaven that instead of a single measly book, you had a playlist — perhaps comprising 2 pages of Schopenhauer, 3 pages of Dan Brown, a paragraph of Cormac McCarthy, a scene of Pinter, and a single brilliantly chosen sentence of Martin Amis?

Yes, me too.

  • Tom

    It’s hard to determine whether you are going for a serious review of the ebook market, or entirely for satire. You’ve made some good points that ring true; but then some of your comments are downright idiotic and borderline stupid.

    For example, lending your books to friends is a given for print, and should be so with electronic. I also like your aesthetic ideals, a point that I believe most ebooks overlook.

    However if you buy a book hoping to crush bugs with it or throw it across a room – save your money and invest in a baseball and a fly swatter.

    Ebooks have a great potential in terms of market response IF they were properly introduced and capitalized upon. Your worthwhile suggestions could make that happen – even so far as to satisfy your very intense demands.

    And while the arts struggle to find their feet in this digital world, I suggest you shut your mouth, open your mind, and wear sunglasses next time you go to the beach.

  • It’s hard to determine whether you are going for a serious review of the ebook market, or entirely for satire.

    It is hard, isn’t it? I feel your pain.

    I suggest you shut your mouth

    For someone who works at an American university, you don’t seem to have any great attachment to freedom of expression.

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  • Me

    You’re on track with that waterproofing. Being able to take one into the tub to read, or at the beach/pool is why I haven’t bought one myself.

  • Tom

    For someone who works at an American university, you don’t seem to have any great attachment to freedom of expression.

    Sure I do. But I can be just as satirical as you.

    The problem isn’t that ebooks or ebook readers are bad ideas (or that THIS ebook reader is a bad idea) or that they can’t compete with dead trees. The problem is that there have been so many poor implementations of these ideas that nobody takes them seriously anymore.

    I agree the Kindle is doomed to failure, but not for (all of) the reasons you specify. Price is perhaps the biggest factor: $10 for a book I can buy at Barnes and Noble for $7; a reader for $400 when I can buy a laptop for $300. That’s worth more attention than the lack of an illustrated cover.

  • nobody takes them seriously anymore.

    Nobody except Jeff Bezos, Jeff Gomez, the New York Times, that dude at BusinessWeek, and countless more breathless media puff pieces, you’re right!

  • Hey ! get yourself an OLPC !

    -battery time is counted in days, not hours (and there’s different kinds of rechargers)
    -can drop in water, no problem, very resistent. No HD, so no spinning parts, no lost data b/c shock.
    -1200×900 resolution in Black&White without backlight so you can read in the sun (special screen).


    take a look at

  • I’d love an OLPC, but they won’t sell them to Europeans yet!

  • andrew

    I also thought that the Kindle name was somewhat amusing. Book burning anyone?

  • TMQ

    Very nice, very nice indeed. Kudos!

  • Ben Kimball

    I wouldn’t wish three pages of Dan Brown on anybody.

  • Sami

    I’d rather display a porn collection in my bookcase than one of those. Does it look as ugly for real as it does in the pictures? The iPod has something called style, anybody mentioned that to Amazon yet?
    If it were at least well-designed (if well-made or not, I can’t tell from the pictures), PDF-compatible and waterproof, I’d love it – if only for reading in the bath tub.

  • Sure I do. But I can be just as satirical as you.

    Sure, as you proved by your fine grasp of satire in your first comment.

    Lt. Steven Hauk: Sir, in my heart, I know I’m funny.

  • liz

    Wow, that thing is fugly. _Star trek_ had better digital book design in 1996.

  • Jonathan Christie

    Who’s Dan Brown??

  • Before I read a single word in any book, I always do number 5.

  • Peter Brown

    I always do #2 myself.

  • Peter Brown

    Duh, I mean 3 :^)

  • Coherent

    Funny that you should refer to the Kindle as crippled and useless because of it’s proprietary document format. I was thinking the same thing as soon as I saw the specs. My first thought was, “What an incredible waste of a great gadget.”

    Wow, you can download new books for $10! That’s way more than the ACTUAL BOOK. It’s like we’re back in the 90’s again, when ridiculous amounts of money were spent on completely stupid business plans that no consumer in their right mind would ever actually use because it’s amazingly LESS efficient and convenient than the old way! Thanks for the timewarp flashback, Kindle!

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    The iPod of eBooks is … the iPod. It’s $100 cheaper than Kindle also and with the 200 dpi touchscreen it is a better book reader.

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  • Rajiv

    “E-book the letter” : do I spot an REM fan?

    (If not, well, “E-bow the letter” just happens to be one of my favorite REM songs, ever.)

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  • Tom

    Forget all that stuff about books, I love the phrase “leaf-based refreshments”.

    As for e-reading, I look forward to it being implemented correctly. I can’t even say what “correctly” is, but I know the Kindle isn’t anywhere near it.

    What’s really funny is the decent press it’s getting in some quarters. If Apple had released this (even assuming it look more Apple-like), they’d be getting blasted for its severely restricted DRM and lack of support for other formats. Why is Amazon getting a pass on this?

  • But have you actually used one?

  • Of course not, gavsstudio. I’ve never used a nuclear weapon, either, but I’m quite sure I don’t want one of those.

    Rajiv: yes, REM FTW.

    I’m very fond of the following from the long comments thread at the Guardian, where this blog was also posted. Says one Masopher:

    1 Stone tablet.

    2 A Stone tablet is better than print, you can even feel the engraved words!

    3 Stone Tablet.

    4 You can use chalk to scribble on the clay tablet!

    5 With one look a stone tablet tells you almost everything it contains.

    6 With a stone tablet you can bop them over the head and drag them back to the cave.

    7 Once you shine your stone tablet or break a piece off to make a spear head you will be plenty impressive.

    8 Granite is a very handsome stone.

    9 Agreed, whoever chisels stone tablets should have A) a hammer, B) a chisel C) stone D) imagination

    10 Use the tablet to play skipping stones.

    11 Nothing better than a stone tablet for that.

    12 Again a stone tablet comes into play.

    13 Depending on the size of the stone tablet it can be used in all these ways, and flattens your forhead into an apt slope to boot!

    14 Imagine throwing the tablet at Mr Gomez, you kill two birds with one stone tablet.

    There you have it, stone tablets will replace paper books as the future of published material.

    And I have read some of the “debate” as well. With the innovations in concrete and clay we wont have to worry about trees or scarce resources, stone can be washed and recycled after use in bowel emergency situations, it has the comfortable earthy feel.

  • Tom

    Brilliant. Three cheers.

    My wife gets upset at me for reading various and sundry online content with my laptop in bed while she’s reading her novel. So I’m no Luddite. But there is simply no way the Kindle is going to be something I’ll prefer to use for reading a book, and you’ve hit all the reasons and then some. Thanks for summing it up so well.

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  • lparra

    Just downloaded your Trigger Happy book. Will read it, and as soon as I´m done, if it´s as good as it seems, I will buy copies for the library at the Uni I work at to support your efforts.

    Thank you.


  • Big Ben

    I myself often do #2 while reading. It’s the only time I can get some peace and quiet.

  • Still waiting …

    Want to read my pdfs, don’t want to relocate to the US, need long battery life, lightweight, no funny tie-ins !
    I will state this on every Kindle review site until somebody gets it and finally makes a nice ereader.
    I like dead tree thingies too, but
    1. most tech manuals etc. come in eform now (see Trigger Happy ;-))
    2. I have limited shelf space
    3. I sometimes want more than one book and really tend sometimes to read 2 pages here, 2 pages there, since exhausted math synapses still means that I can read history

  • I like your specifications. I wrote an unbiased review last year, which you are kindly welcome to read if you like a good laugh (just follow my url).

  • PaleDavid

    Interesting stuff, but books and ebooks aren’t mutually exclusive, surely? And audiobooks are often preferable on the move. All these technologies have their place.

    My guess: lots of people will – mostly unintentionally – end up with a gadget that can handle PDFs and HTML. Some will download books in those formats but only if they’re easy to use and free, cheap, or pay-by-chapter.

    E-books will probably make progress fastest in places with less access to books but not on Kindles.

  • Marc

    I think the problem here is that too many people want to replace the book, forcing the “e-book” to do something it does badly and ignoring its strengths. The strength lies in displaying information that is dynamic, such as blogs. Or web sites. Or animation. Or text layouts that don’t imitate right-to-left books, but allow multiple directions, like following threads in a discussion.

    That is what the makers of Kindle got wrong: they try too hard to imitate books. It’s as bad as if cinema projectors only imitated paintings. An e-book is best for the ephemeral, not the fixed.

  • Michele

    I read my e-books on my legacy Palm Tungsten T3. Easy to carry, can read in bed in the dark, can carry hundreds of books on an SD card…

    I am a big fan of ereader.com, which is books for PDAs, primarily, and of manybooks.net, which has ebooks in all kinds of formats. I read for entertainment when I’m travelling or waiting, this is an easy way, instead of lugging around a tote bag full of books.

    I don’t want a Kindle because it’s too big, don’t like the proprietary format, and it is way too expensive. With the Palm I can at least do other stuff.

    This doesn’t mean I don’t buy actual books, I do. Lots of them. For traveling though, I much prefer ebooks.