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The Bleak House test

January 29, 2010

A few weeks ago I bought an Amazon Kindle. I had wanted to try an e-reader for a long time, and bought the Kindle as soon as it arrived in Canada – even though I knew that there were plenty of competitors entering the field, including Apple. I wrote the following:

I should also note that now that I’ve made an investment in the Future Of Reading, my little Kindle could be in danger of getting blown into the past by all sorts of tablets with colour and touchscreens and so on. The Apple tablet has already reached mythic status, and at last week’s CES there seemed to be dozens of other companies coming out of the woodwork with rival ereaders/tablets/doohickeys. Whatever; so long as the Kindle works and the Amazon store works (and adds Saul Bellow at some point), I think it will be OK for now (and who the hell needs COLOUR to read Henry David Thoreau anyways?

Now that the Apple iPad has finally been revealed… I’m thinking that the Kindle will be fine in the short term. It still has four advantages over the iPad:

  1. the Kindle got a head start. The first iPad will probably have some problems (the first Kindle wasn’t exactly hot shit), and though the second-generation iPad may kick total ass, I presume that Amazon is working on a new Kindle model as well.
  2. electronic ink. I don’t think you can overstate how superior electronic ink is to an LCD screen for reading. If you’re gonna read a long novel – say, Bleak House – then you should want the best screen possible
  3. the Kindle does one thing and one thing only. Some people see the Kindle’s limitations as a disadvantage – but when you’re reading Bleak House, do you really want all of the iPad’s bells and whistles to distract you? Tweetdeck notifications are fine when I’m surfing the web – not so good when I’m deep reading mode.
  4. price. A lot was made of the fact that the iPad ($490) is only $10 more than the Kindle DX ($480). Fair enough – but my plain Kindle 2 was only $260. And the wireless service is free. I’m not really sure who the Kindle DX appeals to – I guess it’s better for reading newspapers and magazines, for whatever that’s worth, but I’m also guessing that it’s Amazon’s foot in the door for the lucrative textbook industry. (Tyler Cowen suggests that replacing textbooks – and getting iPads into the college classrooms – could be one of Apple’s primary goals)

Since I don’t have an iPad I can’t seriously evaluate it – but I think the Kindle’s future depends on the Bleak House test. From what I’ve seen, the Kindle is the better electronic platform for reading a thick novel; the questions for Amazon are (1) how many people want to read long novels in electronic form, and (2) do they want to buy a device that is optimized for the sole purpose of reading a long novel?

I’m guessing that the answer is yes. For one day, anyways, the market agreed.

But then, youneverknow. The comment by someone named Williefife, in this thread, caught my eye:

Don’t know if I’d buy an iPad, but sure wouldn’t buy the single-purpose Kindle. I’ve just finished reading two big novels on my iPhone, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. Both free downloads as was the Kobo app. Nice to have portable reading material like that in your pocket for waiting rooms or for lying in bed or on your sofa. The iPhone free e-books and Kobo supplement, but don’t replace, my book purchases. I’m not ready to pay $10-12 to download a best-seller either, but this is a great way to catch up on free novels I’ve never quite got around to reading till now.

Now, I can’t imagine reading Great Expectations on a FRAKKING IPHONE – that sounds like a recipe for going blind before age 40. But what do I know? Perhaps there are a large number of people who can read anything on anything – if Apple produced an iWatch, maybe they could read Moby Dick on their wrist. That would be bad news for Amazon, whose entire business model depends on people wanting to read Bleak House (or Infinite Jest or Stephen King or whatever) in the best electronic form possible.

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