Friday, 13 November, 2009

Will Kindle replace “real” books or newspapers?

By Bimal Mehta

Six months ago, Amazon introduced a new product called Kindle. Many predict that Kindle sets out to change the way we read books, newspaper, weblogs and more. The Kindle is a watershed event in electronic publishing. It is not the first eBook device, and may not ultimately be the one that will prevail. Yet, Amazon’s Kindle is touted as one of the most ambitious projects after the Gutenberg’s printing press. Recently launched in India, priced at Rs.13,100, Kindle wirelessly downloads books, magazine, newspaper and documents to a high resolution 6-inch e-Ink display which looks like real paper.

Reading on Kindle is remarkably comfortable. Unlike a laptop or an iPhone, the screen is not illuminated, so there’s no glare, no eyestrain — and no battery consumption. You use power only when you actually turn the page, causing millions of black particles to realign. The rest of the time, the ink pattern remains on the screen without power. You can set it on your bedside table without worrying about turning it off.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that the first goal the Kindle team set was to emulate the book’s most crucial feature: that it disappears into the story as you read. However, Kindle does work differently than a paper based book. Kindle allows the user to experiment with different type sizes. A paper book offers nothing like this (just the thing for older people). Kindle is also designed to facilitate access to multiple or several books at a time. In the home screen, the most recently read items are at the top of the list (you can sort by title or author). When you leave any book, Kindle remembers your place so you can jump back in where you left.

Reading a newspaper is interesting on Kindle. Kindle newspapers are hyperlinked, like web pages. When you open a paper, you see its logo and front page with headlines and short summaries, followed by a table of contents. Click an article to read it; click the Back button to return to the article list; or just keep paging forward to the next article. But Kindle’s limited grayscale display makes photographs almost a complete loss. Kindle’s technology certainly deserves a mention. The single most interesting component is its paper-like display. Rather than the LCD displays used in most previous book readers, this display uses E-Ink technology invented at MIT’s Media Laboratory. E-Ink film has hundreds of thousands of tiny capsules containing white and black pigment. A circuit layer, underneath, applies electric fields to swap these pigments from top to bottom – turning the surface light, absorbent or reflective. Another notable feature of E-Ink is that it can be laid onto plastic substrate, even a flexible one! This means that Kindle is very resistant to the greatest threat facing LCD displays in laptops – cracking and shattering.

Kindle is not just a book reader. Thanks to its wireless connection, it is very convenient reader for many types of content: books, newspaper, magazines and blogs, not to mention Wikipedia and the web in general. One can access the Amazon online store and download any book from over 200,000 English titles within 60 seconds.

Kindle is also making an impact on the environment. According to a new study, eBooks are better for the environment than traditional paper books. Focusing on Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader, the study was produced by Cleantech Group and stated that after 12 months of using it, the emissions it creates will have been offset. ”The new study finds that eReaders could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors,” Cleantech asserted in a statement published online, which added: “In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention wastewater that was produced or its massive carbon footprint.”

Technology continues to make changes in everyday life. We have seen musical recordings change form numerous times, until they became digital files; the once cumbersome reel-to-reel film is now downloadable; and many newspapers are now online.

Will books may be the latest victims of technology?

Till date, despite hundreds of millions of PCs in use around the world, only a few hundred thousands of their users have downloaded eBooks. The slow start is partly due to the perception that an eBook doesn’t fully replicate the book reading experience. Kindle does not give you the “holding, feeling, smelling” experience. Nor is it convenient to read to your children in bed.

According to Steve Kessel, Amazon’s vice president for Kindle, about 48 per cent of book sales in the US now happen via Kindle. He expects products like Kindle will replace physical books in future.

According to the Association of American Publishers, annual eBook sales had gained 150 per cent as of April 30th 2009. This contrasted with overall book sales, which dropped over four per cent. Overall, US$ 112 million (approximately INR 600 crore) worth of eBooks were purchased last year – a figure predicted to rise to $400 million in three years time.

Kindle is clearly aimed at the sort of book buyers who save their books to re-read, search, or use for reference — voracious readers with sprawling shelves and stacks of books. Those who read a book and then pass it on to a friend may not find the Kindle as attractive; it doesn’t offer many benefits to those who treat books as disposable items.

The brick-and-mortar experience will also impact Kindle sales. Several book buyers step into bookstores to buy a specific title that brought them to the store in the first place, but the consumer also may buy something that happened to grab his or her attention (for future reading). Most Kindle users will only download a book, when they actually want to read it. One exception is college students. Kindle provides a great advantage in having multiple textbooks available simultaneously without the burden of carrying them around, as students go back and forth to their classes.

Fiction and everyday reading will probably still have a market in physical books. One thing that keeps paper books going as a mass market is inertia. The current generation is used to the habit of reading paper books. Although in the decades to come as older generations die out and younger ones come online, and as generations in the middle try eBooks, and realize their advantages, the use of eBooks will accelerate.

In conclusion, will Kindle replace “real” books?

In Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. eBook readers won’t replace books. The iPhone won’t replace eBook readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences . . . somewhat akin to the old ”TV will replace radio” sentiment. The advent of TV obviously changed the radio industry as the advent of technology will change the publishing industry. However, I don’t think print will ever go away.

Bimal Mehta is the executive director of Vakil and Sons in Mumbai

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