Kindle! Kindler! Kindling?

Everybody’s heard about the new eBook Reader (redundant switcheroony nomenclature I’ll get to later). It’s from Amazon. Go read the front page and like doing a techie nerdy form of a Highlights magazine, see if you can spot the Apple-inspired marketeering. The English language is a whore and there are many johns in marketing.

Kindle Has it occurred to anyone that the name itself, “Kindle”, seems threatening, ominous, dare I say Bible-Belt/Nazi? Within context, of course.

Anyhoo, Amazon is falling all over themselves to get it just right, and perhaps with good reason: they’re not introducing a product, they’re trying to disrupt with technology. Just like Apple is attempting with the tie-ins to Starbucks.

But there are a few things to note about the ability of this platform/pattern before everyone starts shouting from the rooftops that a New Way has emerged.

Rocket EbookI’m not bitter, because I rather enjoyed my time at Nuvomedia, Inc. They’re the ones that made the Rocket eBook (ReB), a reading device which shipped in 1998 or 1999, I forget. See, it wasn’t a ReB Reader, the device was the eBook, and you loaded electronic works onto it. That was the lingo back then.

So the first beef about Kindle is aesthetics. C’mon, look at the thing? Nearly no flat surfaces, all white, sort of flat-paint looking. The QWERTY keyboard isn’t really a QWERTY keyboard, it’s just a grid of perpendiculars with a QWERTY layout. Why couldn’t they just make it a QWERTY layout? There’s plenty of space down there. Speaking of down there, they should have put the main screen at the bottom and the keyboard on top, because unless you lay it flat, even a 10+ ounce device packs a moment-arm that’s gonna give you pain over the long haul. And before you ask, you know you’re gonna be typing with thumbs, so your view of the screen won’t be unduly obscured if the keyboard were on top. So, on looks? Fugly. Ergonomics: it’ll do, but “good enough” is a cuss word—well, cuss phrase—for UE.

Second, its positioning as a disruptive supply-chain. Nuvomedia pioneered getting endpoint to endpoint technology in place in order for the book publishing houses (far more draconian and backward and conservative than the RIAA, and you see what they’re really like) to go for it. The houses demanded a closed hardware device, so that content could be linked to a hardware serial number AND a standard Rocket login username/password so that the purchased content could be viewed solely on that one reader. The only new thing that Amazon is doing is providing the Kindle-exclusive-EVDO access for free. But Apple did the same type of thing already with the tie-in to iTunes and iPhones/iPod Touches. Not a new trail, but maybe better pavement.

With the ReB, you went to barnesandnoble.com or powells.com and you could filter on eBook formatted title availability. You purchased that title and when you got to the eCommerce “congratulations and thanks you page” instead of giving you shipping dates and tracking numbers, you got a URL. Click it and it downloads to your PC or Mac. I don’t know exactly what the workflow was for Windows, but on the Mac you clicked the URL and after it downloaded, the RocketLibrarian™ (with RocketWriter™!!!) launched automatically.

Now this is where I have to give special nod to Nuvomedia, Inc., beating Apple by a good two years in championing the “Digital Hub” concept. The ReB was a peripheral. Period. Just like iPod is now, just like iPhone is now. Just like Zune is now (except that the ReB actually worked).

The ReB device that Nuvomedia shipped, then VAR’d out to Franklin then sold outright to Gemstar was twice as heavy with a much smaller screen, but it was nine years ago, so adjustments need to be made for that. The screen was beautiful, what was called “half VGA” in those days, meaning 320 x 480 pixel screen. I don’t remember if it was monochrome (like the original iPods) or if it could do 4-level gray scale, but it was an enjoyable experience to use.

Now this is where I tell you that I was hired to design and develop the Mac version of the RocketLibrarian. I also ended up QA’ing and instructing the marketing person on the workings and expectations of the Mac community. She once asked me if she could have a current development copy of RocketLibrarian for Macintosh so she could test it out on her PC. I had to remind her that she had a PC. Then she remembered that she had a MacPlus in her closet at home and “would that work?”. Jebus.

So anyway, I found a partial screenshot of the app I wrote (the Windows version had several engineers, QA people and a team of marketers behind it, natch):

<br/> Rocketlibrarian <br/><br/>

Doesn’t the name of Amazon’s “iPod of Books” bother you? I mean in that sort of insidious way that digs under the sensibilities and kind of deforms things. Kindle. Kindling. Something that burns. Books.

What did they suppose they’d get out of naming a book device something like that? It feels menacing!

Couldn’t they have taken the tack that they’re actually improving on the book rather than killing than nominal, historial original? It gives me the willies—even moreso than the hideous design. And the free EVDO access is called Whispernet! Like it’s keeping a secret or something.

And there’s a bigger question here: is the idea of “digital” to provide nothing more than convenience (less weight, more readily obtained, a boon to the vision-impaired) and its value-adds are nothing more than the original round of eBook devices: bookmarks, permamence in access to the content when it’s not on the device, changeable font sizes. Hell, the ReB (through the RocketLibrarian software) could display the text in any font you had on your Mac or PC. This may seem like a shallow conceit, a feature whose value is mostly in adding a bullet point to a feature list, but having tried out various fonts on the ReB, I discovered that Georgia was far more appealing a read on that screen than any Times variant. Gruber doesn’t agree with me, but it’s actually pretty awesome when smart and learned folks can disagree and argue points.

Where’s the people aspect? Do you really think anyone’s going to own this thing and say “I love my Kindle!” or “I can’t stop touching it!” People get attached to their books. As objects. Involved reading is not only a visual and cognitive thing, but a haptic one: the feel of a cover, the dog-eared pages, the broken spine of that favorite book that you’ve read over and over. And there’s something about turning pages. And looking at where the bookmark (a thin piece of cardboard) is automatically gives you some affordance of how far you’ve read and how far you’ve got to go. Pacing is important, as much for story as for reading a story.

That’s something that eBook devices won’t ever do. The first round of eBook devices eight years ago attempted to compensate for all those things, but the consumers weren’t going for it back then.

They may now, with the more digital-age sensibilities, but no matter, it still has to be an object you want to touch, want to use, want to own. Need to become attached to.

So many others have known this, and for so long.