When Amazon.com sent me a Kindle 2 for a 10-day test run a few weeks ago, I found it a very cool way to read a book — but I liked it even better for reading newspapers and magazines.
Amazon was way ahead of me. On Wednesday, a mere three months after Kindle 2's debut, CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the Kindle DX (for deluxe), a larger electronic reader tailored for image-rich documents like newspapers, magazines and textbooks.
Although Amazon does not provide sales numbers for Kindle, the first version, released in November 2007, sold out in a few hours and was on back order for five months. Bezos said Wednesday in New York City that for the 275,000 books available in Kindle format on Amazon.com, Kindle downloads account for 35 percent of sales.
Several dozen newspapers and magazines and more than 1,400 blogs are already available by subscription on Kindle, and the Kindle DX launch will bring more on board. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. joined Bezos at the press conference to announce that his newspaper, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post would offer special deals on the DX for some subscribers. Bezos also announced an agreement with three of the largest U.S. textbook publishers to test the DX on six university campuses this fall.
The St. Petersburg Times isn't available in Kindle format yet but should be soon. Janet Woods, chief information officer for the Times Publishing Co., says, "We should be done with our end of the work in a couple of weeks." Contract negotiations with Amazon are ongoing.
Will e-readers like the Kindle become the new media platform for print journalism? Will they bump the books off our shelves? Or will they prove to be a niche product for that territory where technophiles and avid readers intersect?
All about the text
It may seem counterintuitive to introduce a line of single-function devices in a market teeming with multi-use gadgets. Why try to sell people a new way to buy and read publications electronically when so many things, from classic novels to daily newspapers, are available online for free?
Because Kindle does its main job really well.
Of course, it doesn't do just one thing. Kindle 2, which sells for $359, and Kindle DX, which will sell for $489 when it's released this summer, are also basic Web browsers. They have audio capability for music and audiobooks, as well as a text-to-speech function that will read a book or article out loud.
But Kindles are designed for reading, searching, annotating and archiving text. If you're halfway through a fat novel and run across a character you can't identify, you can find the first reference to him in a couple of clicks, make a note about why he's important and store the note with the book — even if you delete it from your Kindle, because Amazon will archive it for retrieval. As a book reviewer, I found those functions appealing (you wouldn't believe how many little Post-it tags I go through).
Kindles let you bookmark pages and automatically return you to the last page read in every document. The New Oxford American Dictionary is built in; just put the cursor on a word and a definition pops up. The notes function is an electronic way to scribble in the margins, although I found the keyboard on Kindle 2, sized somewhere between a 10-fingers computer keyboard and a one-thumb cell phone, uncomfortable to manipulate, even in the two-thumbed BlackBerry hunch.
The Kindle DX keyboard is bigger and might be easier to use; its screen is also more than twice as big as Kindle 2's. Kindle 2 is about the size of a trade paperback book, while DX will be magazine size. DX will have an auto-rotating function that turns a page from vertical to horizontal as you turn the device, to allow larger display of photos and graphics.
Kindle's clippings and archive functions let you keep anything from a pithy sentence to an entire newspaper article in your personal files, faster than you could find the scissors.
And Kindle format books are priced lower than paper versions: about $10 for new books and bestsellers, with others much less. Lots of romance novels, for example, are $5 or less. I found out-of-copyright classics for used-book prices: $2.60 for Moby-Dick. Newspaper subscriptions range from about $6 to $15 per month.
Easy on the eyes
But you can read millions of documents on your computer screen for free, search them, make notes or paste clippings in an electronic file, use an online dictionary. So what does the Kindle have that your computer screen doesn't?
One of the biggest surprises of my test drive was the device's readability. Eyestrain is an occupational hazard in my job, and I found the 16-tone gray-scale screen of the Kindle 2 amazingly easy on the eyes.
Unlike computer screens, it uses E Ink, an electronic ink technology with no backlighting and no glare. It looks very much like a printed page and — dare I say it — I found it even more comfortable to read. (There is a Kindle app for the iPhone and iPod Touch that offers many of the same functions, but its biggest disadvantage is that it doesn't have E Ink readability.)
The Kindle 2's screen is so easy to read at different angles that I could lay it flat on the breakfast table instead of propping it up, as I would do with a paper book or newspaper. The reader can choose among six type sizes and change the size instantly, a boon for those who prefer large type.
Unlike laptops and smart phones, Kindle doesn't heat up during use. A battery charge lasts for several days, and if you turn off the wireless capability it can last for more than two weeks.
Kindle 2 can store approximately 1,500 books; the DX will hold more than twice as many. Kindle users shop for, order and receive books and periodicals via Amazon's Whispernet wireless delivery system, which uses the same kind of data network as cell phones. That means there's no need for a WiFi hot spot or a PC connection for ordering or downloading, and there are no fees for the wireless service.
Delivery is fast — I bought Joyce Carol Oates' new short story collection, Dear Husband, while I was waiting for a takeout order, and it downloaded in less than a minute. I finished the first story before my shrimp po'boy was ready.
Best medium for news
Useful as I found the Kindle for reading books, I liked it even better for newspapers and magazines. During my tryout, I subscribed to the New York Times and the New Yorker. Each edition arrived automatically and stayed on my home page for a week.
On Kindle 2, newspapers and magazines look clean, uncluttered and organized, free of the clamoring bells and whistles of so many Web sites. Call up the day's edition and you get a table of contents that allows you to flip through the top pages of stories in each section, complete with photos, and select. I read a lot of newspapers online, and the Kindle versions are much easier on the eyes.
If reading newspapers on Kindle catches on, though, it's going to mean yet another paradigm shift for the industry: Kindle subscription newspapers and magazines have no ads.
Things to tweak
The Kindle 2 I tried wasn't perfect. That keyboard was off-putting, and the five-way button, which gets heavy use for scrolling and selecting, felt like it might be the first thing to break. The Web browser is decidedly basic; not only is it limited to text and still images, but some Web pages wouldn't load at all. And I wondered why the Kindle doesn't have a built-in reading light, thereby eliminating a lot of late-night disagreements between readers and sleepers.
The Kindle 2's text-to-speech function immediately raised legal issues about authors retaining their rights to grant permission for audio; Amazon has backed off on saying any text can be read aloud.
You can choose a male or female voice for the function, but either way you get that slightly hiccupy, hesitant computer reading, not a smooth flow. Text-to-speech is a great feature for people whose vision is impaired, especially for newspapers and magazines, which aren't as readily available in audio as books are. But it's not on a par as entertainment with true audiobooks — text-to-speech isn't going to replace David Sedaris' performance of Me Talk Pretty One Day.
Kindle has also been criticized for its price point and its locked-down system and single-function emphasis, and Amazon.com has been slammed for bigfooting the e-reader market.
A heart grows fonder
Personally, though, I hated putting that Kindle 2 back in the carton and shipping it off to Amazon.
Thirty-five years into a career focused on books, married to a fellow writer and editor, I live in a house full of books — by my latest calculation, we have more than 50 yards of packed bookshelves, and we just got some new ones. I love the way books look, smell, feel, sound — the flutter of a page, the satisfying smack of closing the covers at the end.
Besides, my whole interior design philosophy is bookshelf-based. When we move into a new place, my husband and I first figure out where to put the bookshelves, then fit everything else around them.
Those shelves aren't going away. But I can imagine whittling down my recycling stack by subscribing to newspapers and magazines in Kindle format.
And next time I'm hustling across an airport — heck, when I finish writing this story and walk out to my car lugging a briefcase stuffed with four or five hardback books I need to check out — I'll miss that 10-ounce Kindle 2.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.