by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks
Amazon shipped the second generation of its e-reader, the Kindle 2, this week and received considerable fanfare, considerable criticism and great expectation of the next Kindle.
The Kindle 2 does vaunt some improvements on the first version: it is lighter, thinner, faster, has a bigger display and can view many different types of documents. Yet, most reviews talk more about what the second Kindle 2 lacks than what it does. A life-changing, electronic reader (or some form of electronic paper) has been part of popular imagination since computers became consumer goods. Like the flying car, it seems the next logical step in our technological evolution. But even with vast achievements in technology, making light-weight, electronic paper with all features we consumers have come to demand has proved very difficult.
From its inception the Kindle has been called the iPod for books and the same revolutionary experience in media consumption is expected to result. But the iPod comparison is misleading. For starters, the iPod was not competing with sci-fi images of itself in the minds of consumers. Furthermore, because of the iPod, we have been conditioned to expect even more features: touch screens, full color display, full web interaction etc. How does anyone build a device with all this functionality and a screen big enough for comfortable reading without competing with the laptop market? For a variety of reasons, including all the distractions inherent in a full computer, people typically don’t use their laptops to read books anyway. Finding just the right balance of functionality to purpose is the real challenge for e-reader makers.
Of course, Amazon isn’t the only company trying to strike that balance. Sony has a an e-reader with a touchscreen that also plays MP3s, but it has no wireless connection and users complain of screen glare. There are also significantly more books available through Amazon for the Kindle than Sony provides through itsebookstore.
The most exciting competition for both devices may come from Plastic Logic’s ebook reader. The device has yet to be named or released but apparently will sport a touchscreen, a wireless internet connection, full color display and an 8.5 x 11 screen–perfect for viewing magazine and newspaper pages with no loss. However, at present Plastic Logic’s product is just a promise. The company is running into some trouble delays getting the device manufactured and it has yet to be vetted by any real consumer experience.
My guess is even if Plastic Logic’s devices does everything it claims, it will not end the functionality debate. An e-reader should be not be a computer or an iPod touch; it shouldn’t do everything. An e-reader should facilitate reading in a comfortable and natural way. I also think that proprietary issues will, for at least a few years, continue to hold back content accessibility which is as much important to an e-reading revolution as the perfect device.