Back before the world knew the Segway was going to turn out to be just a fancy Scooter it was a secret project that was going to change our lives. Riding in on the trailing waves of hype as we were reaching the bitter end of dot com mania, it was going to be the object of desire that changed everything back. A new new thing that was going to get us excite us all over again about technology just when we were giving up.
One of the reasons that we believed that was that Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, had told us that it would. Both he and Steve Jobs, the guru of cyber-cool, had claimed this was going to be a revolutionary invention, one that could potentially change our lives.
Released in December of 2001, the Segway came hot on the heels of the iPod, which had been released only two months before. And while the little white box came with a bunch of hype, as all new Apple products do, the Ginger (or simply “IT”) as it had been known, was about hope. It couldn’t possibly live up to our expectations, and it didn’t.
The little Scooter that couldn’t was ridiculed, and quickly banned from city sidewalks. It became an example of the kind of overheated thinking, and “fast forward” vision that had sent the Internet spiraling from boom to bust. Meanwhile the iPod slowly built on its initial success, and proved that the right product at the right time could still make a difference.
Fast forward to six years later. Apple has once again released a revolutionary product into the marketplace. Love it or hate it, the iPhone has proven that Jobs hasn’t lost his magic touch when it comes to finding a device that can change the way we think about the things we do every day. Since it’s launch in August that little phone has turned the telecommunications world on its ear, and forced everyone to react.
And once again another product comes out hot on the heels of Apple’s ten ton gorilla. Another product that will supposedly change everything. But unlike Apple’s well crafted little bit of magic, this product doesn’t seem to have the same kind of zing. So with much fanfare, and more than a little head scratching, we meet the Kindle. Amazon’s first foray into hardware. A device that is supposed to be the biggest step forward in reading since the book…
But unfortunately it’s more smoke and mirrors than magic. There’s no doubt that the idea of e-paper is great. It’s screen remains visible and stable when it’s turned off, so that you can simply put up your image, and have it look as clear and relaxed as ink on a page. And who doesn’t want magic paper in their pocket? Books do seem a little bit old fashioned when compared to the laptop or the cell phone.
But while the mp3 player and the phone are both recent devices that let us do new things in a new way, the book has been around in one form or another for almost 1500 years. It’s a form factor that has seen many other innovations come and go. That’s not to say that its days aren’t numbered. Clearly the modern displays will, sooner or later, provide us with a device that is going to replace what we now think of as a book with a clear readable screen. So why shouldn’t the Kindle be that device?
Firstly because it isn’t a digital book, it’s a “wireless reading device”. While it may sound like a form of birth control, in actuality it means that in order for it the device must connect to the Internet. Much like the iPod needs to dock with your computer to be useful, the Kindle needs to connect to the Amazon mothership before you can get the books you want on it. But unlike the iPod revolution, you the Kindle has barred the gates. You can put mp3s on it, but you won’t be getting your pirated best-sellers on it quite as easily. And if you buy your books form Amazon, you can’t share them with your friends. At least not in the way you’re used to. Everything from pdf files to word files must be translated by being emailed to the device before they can be read.
We’ve all been around the block with DRM enough times to innately understand that if we can’t move data off of something and onto our own storage then we don’t really own it all. And while that may be okay with music, movies, or other media that can be experienced socially, books are more personal. We read them alone, and when the volumes sit on our shelves that’s the way that we tell other people about what we have read, are reading, or might be willing to share.
Looking at the specs and the business model it’s clear that the Kindle intends to seal its readers into a social cocoon, and won’t let us out to play. So, unfortunately, the Kindle isn’t a Web 2.0 device.
And that feeling of an almost Soviet style mentality is repeated on the outside as well. It’s a strange looking box, and one that clearly shows just how muddled the thinking about it really is. From an industrial design point of view the nicest thing you can say about it is that it looks like something that people in the past might think the future would look like. It’s sharp angles and big buttons seem unfriendly and uninviting, and honestly a little confusing.
And all that might that might still work if the cost of entry were low, but it isn’t. At $400 you’re not only looking at a lot of old-fashioned books, you’re also spending the kind of cash that could pay for a lot of cool devices from laptops to iPhones. They may not sip power the way the Kindle does, but definitely don’t treat you like a bank coming and going. You want to use that Kindle to read something? You can get best-sellers for $10 each, newspapers for $15 a month, and blogs that are free on the net will only cost you $1 a month to read on your brand new book reader, if they’re willing to sign up with Amazon.
And that’s the last part that really confuses me. What does branding this device “Amazon” really bring to the party? I’m a fan of the store, and I’ve even been won over their Prime service. But what makes them a trusted provider in the hardware business, and why are they getting into this buiness? There’s hundreds of existing brands that they could have worked with. Partnering with a trusted business would have sent a message that there’s a steady hand behind the wheel. It might have looked better as well.
Often times when something lands with so much fanfare it can be hard to trust your instincts. It’s replacing an object rather than expanding our experience, and that’s a sure sign of danger. And can it really be as ugly as it looks, as crippled as it sounds? In this case I think that the Kindle is all that and more.
One day soon there will be a cheap, powerful, open e-book. A device that expands the idea of reading, computing, and the Internet. But today was not that day.