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BW Businessworld

Curling Up With Kindle

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A couple of days ago, I went around showing off a brand new Amazon Kindle. I couldn't resist. There isn't a soul around me who didn't groan that they wanted one of these things right now, and tell me how lucky I was. After a suitable gap and enough anguish, I let them know I hadn't shelled out Rs 20,000 for it either: it was around for review.

It wasn't so long ago that an electronic book you could carry around taking thousands of books with you was the stuff of the distant future. Yet, here we are already on the brink of an e-book revolution. Forrester Research predicts at least 10 million e-readers to sell worldwide next year. For now, the number of people wanting them is big and those buying them is small, but there's so much going for e-readers it's not difficult to see how you could be curling up with a Kindle (or other e-reader), not your favourite paper version. Well, for one thing, it will save some of the few trees left on the planet. For another, e-readers are making the reading experience as much like the real thing as they can. They're not quite there yet, but they will be. If you're a true bookworm, you'll miss a quick natural page-turn, for example, and much else that make us love books. E-Ink draws little power and looks rather like print on paper.

Although the transition to e-books won't be overnight, it will be interesting to see how it changes our reading habits, publishing, printing and related industries. For instance, what happens to the guys who make ink, paper, print books, build bookshelves, sell books in bookshops, etc.? Most of all, what will happen to the revenue model for publishers and writers? How will piracy impact this?

Amazon took Kindle international last month, freeing it from its earlier geographical restriction to the US. With shipping and duties, it's expensive for India, but it's less than what many people pay for their snazzy mobile phones. The Kindle's design has an Apple-like appeal; it's white, clean and hold-able. The screen is easy on the eye, as E-Ink and paper are meant to be, and it's intuitive to use. In a leather jacket (a separate buy), it looks every bit like a book. It's so easy to want one. There are many other e-readers — from Sony, Barnes & Noble, Interead, Astak, Foxit, Intel and more. But before you jump in to buy one, consider a couple of things.

What source does the e-reader use for books? With the Kindle, it takes a few moments from wanting a book to having it in your hands. But all the books on Amazon are not available for sale in India; distribution rights vary by publisher and geography. Also, books in India tend to cost much less than in the US, so you'd be paying more. Also, check the ease with which you can replace a battery. Books on Amazon are DRM (digital rights management) protected, so you won't easily be able to lend them. Although it's technically possible, you can't use it to browse the Web in India, except Wikipedia, due to data charges.

Things are happening thick and fast in the world of e-readers. Companies are just beginning to compete, bringing out models that top the features and remove the problems found with previous ones. A case in point is Barnes & Noble's Nook, which gets rid of the book-lending problem. It also has Wi-Fi, a dual-screen, the E-Ink page and a colour strip below for navigation. An Apple e-reader is rumoured to be on the cards, and some action on that front is likely next year.

Meanwhile, the only other device I could compare with the Kindle was my iPod Touch. With an e-reader software, Stanza, installed on my iPod and desktop, I can pull in e-books for reading on the iPod. Being more than a little visually challenged, I rather liked the backlit feel, although normal-sighted people will find it too much of a glare for long periods. Not that it would work for long periods anyway. The battery would run out, and if used regularly in this way, would have a shorter life. But it's just great for snatching a little read, while you're waiting in line somewhere or when you're being driven in your car.

There are even Kindle apps that will let you get at Amazon books, theoretically, and there's a tonne of settings you can change including background colours, fonts, formatting, etc. There's even a night mode to quickly switch to white on black. Oh, and you can turn the page quickly with an attractive curl of the paper, which you can set to look like parchment, among other textures.

So, while my first reaction to the Kindle was that I wanted one immediately, cash down, I've curbed the impulse, and decided to make do with my iPod Touch until the developing story of e-readers settles into a tale worth telling.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.
mala at pobox dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-11-2009)