Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kindling for the fire

Amazon took the wraps of their attempt to "improve" the book, the Kindle. It's an awkward looking device that seems to take its design cues from a misinterpretation of the iPod's--if it's white, it's simple--when it should have been looking at some of the more successful cell phone designs for creating the illusion of simplicity while offering just-in-time functionality. The result is a device that looks overly complicated and doesn't forefront its main use: reading. It's main competitor in the nonexistent market, Sony's Reader presents a much more elegant shell, even if it's still the answer to a problem that nobody seems to have.

It's also, for a book retailer, a surprisingly limited understanding of why people like books. In Amazon chief Jeff Bezos's open letter on Amazon's front page, he essentially defines a book as words you can hold. The Kindle takes that definition and runs with it, offering no individualized design, no color, no real visual cues that Moby Dick is different than the latest Harlequin romance. Everything's set in the same limited typefaces (though the typographer in me does appreciate that they're elegant), in the same monochrome way. Yikes.

The Kindle of course marks the latest folly in the attempt to give print its "iPod moment", the introduction of a piece of consumer electronics that would make people care about the written word again. Of course it's a search that already has an answer (the Internet, stupid), but it's also a search based on a false premise: Yes, the iPod made people care about music again, but it didn't do much for the music industry. If anything, the iPod was the music industry's "Internet moment": the final battle in a losing war. Searching out a device that will deal the final blow to your industry seems a bit counter-intuitive, if you ask me. Plus, walk around a college campus or wander through the business district of your city at lunchtime and you'll see that that device is already here and guess who made it.

Which brings up the real question: who the hell wants this thing? Yes, we all know that print is a medium in flux, but is anyone really sitting around saying, "You know what would bring me back to paying for content? Another goddamn electronic device to lug around with me." Amazon seems to be betting that someone is, tying the Kindle to their own webstore and requiring all content downloaded to the machine to be authorized by Amazon (yet another misread from Apple's success). Sure it can read blogs, but only blogs approved by Amazon, not any old RSS feed you subscribe to. Sure it can read books, but only books you purchase from Amazon's store, not PDFs downloaded elsewhere or HTML loaded in through the many public-domain book projects. And yes, it can subscribe to magazines and newspapers (for money! once again! thank god!), but only the ones on Amazon's list, which means that you're stuck with the usual tired collection. It's the kind of overly-controlled, extremely-limited collection of the usual suspects that businesspeople think make sense because the numbers add up, but never actually works because even though most people make the same boring choices, they also like the possibility of choosing something new. The Kindle is another closed system in a world that's gone decidedly open.


amp said...

This blog post is filled with so much vitriole and misinformation you should be embarrassed. Amazon lets you put anything you want on your Kindle including ebooks from otehr vendors. You can read any blog or RSS feed you want for free with the built in browser and FREE 3G Internet connection. Ugh!