Amazon sucked the all the air out of the literary room this week with its announcement of the new iteration of its Kindle reading device. That the announcement was coming had been no big secret to anyone paying attention and pictures of the device had been floating around online for at least five months, but nobody seemed to mind. The Kindle is just about the only game in town when it comes to sexy new gadgets for the book club set.
With Kindles hitting doorsteps in less than two weeks’ time, however, and hands on reviews generally positive, if not glowing, it may be time once again to assess the ebook landscape.
Interestingly, while a watershed event in the evolutions of ebooks has likely occurred this month, the Kindle 2 unveiling is only one of the nominees for that honor. Also in the running is Google’s “1.5 Million Books in Your Pocket” announcement last week. For those who missed it, Google has engineered a mobile version of Google Books, for use on iPhones and phones running Google’s own mobile operating system. Right now it lets people access the public domain books that Google has scanned and automatically converts the scanned pages into standardized fonts for ease of reading on mobile devices.
Looking at the Amazon option and the Google option, you can begin to see two separate, though not necessarily mutually exclusive paths that ebook evolution will follow. The Kindle path is one of verisimilitude with the printed page, a uni-tasker that wants to provide an experience as close to that of being a book as possible while using technology to improve upon the book by, for example, being lighter and letting you carry multiple titles in one small package. Somewhat surprisingly, the early reviews of the Kindle from the gadget-hounds at venues like Gizmodo eschew their usual demands for “smaller” and “slicker” in wishing that the Kindle were more book-like not less, asking for things like a bigger screen and a sturdier rubber backing rather than “slick aluminum and plastic.” Moreover:
Before they address the needs of some hypothetical super weakling who has the aesthetic sense of [Apple designer] Jon Ive, the cerebral voracity of Rain Man and the vision of Mr. Magoo, Amazon must address the needs of very real readers who read only a few books and magazines at a time, who like to download classic non-copyrighted lit and work-related documents for free, and who like to leaf through pages randomly. This last thing is important, though it may be insurmountable: Airport-friendly page turners don’t really require non-linear random-access reading, but everything smart from Harry Potter to Infinite Jest does, and that’s one concern that the Kindle, or any ebook reader, still does not address well.
If the Kindle will evolve to become more and more book-like, Google’s path is much simpler. As our handheld gadgets have added ever more features – cameras, email, music and video playing capabilities – they have become ravenous multi-taskers, seeking out new functions to devour and turn into must-have features. If we are to be a society that reads its books on little electronic devices, one can sensibly argue, then this device will also be my cell phone, camera, mp3 player, and everything else. After all, we only have so many pockets. The Kindle may become the preferred device of the discerning and prolific reader, but the iPhone, or something like it, will do just fine for everyone else.
Even as ebook evolution follows both paths, the expanding capabilities of the devices will open up huge opportunities for newspapers and magazines to blend print and electronic publishing, and who knows what new media business models may blossom out of this new hybrid medium.
The final, and maybe most important piece, of the dual path ebook story, is the content. As has been the case with all “format wars” – VHS vs. Beta, HD DVD vs. Blu ray – the format that is able to attract the content is the format that wins. But in this case, the two formats may be able to exist and mature side by side because both have incredible access to the content for their devices. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the vision for Kindle is “Every book ever printed in any language, available in under 60 seconds.” The Google Book search vision is “We see a world where all books are online and searchable.” Both companies have the technical muscle and have built the relationships (and, in Google’s case, the legal foundation) with publishers to make good on these claims. With no clear edge in content for either format, both formats have the capacity to survive and thrive.
This, of course, leaves out a third format – the physical book. As long as there is demand for books, they will survive as well. And with publishers and copyright holders maintaining a firm grip on their digital rights (and digital book piracy nonexistent) the new ebook formats represent new revenue streams for publishers that should exist comfortably alongside the old dead-tree model.