Switched On: Rainforest fire (Part 1)

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

Naming a product "Kindle" might be a bit unusual for a company named after a giant waterway. Did Amazon have visions of Fahrenheit 451 for its electronic book reader? Perhaps, at $399, the product is aimed at those who have the kind of paper to burn that is legal tender for all debts, public or private and not involving iPhones.

Regardless, Kindle is far from the epilogue for paper-based books and won't materially alter the course of Amazon's river of reading revenue for some time. On the other hand, the grapheme-strewn box of Kindle notes the word can also mean to "inspire" or "stir up." And the oddly-shaped tablet's wireless commerce capabilities herald big changes for several related industries.

Kindle, as Sony recording artist and pop chart fugitive Billy Joel might have said in 1989, didn't start the fire. Amazon has become the second player to enter the embryonic electronic ink-based book reader market in the U.S. after Sony's introduction of its Switchie award-winning Reader. Both products offer excellent readability using electronic ink display technology and are tied to stores controlled by their manufacturers.

Reading a book on Kindle is very much like the good experience of reading one on the Sony Reader. There are some trade-offs with each device, though. The Kindle's user interface puts more operations within the context of the current page through use of a Blackberry-style popup navigated by a novel reflective LCD strip. In general, this creates a more fluid interaction than on the Sony Reader. However, one area where the Sony Reader beats Kindle is in accessing endnotes, which requires two scrolls and two clicks with the Kindle. There should be a way to simply enter the footnote number given that Kindle's handy keyboard includes numbers (or Amazon should at least make the endnote the default choice on lines that include them).

The Kindle does a better job of providing a sense of where you are in a book's progress, but the Reader's page count is less abstract and easier to remember (if less precise) than the Kindle's "Location" number. Paradoxically, Amazon has stressed the importance of having the device "disappear" when you read but has emphasized how it must try to add value in different ways than the resilient book does. As such, it has integrated a number of useful features such as annotation, clipping, and dictionary lookup. It's time for the Sony Reader to add these features, at least some of which were part of its Japanese predecessor, the Librie.

Charitable critics have offered that Kindle is not as ugly as it looks in pictures. This is true, but Kindle's unusual angles cause problems with its included cover, which does not seem designed to be used while reading as the Sony Reader's is. Doing so does not allow the cover to be folded flatly behind the book and does not prevent the Kindle from slipping out. Moreover, the oversized page forward button on the device's right edge, while more faithful to the location of page edges in a paper book, lends itself to too many accidental pressings. Once the book is on the device, the Kindle has more features and a better user interface, while the latest Sony Reader has a better form factor and ergonomics.

Sony and Amazon both use proprietary formats for their purchased books today, and one of the most frustrating limitations is that neither offers a way to scale illustrations, leaving bit-mapped graphics and charts often unreadable. Far from the exclusive province of dry textbooks, examples of these have showed up in two popular comedic books -- John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise and Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You). Not being able to read them on the devices simply steals some of the enjoyment of the book.

Next week's column will delve into how Kindle changes the book-buying process, and its impact on the wireless and consumer electronics industries in light of Verizon Wireless's announcement that it will allow consumers to use their own devices on its wireless network..

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.