Opinion: Why Amazon's Kindle is revolutionary

Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Last April, I wrote a column titled, “Why e-books are bound to fail.” My reasons: cost, the availability of better alternatives and, most importantly, book lovers love paper books.

I was wrong.

Last week, I set out to deflate the hype about Amazon’s new Kindle e-book reader and to tell you why it will fail. But while researching this column, I became convinced of the opposite: Kindle is revolutionary and will succeed in the market. Some percentage of book lovers, including me, will buy one to replace their beloved paper books, magazines and newspapers.

I’m not going to reproduce basic facts about Kindle widely covered elsewhere. If you want the basics, read the Newsweek cover story by Steven Levy, Linda Rosencrance’s excellent Computerworld report or check out Amazon’s own Kindle marketing page.

Instead, I’ll reveal some surprising facts about Amazon’s Kindle. But first let me tell you why the Kindle is such a revolutionary device.

Why Kindle rules

I’ve dissed and dismissed e-books for years. But three factors I didn’t anticipate reversed my long-standing attitude.

Fast, free broadly distributed wireless. Amazon has actually out-Appled Apple in ease-of-use. Like the iPhone, Kindle lets you buy media — books and periodicals, in this case — without your PC. Unlike the iPhone, you can do that without ever being billed for wireless access. The free, unlimited wireless is just there. And it’s not Wi-Fi, but mobile broadband; it connects anywhere a Sprint cell phone can connect (taxi cabs, the beach — you name it).

Special extras for hardcore book and magazine lovers. My biggest complaint about e-books has been that book lovers love the look and feel of real paper books. But book lovers love other things, too, and Kindle gives them a long list of compensatory goodies. Amazon’s $9.99-and-under book pricing means book fans can buy more books. They can look up words in a dictionary, Wikipedia or on the Web right from the device. They get instant gratification by buying books from anywhere; books take a minute to download.

The seller and service provider — Amazon. The company is uniquely positioned to provide this product and this service. Obviously, Amazon already sells books. The company long ago figured out the complexities of online book distribution and most book buyers already trust Amazon. And I don’t mean we are “willing to trust.” We already have Amazon accounts, and Amazon already has our credit card numbers.

Surprising facts about Kindle

Beyond all this, it’s important to realize that Amazon’s Kindle isn’t just an e-book reader. It’s a surprising new kind of device. Here are some of those surprises.

What you knew: Kindle can access Amazon.com and the Web to search Wikipedia via its free wireless connection.

What you didn’t know: You can just surf the Web in general. Kindle comes with a Web browser called Basic Web, which supports cookies, JavaScript and SSL, but doesn’t support plug-ins like Flash or Shockwave or Java applets. Basic Web lets you type in a URL, click on links and generally surf the Web like you would on a PC.

What you knew: You can download and read any of the 88,000 books from Amazon.com — and the list is growing.

What you didn’t know: You can download a much larger selection of free e-books using the Kindle’s Web browser — many in Kindle-friendly .MOBI and .PRC formats. Text-based books are available, too. And if you don’t like how these look in text-format (which you won’t), you can convert to .MOBI and .PRC formats on your PC using free or cheap tools available online.

What you knew: Kindle connects free to Sprint’s EV-DO 3G network.

What you didn’t know: Where EV-DO isn’t available, Kindle connects via a second protocol called 1xRTT, which is an older 144Kbit/sec. standard. The addition of 1xRTT increases the number of locations where you have wireless access.

What you knew: Kindle’s Search feature lets you find words or phrases on Wikipedia, the Kindle Store and the Web.

What you didn’t know: Kindle gives you access to an experimental and free service called Kindle NowNow, which is a search engine powered by actual humans. You send any question, and a human being will research it for you, then send the best three answers, usually, Amazon says, within five minutes.

What you knew: Kindle’s wireless service works only in or near the U.S.

What you didn’t know: You can buy books from anywhere in the world from your PC, and sync to the Kindle.

What you knew: The Kindle can read only four text-document file formats: .AZW (Kindle-specific), .TXT, .MOBI and .PRC. In addition, every Kindle gets its own e-mail address for receiving Amazon-converted Word, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP files for 10 cents per document. You send the original to your Kindle’s address and your device receives the converted document (only e-mail addresses you authorize can send to your Kindle).

What you didn’t know: If you have Amazon send converted documents to your regular e-mail account instead of your Kindle account, the conversion is free. You then have to download the attachment and sync via USB.

What you knew: Amazon keeps a copy of all your subscriptions online so, if you upgrade or replace a Kindle, you won’t lose purchased books, newspapers or magazines.

What you didn’t know: The Kindle also automatically and wirelessly backs up online all your notes, bookmarks, clippings and even “last location read.”

What you knew: Kindle is an e-book reader.

What you didn’t know: Kindle is also an audiobook reader and MP3 player, and has both speakers and a headphone jack. Amazon lets you buy audiobooks directly from Audible.com by going to a dedicated Web site where you can download and install Kindle-specific software for connecting to and buying from Audible.com. You can listen to music while reading, although only in “shuffle” mode.

What you knew: The Kindle comes with a built in dictionary — The New Oxford American Dictionary.

What you didn’t know: If you prefer another dictionary, you can buy it from Amazon.com, then tell your Kindle via an option setting that the new dictionary is now your “preferred” dictionary for instant lookups.

What you knew: You can subscribe to newspapers and magazines.

What you didn’t know: Your subscriptions arrive hours or, in the case of some magazines, days before print subscribers get theirs.

What you knew: Newspaper and magazines are not retained permanently by default on Amazon’s Your Media Library. Amazon’s contract with these content providers typically allows just seven issues, although the number varies.

What you didn’t know: You can download periodicals to your PC or Kindle and retain them forever. Amazon can’t retain them beyond seven issues, but you can.

What you knew: You can read for about two days on a single charge (which takes two hours).

What you didn’t know: If you turn off the wireless feature, you can read every day for more than a week on a charge.

What you knew: The Kindle is sold out already.

What you didn’t know: You can order now, and they’ll ship it to you after Nov. 29.

What you knew: You have to pay for books and magazines downloaded from the Kindle Store.

What you didn’t know: You can try before you buy. Magazines and newspapers come with a 14-day free trial and can also be purchased one magazine at a time without a subscription. You can read the first chapters of books free.

What you knew: Amazon charges $2 per month to subscribe to each RSS feed.

What you didn’t know: You can read any RSS feed, including those they charge for, free of charge via the Kindle’s Web browser by going directly to the sites.

What you knew: Amazon does not support PDF files for conversion.

What you didn’t know: Free PDF-to-Word converters exist, and Amazon will convert those to its Kindle format, so PDF files on the Kindle are merely inconvenient, not impossible.

What you knew: You can “dog ear” pages to bookmark them, save “clippings” (copies of entire pages) and notes on Kindle, all of which are backed up as part of your books.

What you didn’t know: You can also “highlight” text — like using a highlighter pen, but without the bright color. Highlights are also backed up.

What you knew: The Kindle Store is functionally similar to the Amazon bookstore.

What you didn’t know: You can use Kindle’s keyboard and wireless connection to write book reviews on the Kindle Store.

The Amazon Kindle isn’t perfect. It’s ugly as sin and needs a light for reading in the dark, and the Kindle Store could use a far greater selection of newspapers and magazines.

But, broadly speaking, the Kindle is a game-changing revolution in buying, reading, managing and using electronic books and other content. It’s also the hottest holiday gift you can buy this year for anyone who loves to read.

I’ve always been skeptical about e-books, but Amazon has made a believer — and a customer — out of me.

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