Could the Amazon Kindle Become the iPod of Books?

For the Kindle, the challenge is to do what Apple has done: design a device for readers that is beautiful and functional enough to become a cultural totem.

I’m riding the Acela Express to Boston, en route to a Cambridge-based tech firm called E Ink Corporation. Snow falls, and as we glide through the Bronx, I listen to the song “Une Année Sans Lumière,” by Arcade Fire. It’s the perfect sound track for the scene outside the window, a whited-out landscape of dormant smokestacks and abandoned-looking truck trailers. I feel like I’m watching a movie in which the past fades away. It’s an oddly pleasant sensation, one of those rare moments when I feel good about our technological society.

I am also feeling good about technology because I’ve just spent the holiday season snuggled up with a Kindle, an Amazon.com-marketed electronic reader with many virtues. The screen, which is more black and gray than black and white, is a fairly good approximation of a printed page. It is more pleasurable to stare at for long periods of time than my computer screen and, like the iTunes store, provides instant gratification. Some 200,000 titles are available for download via the same wireless networks that cell phones use, so you don’t have to connect to the Internet. I read Hari Kunzru’s new novel, My Revolution; Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of short stories back-to-back, nonstop, like a kid gobbling up a bag of Halloween candy. During the height of my infatuation, I started believing that I could see a future in which the Kindle would do for the written word what the iPod and iTunes have done for music.

As you’ve probably noticed, newspapers and magazines are struggling. The old advertising-supported publishing model is looking anemic. Book publishing isn’t faring any better. Salvation in the form of a new gizmo would be just the thing right about now. The best idea anyone has at the moment is, as David Carr recently framed it in the New York Times, to “Invent an iTunes for News.” Or, more to the point, invent an iTunes for everything.

Amazon almost has. Unfortunately, the Kindle isn’t an iPod. For starters, it’s not a beautiful object. While it’s about the right shape, size, and weight to sit like a book in my hands, the industrial design leaves something to be desired. The provenance of the design is a little vague. Various blogs have identified its daddy as Robert Brunner, an industrial designer who was once with Apple and more recently a partner at Pentagram, but an Amazon-owned Skunk Works in Silicon Valley, Lab126, takes credit. “Amazon designed Kindle,” a corporate PR person told me with gospel certainty.

The current model is a beveled rectangle in off-white plastic with a rubberized back (good) and pointy corners that dig into my palms as I read (not good). There are two long, vertical Next Page buttons running on either edge of the screen, making it impossible to avoid advancing the page by accident. And the diminutive keyboard, angled in a way that suggests great ergonomic wisdom, mostly feels awkward. The on-screen interface, a series of listlike menus from which you can select an item by pressing down on a little navigation wheel, reminded me of AOL circa 1995. The overall aesthetic recalls the sort of future-forward projects industrial-design students were turning out in the late 1980s. It seems odd that an object so zeitgeisty looks so dated, and it must have seemed odd to Amazon, too, because by the time you read this, an updated Kindle will be on the market, minus those pointy corners and peculiar keyboard.

But none of these flaws are a big deal. The Kindle’s real problem is that all the books, and anything else you might want to read, must exist in a Kindle-specific format. You can’t read books you’ve purchased from a source other than Amazon, nor can you read the papers you have on your computer without first e-mailing them to Amazon for conversion. Spend $359 for a Kindle, and you’re swearing allegiance to Amazon, which is very healthy for them—not so healthy for the unfettered distribution of literature, ideas, and information.

But to an extent, the Kindle has done what Carr suggests. The device allows you to buy a cut-rate e-subscription to the New York Times or USA Today, and each day’s paper will be automatically beamed right to you. But while it doesn’t seem too terrible that all of Kindle’s editions are set in the same bookish serif typeface (named Cæcilia), it’s tragic that newspapers are dispensed in a format that sucks the essential newspaperness out of them, turning the familiar visual hierarchy of the printed page into a bland roster of headlines. It’s as if every song you purchased on iTunes were sung by the same boring guy. I would much rather read the Times on my laptop or even on the tiny screen of my iPhone, because both preserve enough of the traditional visual cues so that I feel like I’m reading a newspaper.

Hence the train ride. I arrive at E Ink’s headquarters, in an industrial park on the fringes of Cambridge, believing that the explanation for how print will be rescued by electronic technology can be found inside the company’s vintage factory building. As it turns out, the only secret E Ink knows is how to manufacture something it calls E Ink Vizplex, a film that can be applied to plastic or glass, lending electronic devices like the Kindle an ink-and-paper appearance. E Ink has, in essence, reinvented the wheel. According to Sri­ram K. Peruvemba, vice president of marketing, the company uses the same pigments that go into normal ink and paper, transforming them into an electroresponsive coating of tiny fragments, black and white, inside microcapsules floating in liquid, “a fraction of the thickness of human hair.” These particles respond to the same binary pulses that drive all information technology. Pages of text are formed when positively charged white specks respond to a negative charge and negatively charged black specks respond to a positive charge.

This process uses less energy than a liquid-crystal laptop display, so E Ink–based devices require much less recharging. And unlike most computer screens, an E Ink display works well in daylight, but it also has a major drawback. The company hasn’t found a way to coax its ink-and-paper particles to generate color. It’s able to fake color with filters, but the quality isn’t very impressive, so I dial back my fantasies about publishing a new visual-culture magazine on an E Ink reader.

What I get out of my field trip is an opportunity to play with the Sony Reader, a device that’s sleeker than the Kindle but can only download content when connected to the Internet via a computer. Sadly, Peruvemba has just pictures to show me of the most intriguing new devices like the Plastic Logic reader, an 8.5 x 11–inch tablet that’s thinner than a notepad and designed to display most common document formats, including newspapers and magazines. It’s scheduled to make its debut this year. He also shows me a picture of a line of readers by a Dutch company, iRex. One, called the iLiad Book Edition, comes stocked with 50 classic novels (no longer copyright-protected) such as Moby Dick and War and Peace. The largest-format device, the iRex Digital Reader (1000 series), seems well suited to newspaper reading, but it isn’t cheap. While $859 will buy you a sophisticated notepadlike interface, it still seems like a lot of money to read the Times.

As I ride the slower Amtrak train home through a dark winter landscape, I’m feeling far less sanguine about technological magic. The paperback book I’m reading suddenly feels like a marvel of efficiency. For the Kindle, the Sony, the Plastic Logic, or any of the other iterations we’ll be seeing in the near future to supplant 600 years of habit, the challenge is to do what Apple has done: design a device for readers that is beautiful and functional enough to become a cultural totem, and ensure that it not only connects seamlessly to a brilliantly organized, bottomless market of written material but that it also allows access to every other market on the planet. Apple did it once. Per­haps it can do it again.

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