People who like to read also like books — the feel of them in their hands, the look of the printed word on a paper page. So it's no surprise that the advent of the electronic book has been greeted with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity.
At BookExpo, the book industry's annual convention, there was a palpable buzz about Kindle, Amazon.com's new electronic reader. Not only did Amazon founder Jeff Bezos fill a ballroom for a presentation extolling the virtues of the reading device, but on the convention floor, people who had never seen a Kindle were eager to get a look at it.
Kindle is light — about the weight of a paperback — and slim enough to fit into most bags easily. Its big advantage over other electronic readers is its wireless capability, which allows readers to download 125,000 titles from Amazon — including books, newspapers and magazines — pretty much anywhere, at anytime. Under the screen are a bunch of buttons, similar to the keys on a computer.
"We have very prominent page-turning buttons, because when you're reading a book, and you're sitting down, you don't want to be thinking about where the page-turn button is," explains Jay Marine, director of product management for Kindle.
When it comes to durability, Marine compares Kindle to the Blackberry, offering: "I would definitely take it to the beach, but I wouldn't bury it."
I wondered how the reader would fair with sunshine and water, so, accompanied by Rob Pegoraro, a technology writer who reviewed Kindle for The Washington Post, I took it to the neighborhood pool on a hot summer day.
Pegoraro says that Kindle, like its competitor the Sony Reader, is actually quite easy to read outdoors because it's not backlit. Instead, it uses a kind of technology that makes the screen readable in direct sunlight. But he adds that the screen is a little bit slow:
"I'm pressing the previous page button, and it flashes — and then I'm back. That's fine for going one page at a time as you're reading, but if you want to go back two chapters ... you're sort of waiting," Pegoraro says.
As for the pool, Pegoraro says that while a few drops won't hurt the device, you probably won't want to bring Kindle on the raft with you.
"This is not water resistant, so far as I know. I haven't put it to the test yet," he says.
Pegoraro likens Kindle to cell phones in terms of its ability to withstand wear and tear, but he adds that the reader has some features — like it's electronic screen — that may make it especially vulnerable. Some users choose to carry the device in a plastic bag or a leather case to protect it.
"I wouldn't play catch with it," Pegoraro jokes — especially good advice considering that the reader sells for $360.
Kindle, says Pegoraro, may be beating the competition at the moment. But it still has a way to go before it changes the way most of us read.
"They've still got some learning to do with designing gadget interfaces," he says. "It's not quite the iPod of eBook readers."
But if Kindle isn't the future, you can see it from here: a better, cheaper product is sure to come along. And when it does, we may all be reading the classics electronically.