The Birth of the Kindle

December 16, 2010

The original Amazon Kindle
There’s a fascinating article today about how Amazon created the Kindle using an international team of developers. “Amazon’s Kindle was largely developed in the heart of Israel’s high-tech center in the Herzliya Industrial Zone on the central coast,” notes a nonprofit news organization, which tracked down the programmers who helped build it!

Sun Microsystems had a special team in Israel devoted to writing the computer code for handheld devices besides cellphones, and developer Lilach Zipory remembers that four years ago, “Amazon contacted Sun in California and said they wanted a small device that could be used to read e-books.” The first thing the team noticed was the Kindle’s greyscale screen (which was a big switch from the color screens used by most other devices.) They ultimately spent several years working with Amazon until eventually they’d developed the perfect device.

Amazon ordered 100,000 of them, remembers Eran Vanounou, the group’s development director, “and we were frankly skeptical they would sell all of them. But when they sold out a couple of months later, we realized what we were involved with.” Lilach admits that she was equally surprised. “I would never have expected an e-book reader to take off like the Kindle did.”

Though they’ve built many devices, “the Kindle is different, because it’s such a phenomenon,” Vanounou says. Now when he flies on an airplane, he sees other passengers reading a Kindle, and knows it’s a device that they helped to create. Once Vanounou ended up talking to a passenger, who apparently raved about how much she enjoyed using her Kindle. “I didn’t let on how much we in Oracle Herzliya were a part of her experience,” he told the reporters. But finally she told him point blank, “I love my Kindle,” he remembers.

“I could have sworn I felt a tear in my eye.”

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Digital Publishing vs. the Gutenberg press

I remember a fascinating article. Three years ago, a legendary magazine editor tracked down 10 professional authors, and asked them a simple question: “Is the net good for writers?”

“Over a billion people can deliver their text to a very broad public,” he wrote at the time — but how does it affect those people who actually sell their writing for a living? “Writing as a special talent became obsolete in the 19th century,” one writer had told him in 2002. “The bottleneck was publishing…”

With the popularity of the Kindle, it’s an even better question, since writers are not just competing with the internet, but with the self-published ebooks of amateurs. Author Erik Davis (also a writer for Wired, Bookforum, and The Village Voice) had remembered that in the mid-90s, “I got paid pretty good for a youngster — generally much better than I get paid now, when my career sometimes looks more and more like a hobby…” But he also noted that his career is “less driven by external measures of what a ‘successful’ writing career looks like,” and he’d enjoyed spending his time writing about off-beat topics like mystical and counter-cultural threads in both technology and the media.

But he also thinks technology is changing the kinds of things we end up reading, creating a bigger demand for smaller articles — and a much bigger market for “opinion”. And author Mark Dery, author of Cyberculture at the End of the Century, also seemed to agree about the shorter article sizes, complaining that today, “information overload and time famine encourage a sort of flat, depthless style, indebted to online blurblets, that’s spreading like kudzu across the landscape of American prose.” Yes, things are more democratic now, Dery believes, but that’s brought good changes as well as bad.

“Skimming reader comments on Amazon, I never cease to be amazed by the arcane expertise lurking in the crowd; somebody, somewhere, knows everything about something, no matter how mind-twistingly obscure. But this sea change — and it’s an extraordinary one — is counterbalanced by the unhappy fact that off-the-shelf blogware and the comment thread make everyone a critic or, more accurately, make everyone think they’re a critic, to a minus effect.

We’re drowning in yak, and it’s getting harder and harder to hear the insightful voices through all the media cacophony. Oscar Wilde would be just another forlorn blogger out on the media asteroid belt in our day, constantly checking his SiteMeter’s Average Hits Per Day and Average Visit Length.”

Dery’s ultimate conclusion? In these complicated and chaotic times, “the future of writing and reading is deeply uncertain.” And some of his thoughts were echoed by Adam Parfrey, the publisher at Feral House books (and the author of Apocalypse Culture). “I like the internet and computers for their ability to make writers of nearly everyone,” Parfrey writes. “I don’t like the internet and computers for their ability to make sloppy and thoughtless writers of nearly everyone.”

But at the end of the day, Parfrey seems to reach a more positive view. “Overall, it’s an exciting world,” he writes. “I’m glad to be alive at this time.”

If I could, I’d print out the article and send it in a time capsule to the year 2110 — since each author had an interesting but subtly different perspective. Douglas Rushkoff wrote that “The book industry isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t blame that on the internet. It’s really the fault of media conglomeration. Authors are no longer respected in the same way, books are treated more like magazines with firm expiration dates, and writers who simply write really well don’t get deals as quickly as disgraced celebrities or get-rich-quick gurus…”

And John Shirley, author of The Eclipse Trilogy, noted that in today’s book publishing industry, “Editors are no longer permitted to make decisions on their own. They must consult marketing departments before buying a book. Book production has become ever more like television production: subordinate to trendiness, and the anxiety of executives.”

But Shirley also added that “in my opinion this is partly because a generation intellectually concussed by the impact of the internet and other hyperactive, attention-deficit media, is assumed, probably rightly, to want superficial reading.” And he wasn’t the only author who had unkind thoughts for technology itself. Michael Simmons, a former editor for The National Lampoon, wrote “We’re a planet of marks getting our bank accounts skimmed by Bill Gates and Steven Jobs… Furthermore, I get nauseous thinking of the days, weeks, months I’ve spent on the phone with tech support.”

It’s one of the meatiest articles I’ve ever read about writing, publishing, and the state of the modern author. But having said that, I still thought that Edward Champion had perhaps the ultimate comeback.

“If the internet was committing some kind of cultural genocide for any piece of writing that was over twenty pages, why then has the number of books published increased over the past fifteen years?”

It’s true! Amazon just announced they’ll sell Kindle 2’s for $89 on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving!)

A few minutes ago, they snuck the announcement onto their Facebook page for the Kindle, and confirmed it on their Twitter feed. I’d thought it was just a rumor, but here’s the complete text from Facebook of what Amazon announced!

Black Friday Deal: This Friday, 11/26, you can get our previous generation Kindle for $89!

Our previous generation Kindle uses the old E Ink technology (the same E Ink as in the current Nook). Our all-new Kindle uses the latest generation E Ink (Pearl) for 50% better contrast, and is available at the everyday low price of …$139.

Black Friday Deal: This Friday, 11/26, you can get our previous generation Kindle for $89! Our previous generation Kindle uses the old E Ink technology (the same E Ink as in the current Nook). Our all-new Kindle uses the latest generation E Ink (Pearl) for 50% better contrast, and is available at the everyday low price of ...$139.

Amazon included a link to Amazon’s Kindle page, though it points to the newest $139 Kindle rather than the earlier edition that they’re selling for $89. But within an hour, over 100 people had clicked the Facebook button to indicate that they “Liked” the news — and 47 of them left enthusiastic comments.

And then Amazon added a comment themselves with a crucial “buying window” for their special offer.

“Hi Everyone. This deal will be featured in the Lightning Deals section of our Black Friday page, beginning at 9am PT on 11/26. Here’s a link to the page: http://amzn.to/heVUFX

There’s no Kindle on that page yet, but presumably it will be updated right at 9 a.m. on Friday. Later in the day they actually deleted that comment, but they did add another one to encourage their prospective buyers.

“Please note that all second generation Kindles offered through the Lightning Deal on Black Friday will be new devices – not refurbished.”

And in case you missed it, I’ve also just discovered today that an Amazon blogger has “leaked” a calendar showing exactly when Amazon’s short-term special deals will appear online! I see movies for just $1.99 on Wednesday, including Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Identity. In a post (titled “We’re leaking”), Amazon’s “Armchair Commentary” blog revealed the link, adding that “In addition to the doorbusters below, you’ll find over 2,700 titles at up to 70% off during our Black Friday Week deals…”

Stephen King autograph on a Kindle

“Writers will begin signing e-books,” a headline promises at the web site TechEye. Er, wait a minute — then where are the writers going to put the pen?

But it turns out there’s a new technology — and also some other possibilities that I hadn’t thought of. For example, one PR professional suggested that instead of a signature, authors at a book-signing could pose for a digital photograph with all their fans who waited in line. (And yes, you could e-mail that photograph to your Kindle, where you could then access it from your home page.) And the photos could also be uploaded to Facebook or posted on weblogs — or even uploaded to your cell phone, so it’s next to the apps where you’re reading the author’s ebook!

Of course, it’s also possible to use a pen-shaped mouse to draw a digital signature onto the photograph, so the fans could still get their autograph after all. But according to TechEye, there’s an even more interesting possibility. A developer named Tom Waters teamed up with an IT contractor for NASA to create an application called “autography,” which captures a writer’s autograph on a digital blank page so that it can be inserted directly into ebooks! This could spread a new tradition throughout the world of ebooks, according to an insider for the publishing industry who was interviewed by the web site. “Autography has initially been developed as a iPad app which works with the iBookstore, although Waters says the final service will be device and format agnostic…”

This might be a better way to handle ebooks when authors are promoting their new releases at a bookstore. (I’ve already collected several stories about fans who asked the authors to simply sign the outside of their Kindles.) Last year at a Manhattan bookstore, this happened when humorist David Sedaris was promoting a new collection of essays called “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — and he came up with the perfect inscription. “Mr. Sedaris, in mock horror, wrote, ‘This bespells doom’,” the New York Times reported, adding that the event “may have offered a glimpse of the future.” When the Times contacted Sedaris later, the author revealed that actually, he’d already signed “at least five” different Kindles — as well as “a fair number of iPods…for audio book listeners!”

William Gibson, the famous science fiction author, also experienced the same phenomenon — during a special book-signing at the Microsoft campus. (Gibson acknowledged to the fan that this was a first, and then autographed their Kindle with big, black letters using a permanent marker.) Later, the fan discovered that William Gibson was also talking about the incident on Twitter. “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft,” Gibson announced to his fans. “Actually, *touched* very first Kindle.

“Appealing unit, IMO,” added the science fiction writer.

Gibson’s new book ultimately became Amazon’s best-selling science fiction book in September, and it’s possible that the extra publicity helped. It’s fun to think about this as two worlds colliding — that it’s the virtual world of ebooks confronting the real-world physicality of printed books (and their authors). But while this ritual may be undergoing simple changes, it could offer hints about something larger.

One fan even confessed to the New York Times that she actually felt embarrassed as she’d approached the author, because “if you’re asking for your Kindle to be signed, you’re taking the bookstore out of the process!”

Consumer Reports buying guide cover
There’s been some excitement in Amazon’s Kindle forum. Consumer Reports magazine just chose the Kindle as the best e-reader in an early December issue. But I discovered that there’s even more good news for Amazon. At my local bookstore, I scoured the magazine rack, and found an even more positive comparison in the Consumer Reports Electronics Buying Guide!

And the Kindle had already won high marks in their special “Best Products of the Year” issue in November. It was the Kindle — and not the Nook or the iPad — which was listed in a special section called “Great Gifts for $250 and Under.” Consumer Reports wrote enthusiastically that the Kindle “offers crisp text, fine performance, simple controls, and a pleasurable reading experience.” It was just a short blurb — but the Electronics Buying Guide offered a very detailed comparison.

It costs a whopping $10.99 for that special Winter issue — but watch out. There’s a funny typo in its section on digital readers. They warn readers that prices typically range from $1150 to $500. Er, I’ve never seen an e-reader that costs $1150!

The guide starts with a section for people who have never seen a digital reader before, but are considering whether to buy one. (The magazine gave low marks to the experience of browsing the web on all the digital readers, calling them “very limited” and “virtually unusable”.) And they also warn shoppers to “be wary” of a reader which can’t connect to a wireless 3G network. But their biggest negative comment about the Kindle is just about file formats. (“With Kindles…Word documents and photos in JPEG format must be sent to Amazon for conversion before than can be loaded.”)

You have to flip towards the back of the magazine to find their detailed comparison table, where the Kindle was ultimately declared the winner. Consumer Reports named the Kindle DX “Best for Reading Lots of Textbooks with Diagrams,” while the newer Kindle 3G won the other honor — “Best for Most People”. Ultimately the Kindle came up with an overall score of 63 (or 65, for the larger Kindle DX). In fact, the Nook came in #3, racking up a score of just 52. In the number two position was the Sony Reader, which scored a 60, or a 56 for the smaller version. (Also tested were the BeBook, the iRex, and the Alluratek Libre.)

Of all the readers that they compared, only the Kindle received their special endorsements. The Kindle DX was listed as “Recommended,” while the Kindle 3G was awarded a “Best Buy” check mark. The Kindle scored the best for “readability” — receiving the second-highest possible score of “very good” (while the Nook’s readability was a rank lower, rated as “good” — along with every other reader.) The testers defined “readability” as which device is the easiest on your eyes.

In fact, the only two categories where the Nook scored higher than the Kindle were in “file support” and “versatility” (defined as the number of features available).The Kindle also bested the Nook in ease of navigation, page turning, and responsiveness. responsiveness, The Nook’s lowest score was for responsiveness — how quickly the screen becomes functional after powering up or returning from sleep mode. The Nook received the second-lowest possible ranking there, while both versions of the Kindle scored a rank higher — a middle rating of “good.” The reviewers also noted that for some users, the Kindle’s text-to-speech features could also come in handy. (They specifically mention the sight-impaired, but if you’re taking a long car trip, the Kindle could even read to you from the passenger seat!)

It’s a big deal, because Consumer Reports has been around since 1936, and I’ve always thought of it as one of the most well-respect consumer organizations. Their annual budget for testing is $21 million, according to Wikipedia.

But ironically, you still can’t read Consumer Reports on your Kindle!