My friend Peter cares deeply about climate change and so he includes a line at the bottom of all his emails that admonish the reader:
Please consider the environment before printing this document.
As a consultant to HP and prior to that, an HP employee for 24 years, I worry about the prospect of people no longer printing out documents on paper and depriving HP of the profits that come from selling ink cartridges. But I can certainly understand Peter’s sentiment since, with the exception of photos, much of what’s printed ends up as trash a short time later. The same happens with newspapers and magazines. For me, books create another problem. I tend to hang on to many of my books after I’ve read them just in case I want to re-read them or refer to them in the future and this requires finding space to store them all. And it doesn’t help that I read books on an intermittent basis, sometimes abandoning a book half way through only to pick it up a few months later to finish it and then give it its rightful place in my ever-growing number of bookshelves and boxes. It’s not unusual for me to read several books at the same time. This drives my wife crazy in her efforts to keep our house neat and orderly. So I’ve long hoped for the day when I could have books that take up no space and yet are instantly accessible whenever the mood struck to read one of them. In short, I needed a practical electronic book reader.
E-book readers are not a new idea, but like many nascent technologies, they appeared on the scene well in advance of cost effective technology or even a convenient way to purchase content that would have allowed them to compete favorably with traditional books. In the past year, Amazon.com launched what is arguably the first mass-marketed e-book reader called the Kindle. The Kindle appears to have achieved a level of success that had eluded previous e-book reader products, including several competent designs from well established companies like Sony.
A few essential features for an e-book reader are ease-of-use, portability, and long battery life. Thanks to the introduction of high resolution e-ink displays, which draw very little power, a new generation of e-book readers has emerged that has allowed the e-book a better chance to gain market acceptance.
Another important e-book feature that had been lacking previously was the ease of content acquisition. Amazon has done a great job in this area thanks to their significant offering of more than 140,000 e-book titles in addition to many popular magazines and newspaper subscriptions. But the biggest breakthrough for Kindle, in comparison to its competitors, has been the content acquisition and delivery method. Amazon decided to take on the considerable challenge of installing a cellular modem in each Kindle. The logistics of this undertaking are significant. By partnering with Sprint, Amazon can get wireless data coverage over most of the U.S. which alleviates the need for a customer to install any software on a PC or even physically connect the device to a PC to periodically load content on to the Kindle (although it is still an option). The books and magazines can be purchased directly from and delivered to the Kindle, lending considerable temptation for customers to buy books on impulse. Kindle owners are even able to download significant samples of books that include a ‘buy it now’ button at the end of the sample thus eliminating much of the friction of an e-book acquisition. After all, who wants to stop reading a book after you’ve already read the first 20 pages and can’t wait to see what happens next?
I’ve downloaded books previously and attempted to read them on my laptop or PC but I found it difficult. Part of the problem was that I wanted to take the book with me, from room to room, or with me when I traveled. That’s not easy to do with a laptop computer because it’s awkward and heavy to carry around a notebook computer for reading. It also takes a while to boot, and with each program I install on the laptop, the boot process slows down even more. Secondly, the battery life on my notebook is only 100 minutes, hardly enough time to make it a convenient reading device. All rechargable batteries lose capacity as they age. And it costs about $120 for a new battery pack. So, like many others, I tend to live with this continually decreasing battery life rather than replace the battery every year. But the biggest downside of reading something like a downloaded book on a laptop has been that there was no easy way to keep my place in the book. Each time I rebooted the computer, I needed to re-find my place in the book. That’s just not acceptable. Granted, things are getting better with software e-readers, but the other disadvantages of laptop computers as e-book readers are just too hard to overcome.
E-book readers have done a lot to get around these problems. The Kindle will last for several days of reading on a charged battery that is 1/10 the size of a typical laptop battery (6 Wh vs 60 Wh). And when the battery loses its capacity over its life, Amazon offers a replacement battery for $20. I can change the battery myself, something that I can’t do very easily with my iPod. Instead, Apple recommends I return their products to a service center at considerable inconvenience and significant expense to replace the battery. So I congratulate Amazon for making the Kindle battery easy to replace and offering it at a reasonable price.
After using the Kindle nearly every day for a few weeks, I like it more and more, particularly the ease of acquiring new books at a reduced cost over conventional books. Best of all, these e-books take up no space around the house. The only downside is that I can’t borrow or lend the Kindle books like I can with a physical book. And sharing the Kindle with Terri is not easy since only one person can use it at a time. Amazon allows up to 5 Kindles on a single account that would all have access to my growing e-book library, but that would be expensive. I guess that’s the downside of digital media, it’s so easy to copy that if they don’t protect it by locking it to each customer, then no one will pay for it. In some ways, that’s more fair to the author too, since a book that gets passed around means that there is less compensation for the author per book. But unlike physical books, you can get free books that are out of of copyright. There are about 20,000 books, including many classics, available for free on feedbooks.com in a ‘mobi’ format which is compatible with Kindle.
I couldn’t wait to tell Peter about my Kindle because I thought he’d be interested in a ‘green’ reading device which will save a few trees. Also, it consumes so little energy that I can recharge it with a small solar panel. But instead, he seemed somewhat suspicious of the newfangled gadget and asked me how it ‘felt’ and how it ‘smelled’ indicating that these are important sensory experiences when it comes to reading books. Terri is equally suspicious and cannot imagine replacing her paperbacks with this gadget. She’s agreed to run an experiment by reading a book of her choosing on it. However, her patience for new technology is limited and for her to be pleased with it, it would have to be superior in every way to a paper book, so I’m not holding out much hope that she’ll become an e-book convert.
I generally don’t buy the first generation of a new technology product. In fact, I had planned to wait for Amazon to offer a second generation Kindle prior to getting one, figuring that it would have many improvements over the first genera
tion. But after learning that the Kindle design would not be refreshed this year, I decided to get one. It also helped by getting an offer for a $100 discount through a credit card promotion Amazon offered, so I got one for $259. I see they are back up to $359. If I continue at the rate I’ve been buying books, Amazon should make a good profit from me. I’ve already read 6 books in 3 weeks, 2 free ones and 4 that I purchased from Amazon. I also converted several large 100+ page industry reports to a Kindle-compatible format and read them on a plane trip to California. So I’ve really been getting a lot of use out of it.
I think that the e-book reader market shows great potential and after a few false starts it just may be poised to catch on and allow people do their daily reading without killing as many trees in the process.