Will Kindle Be the Next iPod?

In a nation that's increasingly turning away from books, anything that turns people on to reading is a good thing. And the Kindle, Amazon.com's formidable new electronic book reader, is a very good thing indeed.

The $399 device is unlike anything that has come before it, including the Sony Reader that was introduced in October.

The Kindle weighs about 10 ounces and is the size of a large paperback book. It can hold the electronic text of up to 200 books, plus a small but growing list of magazines, newspapers and blogs. But the real innovation is the Kindle's wireless Internet connection over Sprint's EVDO network.

With this connection, there's no need to find a hot spot or hook up to a PC. You can download best-sellers from Amazon's online store for a maximum of $9.99. That's a fantastic price compared with the Sony reader, which, for example, charges $28 for Ken Follett's "World Without End."

The Kindle is also the first device to have wireless Web access on a dedicated network with no monthly fees. You can also access stripped-down text versions of many Web and e-mail sites.

What Are You Reading?

Newspapers like The New York Times are $14 a month and The Wall Street Journal is $9.99 while each blog costs $1 a month. You can sample the first chapter of any one of 90,000 titles with the Kindle, compared with 20,000 available at Sony.

Both readers use a new magnetic ink screen technology that's easy to read against an off-white background and in bright sunlight. The black-and-white screen uses virtually no power when a page is displayed.

The Kindle is Amazon's first electronic device, and it lacks the sophistication in design, materials and controls that you get with Sony.

It's nearly impossible to pick up the Kindle without touching the oversize Next Page bar on the right-hand side or the smaller Previous Page bar on the left, making it easy to lose your page. The device is '80s cheap-looking, like a hand-held DeloLean, and the tiny keyboard at the bottom has oddly canted keys. An included leather-bound book cover holds the Kindle tentatively; the device can easily slip its mooring and fall to the floor. (I dropped it twice, with no ill effects.)

But readers will be thrilled to have access to so much for so little. Newspapers and books download to the Kindle in just a few seconds after you turn on the wireless connection. It's best to disable the wireless when you're not using it to extend battery life. A one-hour charge will last up to a week of regular use, but only a day or two with the wireless constantly on.

I was prepared to hate reading the Times on the Kindle, but was pleasantly surprised to find the navigation system sensible and easy to use. I could plow through the stories I wanted to read and skip those that didn't interest me, just like with the dead-tree version. And there are no ads to get in the way, although dedicated shoppers may see this as a negative.

With the newspapers, you've got to turn on the Kindle wireless connection however briefly each day to get your download or you miss that issue. There may be a way to go back and retrieve a skipped issue, but I wasn't able to discover it.

The Amazon store designed for the Kindle could use some more work as well. You can search by title or author with a text box, but just browsing around isn't very easy, although Amazon promises to show title suggestions once it learns more about your preferred subjects and genres. It makes more sense for now to shop Amazon's full Web site if you want to look for books that interest you.

Savings, at a Price

The Kindle is pricey at $400, especially with its clunky design. However, the promise of no monthly fees changes the economics for the better if you're an avid reader. Home delivery of the Times, for example, is about $40 a month in the suburbs of New York. At $14 a month for the electronic version — no wet papers, thank you — the Kindle could pay for itself in less than two years.

If you're a big book buyer, the savings pile up even faster. However, you must be happy with just getting the text, as well as doing without hard copies and graphics or pictures. All the major publishers have signed up to feed the Kindle, and Amazon, the world's largest book retailer, has the market power to hold the line on prices.

With its 6-inch 800 x 600 display, 256MB of internal storage, keyboard cursor bar, scroll wheel, standard mini USB port, 3.5mm headphone jack, internal lithium battery and SD slot and wireless capability, the Kindle has a lot to offer. It's also got a built-in dictionary, instant access to Wikipedia and adjustable text size. You can download audio books from Audible.com, but they must first go to a PC for USB download to your Kindle because of the file size.

Amazon customers who posted reviews of the Kindle were split, with about a third raving and a little more than that giving the thumbs down. People in rural areas complained about the wireless connection; others didn't like the fact that the content is imprisoned on the Kindle and can't be repurposed. Lack of support for common file formats including PDF was another common complaint. (The Sony supports these.)

The gripes seem like small potatoes given the sagging appetite Americans have for books. A survey released by the National Endowment for the Arts last week found that reading is in steep decline with one-half of those age 18 to 24 never touching a book. Even more worrisome: Just 30 percent of 13-year-olds picked up a book daily.

The Next iPod?

If the Kindle can become the iPod of book devices, that will be a boon for everyone, especially employers who depend on an educated work force.

But the Kindle, currently sold out until Dec. 5, may never enjoy such popularity because of price and the fact that there's no huge store of free content on the Internet via the old Napster or thousands of user-established sites that supplied content for iPods and other MP3 players.

There's talk that Amazon is trying to entice textbook publishers to the Kindle platform, which could go a long way to attracting young readers. Students will also benefit from instant updates to texts and the offloading of 40 or so pounds of texts they'll no longer have to carry on their backs.