Thursday, 26 February 2009

Another brick from the wall

A few months ago I was able to take a first hand look at an Amazon Kindle. Amazon is best known as a books (and now all things) retailer, but the Kindle is (I think) their first attempt to produce a consumer electronics product of their own. It's a personal reader, a portable device which can store hundreds of books or thousands of newspaper articles so that you can access them to read at any time, on the move. Also it has Wi-Fi capability so you can also access blogs from it, or RSS feeds, and you can even download books to it from the Amazon Kindle store - which is adding downloadable books to its catalogue all the time, the ultimate aim being the idea that you can think of any book, anywhere, and begin reading it within seconds through your Kindle. And if the thought of yet more time spent in front of a brightly lit screen is off-putting, the Kindle screen is a strange kind of unlit greyscale, which doesn't seem like it would be tiresome to eyes at all. It's not actually available in the UK yet, only the US (where they've actually just launched a second version), but there are several other kinds of these portable electronic readers available in the UK, all starting at just over £200.

So there's the rub for now: it's a technology with obvious advantages but for now it's far too expensive to take off. But that will all change in the next couple of years I'm sure. I remembered today that I was an early adopter to MP3 players. I think I got my first one around 2000 or 2001, because I'd joined a gym and Napster at about the same time, and because I obviously had more pocket money than I knew what to do with. I bought one of these bad boys, a Rio 600:



I paid £140 for that, which included 64MB of memory. £140! Its USP at the time was that it played WMA files, which it boasted were twice as good as MP3. At the time, 128kbp MP3 files were the norm, described as capable of near-CD quality audio, and files which were easily calculable to about a megabyte-per-minute. So my Rio could store about an hour of music at 128, just one album. But because WMA was twice as good as MP3, its 64kbp files apparently sounded just as good. But you'd better believe I wasn't satisfied with that incredible two album storage capacity!

So I bought a 64MB expansion pack. It was £140 too. Now I could carry FOUR albums in my pocket, on an unskippable hard disk, at the supposedly near-CD audio fidelity of 64kbp WMA. For only £280!

WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING!?

And of course, 64kbp WMAs were unlistenable.

So while only a few early adopters with more money than since are currently indulging the Kindles, I think it's only a matter of time (a few years perhaps) before these things fall in price and become massively popular. The old-school holdouts who talk about "the feel of the page" will hang out with the music fans who talk about "the feel of the vinyl" while everyone else - the 95% casual mainstream - will embrace the chance to access reading material of all types from 'the cloud'. Another huge wall between print media and online publishing will be knocked down, and book and magazine publishers and retailers will begin to feel a similar pinch to what the record industry is feeling today (because Kindle-catalogued books will become just the latest kind of copyrighted content to be shared illegally online).

Which is good for the environment, and the consumer, and further democratization of the written word is good for the amateur blogger; but it's all, again, really bad for the professional creator. I'm a consumer and amateur blogger, so it's fine for me. But the best art, painted, written or sung, is not produced by people with full-time jobs. I hope that a few years from now we're not looking back at the idea of creative endeavours being worthy of full-time money with as much sneering hindsight as we can now look at the Rio 600.

1 comment:

Milo said...

Nice piece - It may not be popular to say, but having recently given in and purchased an iPhone, I don't see the need for a Kindle. I downloaded a free app called Stanza which enables you to read ebooks and the like. Obviously you can also use google reader and other methods of reading web content on the iPhone, and it means you only have to carry one gadget around with you (I've heard the Kindle is pretty heavy and bulky).

The one thing the Kindle has going for it is obviously a more "book-like" screen size and the less bright screen as you mentioned, but in my opinion the future of things is headed towards 'one device that does all things' - much more convenient.

Amazing about those early mp3 players - in some ways I think being an early adopter is a bit of a waste of time, I stuck with my cassette walkman for years longer than was fashionable, and my last phone was pretty basic too - but the iPhone seems to me to be worth getting because of the sheer variety of things you can do with it. That is until the Palm Pre comes out..