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Kindlemania! Is It Sensible…or Silly?

I was an ultra-early adopter of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader: I plunked down my money for one last year on November 19th, the day it was introduced. The review I wrote at the time for Slate wasn’t a rave, but it turned out to be one of the more upbeat early evaluations: The Kindle debuted to a thorough drubbing in the blogosphere for everything from its aesthetics (admittedly dreary) to usability (it’s tough to pick it up without accidentally flipping a few e-pages). Even the name prompted jeers.

The Kindle may have been anything but a critical darling, but there were early signs that it wasn’t a flop, either. It quickly sold out and was backordered for weeks, and Amazon.com devoted a remarkable amount of precious real estate on its home page to promoting the device, something it probably wouldn’t have done if it were dead on arrival. I enjoyed using mine, and when folks asked me about it, I usually began by saying “It’s not perfect, but it’s nowhere near as bad as people are saying it is…”

Fast forward to today: All of a sudden, the Kindle’s reputation has gone from so-so to go-go, a transformation that’s rare in the tech industry. A couple of weeks ago, TechCrunch reported that Amazon had sold 240,000 of them–not iPod numbers, but not bad, especially for a gadget that’s only available from one seller, and only via mail order. (How many iPods would Apple have sold if you couldn’t see one before buying?) And now one analyst is saying that Kindles could be a billion-dollar business for Kindle next year, while another speaks of the company selling $2.5 billion in e-books by 2012.

Well, maybe! After nine months of Kindle ownership, though, my relationship with the device is still a strange love-hate affair. Every time I use it, I see both the giant potential of e-books and all the ways in which the Kindle falls short of realizing it.

Here’s the stuff about the Kindle that continues to bug me:

The e-ink screen still stinks. I don’t understand why it’s the first thing Amazon mentions on its Kindle page. (“revolutionary… a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper”). Yes, the battery life is terrific, but the display is grey-on-grey and tough to read unless the light is just right. And it basically doesn’t do photographs–they look like bad Etch-a-Sketch drawings. The display is the single thing I like least about the Kindle.

It’s an electronic device. The Kindle’s battery life is impressive; more impressive still is the fact that you don’t need to worry about battery life at all when you’re reading a real book. (When I haven’t used the Kindle for awhile, I need to find its power brick and recharge it before I can do anything with it.) Also: I do much of my reading on airplanes, and I can’t use the Kindle during takeoff or landing…which means I need to bring more traditional reading matter with me.

It complicates book shopping. I still like to browse in real bookstores, and while I’m not above the notion of finding a book I want in a store and then buying the Kindle version, I haven’t been able to easily determine whether a Kindle edition exists while I was still in the store. Sometimes I’ve just gone ahead and bought the real book; sometimes I’ve made a mental note to check for a Kindle version when I got home. (Now that I have an iPhone, this may not be so much of an issue: I should be able to check Amazon’s Web site on it while I’m out and about.)

I fret about its DRM. In the music realm, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have all decided to shut down DRM servers, thereby crippling media they’d sold people. What’ll happen to my Kindle books if Amazon.com decides a few years from now to withdraw from the e-book market? Or if I see an e-book device from another company that looks more appealing?

And here’s what I still love about it:

Hundreds of books in my briefcase. I don’t want to lug even one hardcover on a trip; with the Kindle I can tote the equivalent of hundreds of them.

The wireless interface. The Amazon.com book-buying-and-downloading service works wonderfully well–it’s far more impressive than the hardware.

The price of the books. Most of them are ten bucks or less, versus $25 or $30 for a new hardcover. Yes, I know that that’s only after you pay hundreds of dollars for the Kindle. But I’ve done that–and books feel more like impulse purchases with the Kindle than in hardbound dead-tree form.

What’s my bottom line on the Kindle? I still think it could be a big deal–but only if evolves at least as rapidly as the iPod has done during its first seven years. I think that e-ink is likely a dead end and that Amazon should release a Kindle with a more traditional color screen, even if battery life takes a major hit. The user interface needs to get less kludgy. You need to have some confidence that the books you want will most likely be available in Kindle form. And so on and so on.

If Amazon doesn’t get all this stuff right? I think there’s an alternate scenario in which e-books become very popular–but on the iPhone and iPhone-like smartphones rather than on dedicated e-book readers. Matter of fact, I’m using and enjoying an iPhone e-book reader application called Stanza. It’s not a Kindle replacement, since it’s library of books is mostly made up of free public-domain classics, not the new bestsellers that you can get on the Kindle. And I have enough trouble preventing my iPhone 3G’s battery from dying without using it to read books.

But Stanza leaves me hungry for an e-book reader with a display and interface that’s as nice as the iPhone’s, and a library of books that’s as wide-ranging and easy to acquire as Kindle’s. I don’t know whether it’s going to be Amazon or Apple or someone else who makes this device, but I’m looking forward to adopting it just as quickly as I snapped up the Kindle…