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Thomas Claburn
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Amazon Planning E-Book Debacle

Amazon is apparently planning to release a $399 e-book reading device called Kindle on Monday. I'd have thought that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would know better since he was around at the turn of the century, during the first e-book flop.

Amazon is apparently planning to release a $399 e-book reading device called Kindle on Monday. I'd have thought that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would know better since he was around at the turn of the century, during the first e-book flop.If the pictures posted on Engadget are remotely close to the final form of the device, I have to say that Kindle is a thing of unsurpassed ugliness. The iPhone it is not. And that's a problem: The iPhone is, in my opinion, the best e-reading device currently available. Kindle's failure to learn any lessons from the iPhone will be its doom.

Back in 1999, I spoke with IDC analyst Sean Kaldor for a PC Computing Magazine article on e-books. He said basically that no one was buying e-book reading devices. "The fact that we don't see consumers adopting these devices en masse tells me that it's not just a device issue," he said. "It's a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes and actions that needs to happen."

Eight years later, that shift still hasn't happened.

There are, without doubt, more people reading more documents on portable devices today than there were in 1999. I read online news on my iPhone occasionally and plenty of people do so regularly on their BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm, and Windows Mobile devices, among others. And that's to say nothing of people reading Web copy, PDFs, and the like on their notebook computers.

But e-books on dedicated e-book reading hardware? Not yet, apart perhaps from a few hardcore gadget fans who just don't get enough screen time in front of their PC, laptop, ultra-mobile PC, TV, and mobile phone during the day.

The book is a time-tested device. It works, always, provided there's light and the opportunity to concentrate. It requires no manual. It can be dropped, rained on, or otherwise neglected and it'll probably still work.

More than that, a book is a thing people value beyond the cost of its raw materials. Logically, there's no reason I should value my second edition Lord of the Rings set more than the few dollars it would cost to buy the trilogy used in paperback. The words are the same in each, more or less. But would I trade my weathered hardcover set for cheap paperbacks or a Tolkien PDF? Not a chance.

Will there be e-book readers? Sure, some day. The iPhone is a pretty good one already. I could see a foldable 8.5" by 11" sheet of wireless-connected e-paper working or even a mobile phone with a projection lens, for reading projected text. Maybe in the future we'll be able to project documents onto our retinas from eyeglass-mounted lasers, enabling us to read in our heads. I'm not counting the days, however.

As for Kindle, I just don't buy it, not for $399, and I suspect few others will, either.

Perhaps Amazon might want to have a go at designing an e-fork. Surely, eating utensils are due for an upgrade after all this time.

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