Kindle Goes Back to the Future

Being a fairly retro kind of guy, and a perennial lover of all things black and white, I really should love Amazon's new mobile book reader, Kindle. I am forever dragging my family to little pockets of deco design still surviving in New York City. "Honey, all the humans look like robots," my girlfriend says. My German-made Lamy pen has echoes of Bauhaus design sense. "Which end do you write with?" anyone who uses it asks. And I am famous for my marathons of Buster Keaton shorts. "Dad, turn the color up. I think watching black and white movies for too long will ruin your eyes or something."

So you would think I should be tickled by a book reader that looks and performs like the breakthrough product of 1997. Kindle so deftly mixes next-gen technology with last-gen performance and design that it feels a lot like a Blu-ray re-issue of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

The electronic paper technology really does produce a very readable page with adjustable font sizes. But after a decade of LCD use everyone will want to flick on some backlighting that isn't there. In light of the iPhone touch screen, the thumbpad keyboard seems almost quaint. Everyone I handed the unit to instinctively tried in vain to tap screen links. The truly bizarre silver cursor traverses its own column to the right of the screen to click into links via a plastic scroll wheel. This succeeds in making a $400 device feel somehow like cheap knock-off of some more sophisticated technology with proper navigation. And the display itself, for its entire technical prowess, doesn't even do black and white that well. The thumbnails images of book covers from the Amazon store are so muddy and unidentifiable they are useless as merchandising tools. "Dad, stop using that thing. It's going to ruin your eyes."

Finally, and as everyone has already noted, the navigation bars for paging forward and backward are so poorly positioned that it is impossible to grab the device without mistakenly clicking off your page. How that piece of the design even made it past R&D is beyond belief. Bezos may have made the cover of Newsweek, but he is no Steve Jobs, and the Kindle is no iPod.

I don't mean to pile on the criticism that already has been leveled against Amazon's generally noble attempt to revive the longstanding dream of a portable, digital book reader. There have been many positive reviews. The most remarkable thing about the device's launch into the market is the radically divided nature of the response. Of more than 1,000 user reviews at Amazon itself revealed about 300 rate it five stars, 276 rate it one star, and the remaining half of the response pool is scattered evenly in between. The top and bottom-heaviness of the ratings suggest to me that the technology actually has some legs. The raves come from die hard readers who love the device's portability, its storage, and its general legibility. Critics like me are looking forward to a day when we really can make libraries of content this portable and usable, but this iteration is frustrating because it feels more like a cool concept car made 20 years ago. This is the first generation of something that needs to get to version three.

I find the Kindle most dazzling in its connectivity, however. The device comes with EV-DO wireless broadband built-in, and the user needs to do nothing except turn on the wireless toggle to connect to the Sprint network, browse the Amazon catalog and automatically pull in the latest content. While I think the Kindle is too costly all around (they even charge for blog subscriptions), making wireless a value added part of the bundle is a good model. Better, embedding connectivity into the physical world this seamlessly is the most exciting piece of it to me. Making broadband connectivity this simple, cheap and ubiquitous means that digital content itself will become an ever-present cloud that marketers, publishers and consumers can pour into any place, device or event.

All tech bashing aside, the Kindle's odd backward step into the future embodies something very important about how we use advanced technology. The promise of gadgetry is not how it changes our lives so much as how we use it to enhance and streamline the longstanding rituals we bring to the technology. Wireless-ness, for lack of a better word, has the potential to network the billboards with dynamic content or even to make it possible for me to grab a message from a marketing poster I pass on the street to reference later. The world can be made more like the Internet, with real-time messaging everywhere that I can click into, copy and paste, save or forward at will.

For the time being, the physical world will retain the current forms (poster, billboard, magazines). The technology we will embrace first and most is the technology that enhances the familiar without making it alien. My point is that wireless-ness, rather than mobility, may be the most promising piece of the cellular network evolution. Rather than simply packing more and more functionality into the diminutive phone, we may pay closer attention to how cellular technology lights up our entire environment of objects with a steady stream of live data.

Tags: mobile
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