Boing Boing's Joel Johnson on why Amazon's Kindle 2 is the next step towards ubiquitous e-book readers
Today Jeff Bezos held up the Amazon Kindle 2 in front of a lecture hall filled with journalists and outlined his vision for the white slab e-book reader: "Every book ever printed in every language available for download in under sixty seconds." It's a good goal. Wouldn't you want every book every printed just a click away from the device in your pocket?You might not know that you already can, especially if you want one of the thousands of books that have fallen out of copyright and back into the public domain, indexed by the under-appreciated archivists at Project Gutenberg.Every last text on Project Gutenberg is available as plain text, just your regular, run-of-the-mill file that can be understood by almost every computer on the planet-including the Kindle. You could copy any book you download from Project Gutenberg to your Kindle over USB. Or navigate to the website using the Kindle's relatively awkward web browser and pull down the book directly to the device.Even better, many of the Project Gutenberg books have been converted by Manybooks.net into the Kindle's native .azw file format. That doesn't make any substantive changes to the reading experience, but it does make it look nicer in the Kindle home screen's list of books, as well as guarantee that all the paragraphs have lines that wrap properly.It's a shame, though, that Amazon doesn't provide a direct interface to Project Gutenberg's entire library through the Kindle itself. (Although they do offer some free downloads of classic texts through the Kindle store on Amazon.com.) Even as a promotional stunt, it would be a powerful symbol to hand someone a device that has several hundred of the major works of the Western Canon already inside.Or maybe that's just my own personal pipe dream. I've mentioned it to others before, most of whom were e-book and e-paper skeptics to begin with, and they always come back to the disposability of tree-and-glue books. "I just toss my trashy sci-fi novels on an airport bench," one friend told me. "I don't ever want to read them again." That's fine. Even Bezos made it clear today that Amazon wasn't trying to obviate the need for the paper book-not yet, at least.But in the 14 months since the first Kindle was launched, 10 percent of the sales of any book that was available in both paper and Kindle format was sold for the e-book device. That number will continue to tip towards e-books over the next few years, especially as the LCD screens in our computers and mobile phones become better for reading and e-paper displays, the same ink-based, high-contrast screens used in the Kindle, become less expensive. (Amazon even announced a plan to keep your place in various books across various devices, so that you could stop reading a book on your Kindle, only to pick up where you left off on your mobile phone. Nothing was announced today, but I'd expect an iPhone application that can also purchase and display Kindle e-books sooner than later.)At $360, the Kindle isn't cheap, but it's not the complete waste of money that some sighing critics make it out to be, either. I travel a lot. When I broke my first Kindle-yeah, yeah, you can't break a paper book-I really missed the ability to download a book I saw in the airport shops, usually for less than the cover price. (And it's good that Kindle books are cheaper, since the DRM-encumbered titles downloaded directly from Amazon don't allow normal bookish behavior, like giving a title away to a friend when you're done.) More than anything, I missed being able to keep four or five books that I was reading with me all the time, something I can't do with my all-carry-on luggage strategy.Then again, $360 buys you at least 10 or 15 hardcover books-or a lot of library late fees.The acceptance of a new technology isn't always an either/or question. It depends on a matrix of advantages and disadvantages. Successful products obsolesce their predecessors only when those disadvantages begin to be heavily outweighed by the advantages. I think e-paper devices, whether Kindle-branded or simply generic, will eventually become a ubiquitous part of everyday life, especially as the color and resolution approaches that of paper. The Kindle lets you experience some of their advantages today: You can buy books over the air from nearly anywhere in the United States, enjoy the new experience of reading a book lying on your side while using just a single button to turn pages, and look up the definitions of words without reaching for, or carrying, a dictionary.And from what I've seen of the new model, which ships on February 24th, it's even better than the last, with a slightly faster screen with 16 shades of gray (instead of four), a wholly more intuitive interface that uses a joystick instead of the interesting but obtuse clicky scroll wheel, and a new text-to-speech function that turns any text into an audiobook that sounds, well, robotic, but really not half bad.My only complaint: While the new model now has 2 gigabytes of memory onboard, seven times as much as the old Kindle in storage terms, it no longer has the SD flash memory card slot that made it possible to keep a library of tens of thousands of books on the device at once. While my library never really grew that big (having even a few hundred books began to make getting around in the menus somewhat awkward), knowing it could went a long way towards tickling my desire for the world's entire written history to be in my pocket at all times.It may even be that Amazon will reach their vision before Google, who surely include books in in their mission statement to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible." Although, with the newly launched version of Google Book Search that puts 1.5 million public domain books close at hand on iPhones and Android-powered phones, I'm hoping they meet in the middle: a Kindle that downloads new books from Amazon, but also public domain books from Google. Until storage becomes inexpensive enough that every book in the world can be stashed on a flash memory chip-and that will happen!-a library in the sky would suit me just fine.Joel Johnson writes about technology so much that he sometimes gets tired of it, but stays interested when gadgets and computers actually make life better. He is about to move to Eugene, Oregon with his dog and his favorite plants.