Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Kindle: Good Before, Better Now

Published: February 24, 2009

In the high-tech industry, you live for the day when your product name becomes a verb. “I Googled him.” “She’s been Photo- shopped.”

Amazon, however, is hoping that its product name, a verb, becomes a noun. “Have you bought the new Kindle?”

The Kindle is the most successful electronic book-reading tablet so far, but that’s not saying much; Silicon Valley is littered with the corpses of e-book reader projects.

A couple of factors made the Kindle a modest hit when it made its debut in November 2007. First, it incorporated a screen made by E Ink that looks amazingly close to ink on paper.

Unlike a laptop or an iPhone, the screen is not illuminated, so there’s no glare, no eyestrain — and no battery consumption. You use power only when you actually turn the page, causing millions of black particles to realign. The rest of the time, the ink pattern remains on the screen without power. You can set it on your bedside table without worrying about turning it off.

The big Kindle breakthrough was its wireless connection. Thanks to Sprint’s cellular Internet service, the Kindle is always online: indoors, outdoors, miles from the nearest Wi-Fi hot spot.

This sort of service costs $60 a month for laptops, but Amazon pays the Kindle’s wireless bill, in hopes that you’ll buy e-books spontaneously. “Have you read ‘The Audacity of Hope’?” someone might ask you. “Why, no, but I’ll download it now!” And 45 seconds later, you’ve got the whole book.

It’s all a thousand times more convenient and more exciting than loading books from a PC with a cable, as you must with Sony’s Reader, the Kindle’s archrival. As a bonus, the Kindle includes a simple Web browser, great for quick wireless Wikipedia checks and blog reading.

Starting today, there’s a new Kindle. Amazon calls it the Kindle 2, but Kindle 1.1 would be more like it; the changes are fairly minor. Fortunately, they’re exactly what was needed to turn a very good reader into an even better one.

The page-turn buttons are now much smaller — and the clicky part is on the inward edge of each button — so you no longer set off page turns just by picking the thing up.

The new, square plastic joystick is homely and stiff, but it gets the job done. The back is now brushed aluminum. Turning pages on the Kindle is a tad faster now. The screen shows 16 shades of gray now, not four, so photos look sharper; you can also zoom in and rotate them.

Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, the new Kindle is a sleeker, more sealed-in sort of machine. You can no longer expand storage with a memory card; then again, the built-in memory holds seven times as much — 1,500 books. Think that’ll tide you through the weekend?

The battery is also sealed inside, à la iPhone. Amazon says, however, that it lasts 25 percent longer per charge (four days of reading with wireless turned on, or two weeks if it’s off). If that battery ever needs replacing, Amazon has to do it ($60).

The Kindle will also read aloud to you through its tiny stereo speakers or headphone jack, and even turn the pages as it goes.

But if you have visions dancing in your head of turning every book into an audiobook, forget it. The Kindle’s male and female voices are very good, but nobody will mistake them for the voices of humans, let alone the professionals who record audiobooks. Kindle voices have some peculiar inflections and pronunciations — they sound oddly Norwegian, sometimes — and, of course, they’re incapable of expressing emotion. They read Hemingway the same way they read Stephen Colbert.

As before, your books, annotations and clippings are auto-backed up on Amazon.com. But now, if you buy multiple Kindles (dream on, Amazon), all of them remember where you stopped reading in each book. (This feature will be more useful if, as Amazon has hinted, you’ll soon be able to read your e-books on other machines, like your laptop or iPhone. And why not? The Kindle is just the razor. The books are the blades — ka-ching!)

The Kindle catalog is bigger, too; now 240,000 books are available. New York Times bestsellers are $10 each, which is less than the hardcover editions. Older books run $3 to $6.

That said, Amazon is still a long way from its “any book, any time” goal. You don’t have to look far to find important titles still among the missing; they include all Harry Potter books; “An Inconvenient Truth”; “The English Patient”; and “The Associate” (the No. 1 fiction best seller) or anything else by John Grisham.

You can have any of 30 newspapers, including this one, wirelessly beamed to your Kindle each morning ($10 to $14 a month) — minus ads, comics and crosswords. Magazines (22 so far, $1.50 to $3 monthly) and blogs ($2 a month) can arrive automatically, too.

Finally, you can send Word, text, PDF and JPEG documents to the Kindle using its private e-mail address — a huge blessing to publishers, lawyers, academics, script readers and so on — for 10 cents each. Or transfer them over a USB cable for nothing.

So, for the thousandth time: is this the end of the printed book?

Don’t be silly.

The Kindle has the usual list of e-book perks: dictionary, text search, bookmarks, clippings, MP3 music playback and six type sizes (baby boomers, arise). No trees die to furnish paper for Kindle books, either.

But as traditionalists always point out, an e-book reader is a delicate piece of electronics. It can be lost, dropped or fried in the tub. You’d have to buy an awful lot of $10 best sellers to recoup the purchase price. If Amazon goes under or abandons the Kindle, you lose your entire library. And you can’t pass on or sell an e-book after you’ve read it.

Another group of naysayers claims that the Kindle has missed its window. E-book programs are thriving on the far more portable (and far more popular) iPhones and iPod Touches. Surely smartphones, which already serve as cameras, calculators and Web browsers, will become the dominant e-book readers as well.

The point everyone is missing is that in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. E-book readers won’t replace books. The iPhone won’t replace e-book readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences.

With those caveats, the new Kindle edges even closer to the ideal of an e-book reader. The reading experience is immersive, natural and pleasant; the book catalog, while not yet complete, is growing and delivered instantaneously; and apart from the clicky keyboard (an unnecessary appendage 99.9 percent of the time), the design feels right.

If the Kindle’s popularity keeps growing, then it may be remembered as the spark that finally ignites mainstream e-books. Someday, other gadgets may even be described as “Kindleizing” their fields. In that case, “Kindle” will be the first product name that ever went from verb to noun — and back to verb again.
[*bold formatting added]

MORE READERS A roundup of devices and software for reading books electronically will appear in the Circuits section on Thursday.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 24, 2009, on page B1 of the New York edition.

1 comment:

dan said...

"Do you kindle?"

by R.U. Kindling

Since Westerners are sometimes referred to as "people of the book" --
meaning, people of the Torah and and the "Old Testament" and the "Also
Old New Testament" and "The Audacity of Hope" -- it makes sense that
we Western people like reading books, writing books, buying books and
even "kindling" books. Kindling books? Did I just write "kindling"

Yes, there's a new word out there in the blogosphere, online and on
blogs and websites in most of the English-speaking world, and that new
word is a verb -- to kindle, and the ING form kindling -- that has
taken on the meaning of "reading on a Kindle e-reader device from

Don't believe me? Google it. That's another corporate name that was
turned into a popular verb. There are others, too: to xerox something,
and to facebook someone. Language is a never-ending story. And for the
people of the book, language is a multilingual affair, and while "to
kindle" has not yet made it into a real dictionary yet, stay tuned.
Words have wings, and Emily Dickinson might have said: "Language is
that thing with feathers."

The Urban Dictionary in California has been studying "kindle" as a
verb, as a takeoff of the corporate name for Amazon's reading device,
and the word -- as a verb -- is catching on, from blog posts on the
New York Times website to online forums at Treehugger.com and
Kunstlercast.com. The way the new verb form was submitted the editors
at Urban Dictionary, which is run by a 20-something man who works at
Google headquarters in Mountain View, California was like this,
according to sources deep within the hidden confines of the evolving

"Kindle: To read a book or a newspaper on a Kindle e-reading device."

Usage examples:

"I'm kindling now, I will call you back in ten minutes."

"I'm kindling the newspaper now, can't chat, will return call in one hour."

"Do you enjoy kindling with your Kindle?"

"Hey, I've been kindled. My latest book was packaged by Kindle as a
Kindle book and you can read it on Kindle now. It feels kind of good
to be kindled."

"My book was out of print for a long time, but a new publisher
reprinted it and put it on the Kindle book list and you could say my
book has been rekindled. I love it!"

Kindle as a verb is catching on. Judy Goldberg in Delray Beach,
Florida, tells me: "I've owned my Kindle for almost 6 months and love
it. When I mention I'm reading a particular book, I refer to it as
'I'm Kindling such and such a book', so it's already a verb to me.
It's hard to imagine reading a regular book now."

Liz Hill told me: "I don't 'kindle', but I know we certainly all
'google'. And that verb is
in the dictionary. I often 'skype' or tell people to skype me instead
of calling me. So
there's another example. Maybe "kindle" will catch on as a verb, too.
Who knows? Who knew?"

And Whitney Leader-Picone told this reporter: "I thought the point of
the Kindle was the paper screen technology which made reading a book
on a digital device not like a digital device at all. Computer screens
start to hurt my eyes over the course of the day, which is why I have
been so reluctant to consider ebooks in the past. The Kindle, I have
heard, is gentle on the eyes. So wouldn't these differences
differentiate "kindling" from reading online?"

And she added: "I don't really mind "to kindle" since the Kindle is so
unique, but I am still skeptical about whether we need a new word for
reading online. Also, shouldn't we let these new terms grow
organically as they have in the past and as "to kindle" and
"facebooking" have already?"

Not everyone agrees that kindle will make a good verb.

"I think this is the first time I've encountered 'kindle' as a verb,"
one blogger on the Internet said last November in a comment thread,
almost six months ago. "Clever, but it sort of makes my skin crawl."

So do you kindle? Are you kindling now as we speak? Do you own a
Kindle? Will you use kindle as a verb, or does it sort of make your
skin crawl, too?

Stay tuned. As one top computer industry reporter at the New York
Times told me in a recent email about this new use of the word kindle
as a verb to mean "reading a book on a Kindle": "Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm."

Words are those things with wings. See Jane kindle. Watch Dick kindle