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Old 01-27-2008, 10:44 AM   #1
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New York Times Article on Kindle

Freed From the Page, but a Book Nonetheless



By RANDALL STROSS
Published: January 27, 2008

PRINTED books provide pleasures no device created by an electrical engineer can match. The sweet smell of a brand-new book. The tactile pleasures of turning a page. The reassuring sight on one’s bookshelves of personal journeys.


But not one of these explains why books have resisted digitization. That’s simpler: Books are portable and easy to read.

Building a portable electronic reader was the easy part; matching the visual quality of ink on paper took longer. But display technology has advanced to the point where the digital page is easy on the eyes, too. At last, an e-reader performs well when placed in page-to-page competition with paper.

As a result, the digitization of personal book collections is certain to have its day soon.

Music shows the way. The digitization of personal music collections began, however, only after the right combination of software and hardware — iTunes Music Store and the iPod — arrived. And as Apple did for music lovers, some company will devise an irresistible combination of software and hardware for book buyers. That company may be Amazon.

Amazon’s first iteration of an electronic book reader is the Kindle. Introduced in November, it weighs about 10 ounces, holds more than 200 full-length books and can display newspapers, magazines and blogs. It uses E Ink technology, developed by the company of that name, that produces sharply defined text yet draws power only when a page is changed, not as it is displayed.

Sony uses E Ink in its e-book Reader, which it introduced in 2006, but the Kindle has a feature that neither Sony nor many e-reader predecessors ever possessed: books and other content can be loaded wirelessly, from just about anywhere in the United States, using the high-speed EVDO network from Sprint.

This may turn out to be a red-letter day in the history of convenience — our age’s equivalent of that magical moment FedEx introduced next-day delivery and people asked, “How was life possible before this?”

The Kindle is expensive — $399 — but it sold out in just six hours after its debut on Nov. 19. Since then, supplies have consistently lagged behind demand, and a waiting list remains in place.

The Kindle gets many things right, or at least I assume it does. I haven’t had much of a chance to test out my demonstration unit. My wife, skeptical that a digital screen could ever approach the readability of ink on paper, was so intrigued by the Kindle when it arrived last week that she snatched it from my grasp. I haven’t been able to pry it away from her since.

I can see that the text looks splendid. But when one presses a bar to “turn” a page, the image reverses in a way I found jarring: the light background turns black and the black text turns white, then the new page appears and everything returns to normal. My wife said she wasn’t bothered by this at all, and I didn’t have enough of a chance to see if I would soon get used to it.

Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, has nothing to fear from the Kindle. No one would regard it as competition for the iPod. It displays text in four exciting shades of gray, and does that one thing very well. It can do a few other things: for instance, it has a headphone jack and can play MP3 files, but it is not well suited for navigating a large collection of music tracks.

Yet, when Mr. Jobs was asked two weeks ago at the Macworld Expo what he thought of the Kindle, he heaped scorn on the book industry. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

To Mr. Jobs, this statistic dooms everyone in the book business to inevitable failure.

Only the business is not as ghostly as he suggests. In 2008, book publishing will bring in about $15 billion in revenue in the United States, according to the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association.

One can only wonder why, by the Study Group’s estimate, 408 million books will be bought this year if no one reads anymore?

A survey conducted in August 2007 by Ipsos Public Affairs for The Associated Press found that 27 percent of Americans had not read a book in the previous year. Not as bad as Mr. Jobs’s figure, but dismaying to be sure. Happily, however, the same share — 27 percent — read 15 or more books.

In fact, when we exclude Americans who had not read a single book in that year, the average number of books read was 20, raised by the 8 percent who read 51 books or more. In other words, a sizable minority does not read, but the overall distribution is balanced somewhat by those who read a lot.

If a piece of the book industry’s $15 billion seems too paltry for Mr. Jobs to bother with, he is forgetting that Apple reached its current size only recently. Last week, Apple reported that it posted revenue of $9.6 billion in the quarter that spanned October to December 2007, its best quarter ever, after $24 billion in revenue in the 2007 fiscal year, which ended in September.

But as recently as 2001, before the iPhone and the iPod, Apple was a niche computer company without a mass market hit. It was badly hurt by the 2001 recession and reported revenue of only $5.3 billion for the year. This is, by coincidence, almost exactly what Barnes & Noble reported in revenue for its 2007 fiscal year. In neither case did the company owners look at that number, decide to chain the doors permanently shut and call it quits.

Amazon does not release details about revenue for books, but books were its first business. And Andrew Herdener, a company spokesman, said that Amazon’s book sales “have increased every year since the company began.”

The book world has always had an invisible asset that makes up for what it lacks in outsize revenue and profits: the passionate attachment that its authors, editors and most frequent customers have to books themselves. Indeed, in this respect, avid book readers resemble avid Mac users.

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell. Kindle’s long-term success is still unknown, but Amazon should be credited with imaginatively redefining its original product line, replacing the book business with the reading business.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.
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Old 01-27-2008, 11:03 AM   #2
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Thanks for posting that. Very interesting article, and was pleased to read about the number of books sold annually. Wonder if that includes ebooks?

I hope the poor guy gets a chance to retrieve the Kindle from his wife, or actually go an buy one.

Of all the statements I've read recently about ebooks, the one by Steve Jobs is the most idiotic.

It does remind me however, of the two young ladies who were looking for Christmas gifts for their boyfriends. One remarked that she had no idea what in the world to get for her boyfriend.

"Why don't you get him a book?" asked one.

The other replied, "No, he already has a book."
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Old 01-27-2008, 12:31 PM   #3
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Thanks for posting this, it was very enjoyable.
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