Steven Johnson’s Kindle inspired an “aha!” moment for him in the same way that the web did 15 years ago. And as with the web, Johnson believes that the Kindle and the e-book will change the way we read and write.
With books becoming part of this universe, “booklogs” will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, “In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.”) You’ll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage’s true meaning.
I recently used a Kindle for the first time and was really underwhelmed. I’d kind of wanted one but using it for few minutes turned me right off. The potential is definitely there, but the actual device is a bummer: too small, too slow, and too closed. Maybe using one for two weeks would change my mind…but I don’t know. I’m skeptical of the future that Johnson sketches out for the ebook, and it’s not just the Kindle.
When the web and the first browsers were built — mostly by scientists, not by billion-dollar retailers or publishing conglomerates — the openess that Johnson talks about as a metaphor for how ebooks will work was baked in: viewing source, copy/paste of text, the ability to download images, etc. All of the early web’s content was also free (as in beer).
Aside from some notable exceptions like Project Gutenberg, e-books are currently only as open and free as the publishing companies (and Amazon and Google) want them to be. I think those two initial conditions change the playing field. Copy/paste/publish to your booklog without significant restrictions or payment? Sharing a passage of a book with someone who doesn’t own that book, as verified through a third-party DRM system? Good luck! Readers will have to fight for those kinds of features. And perhaps we’ll eventually win. But for right now, the bookloggers that Johnson speaks of are only two letters away from how the publishing industry might label them: bootleggers.
Now you can go to the iTunes Store to buy the Kindle app from Amazon that lets you read ebooks made for the Kindle device on the iPhone. Yes, it’s that confusing! Maybe they shouldn’t have called the app the same name as the device…I thought “Kindle” was the device? A noun and a verb form of the same proper name is ok (e.g. “I googled you on Google” or “Please digg my link on Digg”) but two nouns seems like a no-no.
I want a proper e-book reader as much as anyone, but Amazon’s Kindle sounds underwhelming (and unfortunately looks, as a friend put it, like “the Pontiac Aztec of e-readers”). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says:
This isn’t a device, it’s a service.
That’s CEO-speak for “yay, we can charge you for buying this gadget again and again”. That emphasis makes it seem like the Kindle is less of a “read any text you want on the go” device and more of an interface for purchasing Amazon’s e-books, e-magazines, and blogs (yes, they’re charging for blogs somehow…). E-ink is a genuine innovation but until someone without some skin in the media game takes a good crack at it, e-book readers are destined to be buying machines and not reading machines.
Update: Here’s a list of all the blogs that Amazon is selling for reading on the Kindle. Subscriptions are $0.99-$1.99. No kottke.org (thanks, Amazon!!). Are the bloggers getting their cut of the subscription fees? Can I put kottke.org on there for free…or at least at cost? I suspect bloggers are getting a cut, with the rest taken by Amazon for profit and the conversion of the blogs’ text into whatever goofy format the Kindle uses. Would have been a lot cooler to put an RSS reader on there and just let people read whatever blogs they wanted.
Update: Joel Johnson has some more information about the Kindle after playing with one for a bit. The
device service (sorry!) has an experimental web browser, on which you can browse whichever blogs and sites you wish (on Amazon’s dime).
Update: Engadget says, among other things, that “blogs that are aggregated by the Kindle get a revenue share with Amazon, since it costs money to get those publications.” (thx, daniel)
An unauthorized electronic version of the new Harry Potter book is now available online. Rowling won’t do an e-book version of the Potter books, but one made its way onto the web about 12 hours after the hardcover was released in stores.