Reading in the Digital Age: Hands-on with Amazon

January 22, 2008

Looking back over the last ten years, there have been a dizzying parade of devices and approaches that announce themselves as the ultimate solution to reading in the digital age. Unfortunately for the creators of these same devices and approaches, the reading public has resoundingly rejected these innovations in favor of the more tried and true physical book.

As one who loves books, I participated in that rejection of the early e-book text and e-book reader. Invariably, an e-text was too difficult to load onto a device, the screen was not high enough resolution to facilitate reading, legibility was terrible in so many lighting situations, and the controls to navigate the text were awkward and poorly designed. I was like many readers thinking, who could possibly want a dialog box that says their text has just run out of power and could no longer be read if I could just have a physical book that would always be on?

This past December I had a chance to extensively use, meaning read from, Amazon's new portable ebook reading device, Kindle, and it changed the way that I think about these types of devices. For the experience of using Kindle is to understand that the reading public has been asking the wrong question about these devices. For many, the rise of the ebook begs the question, what is happening to the physical book in our digital culture?' The Kindle refocuses that question in a more tangible way, instead asking what is happening to the act of reading?'

If I were to answer that question in relation to my own life, I have moved 80% of my reading online. And I read a lot. So to look upon the many books that line the shelves in my home is to look at an activity that has fundamentally changed in the last twenty years. Two videos capture for me the power of this transformation, and the shift that the Kindle attempts to navigate as a leading edge technology. In one, a commercial from Norway, two monks muse on what will happen to reading as a new technology arrives to replace the scroll: Medieval Helpdesk.

In a more contemporary reflection on reading and studying, students in a cultural anthropology class at Kansas State document their online life: A Vision of Students Today.¿

Of the more telling facts, the average student in this class reads significantly more online than in the printed world marked by textbooks.

It is in this dynamic that Amazon offers the Kindle and Amazon's answers to these questions are by far the most intriguing and compelling of any ebook initiative up to this date. Kindle is the first to include a free (part of the initial purchase price) built-in high speed cell service that allows for fast downloads of more than 90,000 texts that Amazon has prepared for sale. In addition, Kindle offers daily and weekly paid subscriptions to national and international magazines and newspapers so that a morning cup of coffee with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or maybe even Le Monde is just a daily download away. Provided you have left the cell service in Kindle with available power, the text arrives silently while you sleep and is ready to read on waking. I say ready to read deliberately, for Kindle's implementation of digital ink is the finest of any ebook reader commercially available. In a variety of lighting conditions, varying from direct sunlight to the dim lighting of an oh-so-comfortable airline seat, the text was incredibly legible and offered no problems with glare. In addition, the controls, though quirky, offer full and agile access to a download as hefty as a Sunday New York Times.

Surprisingly, where Kindle falls down is in its ability to fully support reading on the internet. One would have suspected that Amazon would have focused its efforts most strategically in this area, for what is most revolutionary about the device is that it acknowledges that the act of reading online has become as important as reading a physical book. Instead, though, Kindle offers access to a very limited subset of blogs, all by paid subscription, and allows limited surfing of the web through a built-in browser that is truly first generation and nearly unusable. ¿ For an incredibly detailed technical overview of the Kindle, with accompanying illustrations, see

For the latest in the blogosphere on Kindle, check:

In the evolution of technologies, one often looks for that moment when the device or the approach matures such that it is not only ready for adoption, but also that the likelihood exists that it actually will be adopted. No ebook device or approach preceding Kindle excited the reading public, but Kindle is different. The user interface behind this device is relatively easy to use, a huge range of content is easy to access, the reading experience is the best it has ever been for e-books, and the device is lightweight and easy to carry. If it is not the future, it surely offers the shape of the future to those of us reading both online and off.

-- Alan Cattier, director of Academic Technology Services