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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Edsel of Readers?

The honeymoon is over. The Kindle and the Kindle 2, hated by luddite page-turners and loved by techo-savvy readers everywhere, might now be joining another larger group--that of mediocre techno-junk that didn’t work right or alienated its users until it became abandoned. The Kindle might be 8-Track, or it might be Betamax, depending on who you talk to. But the view of the machine as the new way to read for better or worse has changed.
First there was George Orwell debacle, when Kindle recalled the electronic editions of Animal Farm and 1984. People were surprised and shocked both that Amazon could do that and that Amazon do that with their e-content. The choice of titles was unfortunate as well, giving rise to comparisons of Big Brother and the 'memory hole,' the incinerator that censored documents were shunted to in 1984.
Then the issue was resurrected in the news cycle despite Jeff Bezos's apology with a suit against Amazon by a 17-year old student. Justin Gawronski is suing because when Amazon recalled the copy of 1984, the removal rendered Gawronski's copious electronic annotations -basically his entire summer’s worth of homework- useless. The suit is currently seeking class action status.
Then there is the Nicholson Baker review of the Kindle in the New Yorker. Mr. Lumber would seem to be the ideal candidate to love the Kindle, judging from the gushing over his iPhone that occurs repeatedly throughout the article. When it comes to the Kindle, however, Baker only has about 500 synonyms for "Meh." Its screen is a "four by five window onto an overcast afternoon." Its outside design is "90's." Baker also uses his review as a bully pulpit to list every other e-reader and reading app out there, so the article ends up showcasing the competition as much as the Amazon device.
Finally, there are the "Book vs. Kindle" videos from Green Apple books. In them, the Kindle is subjected to hilariously humilating defeats from traditional books in such categories as booksigning, durability, and storytime. The most telling of them for me was number 6 in the 10 part series: Finding the Right Book. One of the things that appeals to me about e-reading is the idea that a limitless supply of titles is out there to be carried around in your pocket. But sadly, this is not the case. Also in this video: One of the hosts interviews himself in a hilarious splitscreen.

What does all this negative press mean? The Kindle still works fine, done what Amazon says it does, but the aura of coolness around it seems to be vaporizing. When Kindle debuted, it was seen as the savior of the book. Bezos made the cover of Newsweek under the headline: “Books aren’t dead.” They never really were dead, but the paranoia surrounding the crash of the publishing business and the rise of New Media had us all thinking so for a little while. And so when Kindle came along, it seemed like we had a solution.
But that solution is not the Kindle in particular, it is in reality a responsive and innovative approach to E-reading for customer and publisher alike. The future of publishing is not in a box from Amazon. It might partially exist there, but it’s also in the Sony Reader (a press conference, possibly to announce a Wi-Fi model is scheduled for August 20) or even the wild and improbable rumors surrounding the Mac Tablet or the iPad or whatever it is.
I’m a little more comfortable with this future than I was with a Kindle-dominated one. Not only will the competition be good for people who want to explore E-reading, I don’t want to make Bezos happy enough to laugh like this again.

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