Failures-waiting-to-happen like the Amazon Kindle electronic book are highly frustrating, especially because both it and the Sony eBook suffer from the same problem: how to get books and other material on to the device. In the press and on the web, comparisons to the iPod abound, but they fail because when the iPod was released lots of people already had mp3 files on their hard drives. It was easy to acquire more from existing collections by ripping CDs, so you could, with a minimal amount of effort, load the $500 or whatever you’ve already invested in CDs on the iPod. If you’re a scofflaw, you could load your friends’ CDs too. To most ears, music is nearly identical whether on a CD or compressed to an mp3 (audiophiles: I know you love vinyl for its fidelity or whatever, but I’m talking about everyone else here). Tons of material was already available for the iPod.
Contrast that situation with books. Since I don’t want to read books on my computer screen, I haven’t bothered becoming a digital ruffian and downloading books from peer-to-peer or Bittorrent networks, assuming they are even available. Even though I have a nice shiny iMac with a monitor crisper than 90% of those used in the industrial world I still don’t want to do it. There’s no easy way for me to transfer the 200-odd books Delicious Library tells me I have to a Kindle. They’re a mix of hardcover and paperback, new and used, but I’d be comfortable wagering that their average cost is about $10, and I’m not about to throw that out for a digital reader that, just to get the reader, costs as much as 40 books. Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.
The Kindle functions a bit like public transportation in the sense that public transportation really works when it allows you to live without a car. Likewise, the more paper I need to keep, the worse the Kindle looks. Right now there’s no way for me to easily transfer my subscriptions to The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Amazon isn’t going to have every book I want available, and every book I want that I can’t find and have to buy or check out of the library represents another mark against the Kindle. If you want to read blogs, Amazon acts as a gatekeeper and charges you for the privilege; I like the iMac screen well enough to read blogs that otherwise cost money.
I feel slightly bad writing this, as it shows that I’m susceptible to the Amazon hype machine. But if the hype machine had substance underlying it, I’d be elated. Instead, I’m disappointed, but the Kindle does make me wonder how I’ll be reading thirty years from now; it seems improbable that I’ll use pulped trees. The remaining question is how and when the transition will happen. Maybe someone will come along and give me a free e-book of every regular book in my library. Amazon could do it, and I’d be much more inclined to like the Kindle. Maybe piracy networks will develop, although this seems unlikely given the number of books out there and the difficulty of converting them from bound paper to digital files. Or maybe environmental problems or commodity prices will make printing and shipping books so cost ineffective that we’ll convert to e-book devices for financial reasons. Whatever the cause, I don’t see it happening on a wide basis until a solution for the content problem arrives.