Monday, November 19, 2007

The labor of reading -- wirelessly

Big news in the world of reading today. First, as Tom Regan reported this morning on the National Public Radio News Blog, "A new National Endowment for the Arts report says Americans are reading less. And young people are reading a lot less."
The report, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, found that the average person between 15 and 24 spends 2 1/2 hours a day watching TV and seven minutes reading. Between 1992 and 2002, the number of young adults (18-24) who voluntarily read a book each year (we're talking about one book here) dropped from 59 percent to 52 percent.

Lest you think this only applies to books, the full report (available as a PDF for your online reading convenience) points out that the research team looked at "all varieties of reading, including fiction and nonfiction genres in various formats such as books, magazines, newspapers, and online reading". (If you don't have time to read the whole report, you can always consult the executive summary which the NEA so thoughtfully and rather ironically provided.)

The second reading-related news item of the day is notable precisely because it blurs those very categories of "reading books" and "reading online". As the New York Times weblog Bits reported today, Amazon.com has entered the portable digital book market with a combination $400 handheld reading device and a iPod-touch-like mobile shopping experience (using nearly-ubiquitous cell phone networks rather than locally contingent WiFi hotspots). Saul Hansell describes the content pricing model:
Amazon has 90,000 titles for sale at launch, including books from all major publishers.

Best sellers and new releases will cost $9.99. That represents a substantial savings off of Amazon’s already discounted prices. Amazon is currently selling hardcover bestsellers for roughly $13 to $20 and trade paperbacks for $8 to $11.

The Kindle will also download and display newspapers, magazines and blogs. But in an era when most Internet content is offered free with advertising, Amazon has decided to charge monthly fees for these publications.

A follow-up post by Brad Stone at the NYT already speculates about what a future release of the Kindle might incorporate -- suggesting the current version might have some significant problems to overcome with consumers. A visit to Amazon.com's own Kindle product page reveals some of the initial public reaction to this product -- at least from those who themselves choose to spend time reading and posting to Amazon.com review threads. Comments seem to range from "I have been using it for about 2 months and it has changed the way I read," to "$400 is not a price point that interests me at all. I would pay half that perhaps, but only if I could also read things in different formats". And there's plenty more text for online reading about this device already -- even a Wikipedia article, with over four dozen edits since about 7am this morning. (Maybe this makes some sense, since free online access to Wikipedia is one of the touted features of the Kindle -- granting a serious sort of legitimacy to the open-source encyclopedia that shouldn't be minimized.)

What's my take? The technological form factor (battery, size, screen) together with the wireless ability to purchase an additional book anytime, anywhere comprise the real innovation of the Kindle, I think, but only for omnivorous readers of current popular fiction and non-fiction whose work and leisure lives are so fragmented through time and space (think taxicabs, airports, hotels, cars) that both carrying around a load of books and stopping to seek out a place to dispose of and purchase a new book are burdensome. If I were a manager at Apple I'd seriously think about the ramifications of adding e-text reading power to a next large-screen, trade-book-size generation of the iPod, as well as wrapping ebooks more tightly than they already are into the iTunes Music and Video Store (which you'd have to rename again). In fact, I'm surprised Amazon has put together their own hardware solution and not partnered with Apple or Sony (one of the other early e-book entrants).

But the real killer application for an academic information laborer like me, already affiliated with an institution which pays license fees for ubiquitous wired access to physical and digital text? The ability to tap into the PDF resources of my academic library and the databases it subscribes to (ProQuest, JStore, ProjectMuse, etc.) as well as the copyright-free resources of the Google Books Project from a similarly-styled, low-power, cell-phone-network, tablet-form-factor, e-book reader priced at $100. For free.

1 comment:

loono said...

As a current Kindle owner, I feel that the product in its current form is not ready for the masses.

You mentioned that Bezos might have gone with Apple or Sony on this one. I can't imagine how he didn't. Amazon had no prior experience lunging into the consumer electronics market and had way too much money to be able to justify not pairing with a more able partner.

I still give Mr. Bezos credit for throwing this buggy, poorly designed beast out into the market. It's a stepping stone indicative of some great potential. Maybe we'll one day get an Apple iBook version once the momentum of this kind of product reveals it to be marketable to a wider audience.

**Crosses fingers**