Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon.com, is debuting their newest product, the Kindle, a small paperback-sized electronic book reader. Could this device be the improvement to the book? Even Bezos comments that the book is elegant and ponders if it is even possible to improve upon it. In today’s post, TeacherJay takes a look at the development of eBook readers and has a few words for the practical use of the devices.The Kindle is the newest generation of a series of eBook readers that seem to have failed in the marketplace. The concept is not new and the technology found in the early ones was not very advanced. The basic idea is to have a small device, about the size of a normal paperback book that can have different documents loaded onto it. RCA, Franklin and Casio have all tried these devices and TeacherJay has seen others using them. They do not seem to have mass appeal however. Perhaps this is because the early ones required a lot of battery changes. They used backlights to illuminate the page, much like those Timex Indiglo watches that we all went gaga over 15 years ago. It worked in the watch because we only need to see it for a few seconds, but with a book, the reader needs to have it lit for much longer and this kills the battery. Another issue was the weight and the fact that while the book readers worked great in normal home lighting situation, bright sunlight, or even strong fluorescents would cause the image to be washed out or reflect back a glare.
This new device uses a different technology known as Electronic Paper. With this method, the surface actually reflects light much like a printed page and only needs to use electricity in order to change the image. This saves the batteries as well as eye strain. Another large improvement over previous devices is the method of loading new data. While previous models stored information on flash cards, required a USB cable, Bluetooth or other wireless technology. All of these methods required a computer or at least a hotspot. The Kindle instead uses the EVDO high-speed data network that some phones and PDAs use. This means that anywhere there is data coverage, the Kindle will also be able to pick up the latest New York Times Bestseller, scroll through Wikipedia (for free), and download the latest blog postings – even The Onion, and it weighs only 10.3 ounces. TeacherJay has been intrigued by these devices for quite some time although the $400 price tag is still a bit stiff – and then books still cost $9.99. However, if the prices dropped a little, there more availability of books and the battery life and EVDO connections really do live up to the promises then perhaps this device, or similar, has a future.
Classroom applications of such a device are also fascinating. TeacherJay recently returned from the Mayatan School, a small school in Honduras, where teachers try not to give too much homework from textbooks. For one, there are not always enough books to go around so not everybody would have one, and secondly, bookbags of young children can get very heavy when they are loaded down with books. But, every child could carry home a wireless eBook reader and always have the latest textbook – in fact, s/he could have the entire classroom set, plus 200 books from the library. A school in Maastricht is already experimenting with this idea. While that price tag is still high, if Amazon, or a competitor were willing to create lower cost devices and spread books to those who don’t have them, this could even turn into a way to defeat the digital divide – much like the One Laptop Per Child project.
Although this particular device probably has its bugs and is not perfect, TeacherJay still feels that Amazon deserves a Gold Star not just for putting the device out there, but for using the latest technology. While Amazon does stand to make a lot of money from the Kindle if it takes off so perhaps their actions are not completely altruistic, it is still an attempt to make the delivery of digital content to a portable reader a reality – perhaps it may even be able to steal some of the attention away from other portable devices such as the PSP and make reading-on-the-go just as fashionable as gaming-on-the-go.