On Monday, Amazon plans to unveil the latest stab at a successful e-book reader
with Kindle, a $400, a WiFi and EVDO-equipped tablet PC
that's rumored to have 256 MB of memory and an 800 X 600 electrophoretic display.
It will be a direct competitor to Sony's PRS-505 Reader.
The technology here looks kind of neat, but I don't understand why they expect anyone other than die-hard gadget enthusiasts would jump on board. Books are durable, flexible, cheap, light, boast an extremely high contrast ratio, and never malfunction or run out of power. It's going to be awfully difficult
to design an e-book reader that can compete on all of those dimensions. Plus, people have developed life-long habits around paper books, and would have to learn a new set of habits to get comfortable reading e-books. So e-books will have to offer some pretty compelling advantages to overcome all of those considerations. Yet the only real advantage of an e-book is that it saves some space. If you buy Amazon's reader, you can pack a few dozen e-books in the space in your suitcase that used to be occupied by a single paper book. But nobody reads dozens of books on one trip, so it's not obvious why that's valuable. And when they get home, a lot of people actually like
putting their books on bookshelves in their living room where they'll impress their friends. So saving space isn't necessarily a big advantage there either.
Amazon seems to be trying to address that issue by tacking on some other features, most notably the ability to load up content from a variety of newspapers. But reading a newspaper is a much different experience than reading a book. People flip through newspapers a lot faster than they flip through books, and because of the way electrophoretic displays work, that's likely to run down their batteries pretty quickly. Most of Amazon's target customers likely already have a laptop and/or a smartphone, either of which offer color, a more responsive display, and more powerful browsing software. It seems more likely that people would just read the day's news on one of those devices and leave the e-book reader at home.
The fundamental issue here is that people don't adopt new technologies — especially ones that cost hundreds of dollars — unless they provide compelling advantages over the products already on the market. Merely achieving parity with paper books (and it's not clear they've even achieved that) isn't going to cut it, because people don't like to change their established routine. For e-books to catch on, then, they have to be better than paper in a really compelling way. So far, nobody has figured out how to make e-books do something really useful that they can't do with the paper books and laptops they already have.