Kindle's latest iteration moves us closer to 'e-ink'


POSTED: Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sometimes small, even arbitrary, changes can make all the difference.

Put wheels on a box—you've got a wagon. Put an uncovered petri dish on a table overnight—you've got penicillin. Put sequins on a screecher—you've got an “;American Idol”; frontrunner.

And while happy accidents like these hardly happen every day, Amazon.com seems determined to make sure its Kindle e-reader is in as many possible right places, and as many possible right times (and now add as many possible right sizes) as it can be.

Announced Wednesday, the super-sized Kindle DX—the latest iteration of Amazon's wireless electronic paper technology—boasts a 9.7-inch black-and-white display, which is more than twice the screen size (in area) of the original Kindle. When it hits the market this summer at a whopping $489, the DX will be primarily pitched to college students. But, for a price, it will also offer three daily newspapers (The New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe) in electronic form.

Combine that with a report in February from Fortune magazine that Hearst Corp. is planning its own proprietary e-reader for its newspapers and magazines, and it all suggests baby steps toward a paradigm shift for the ailing newspaper and magazine industries to “;e-ink”; technology (which this humble Digital Slob informed all his readers about back in 2004 when it seemed a silly pipe dream).

ASSUMING QUALITY goes up and costs go down exponentially, just like most other technologies, e-readers could soon take over as the delivery method for all so-called “;professional”; content (for the sake of bloggers, let's also call it “;mainstream,”; “;pre-branded”; or “;pre-washed”; content)—meaning not just books but also school materials, magazines and newspapers. This would cut out the costly pulp-industry middleman.

Kindles and newspapers already have a few key things in common. Both rely on reflected, rather than back-lit, light sources. Both can deliver news on a daily basis. And, it seems, both are pretty much ignored by the young and hip.

According to an unscientific survey on Amazon.com's forums, more than half of Kindle owners are over 50. When it's compared to other mobile devices, the presumption is old folks like the Kindle's larger typefaces (and its absence of seemingly mandatory rap music).

But hey, wait a minute. Just a few months ago, several readers recoiled at my heavy-handed criticism of the smaller Kindle's $359 price tag, with some justification. After all, new stuff always starts out expensive (just ask my mom to show you our first $900 VCR).

Even when Gutenberg invented the press in the 1400s, it's not like serfs were suddenly out delivering Black Death updates and witch-burning box scores on Medieval front porches mere weeks later.

These things take time.

But it is an impatience for a cheap, disposable electronic information system that still motivates my Kindle critiques. Four years ago, when I wrote about breakthroughs in the development of a magic paper that could “;switch channels,”; I pointed out that regular paper would still crush it—and all other portable technologies—on the cost issue for a long time to come. As I wrote:

“;Leave a newspaper on the bus and you're out 50 cents; leave your Sony VAIO on the bus and you're out $2,799. And, as far as I know, you can't just pull another laptop out of a rack on the next street corner (I'm sure the temptation to take out more than one at a time would be far too great).”;

Sure, leaving a $489 Kindle on the Downtown Express would still be pretty painful, but my point is, we're getting there.

Hopefully, there'll still be a reliable press to tell us when we arrive.


Follow columnist Curt Brandao's Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/digitalslob.