Sunday, 8 March 2009

Why Kindle is worth watching

An excerpt from my Observer column this morning...

When it comes to technology futures, we're all drunks, always looking in the wrong place. Take mobile web browsing. Once we were all agreed that accessing the web via the tiny screen of a mobile phone was a non-starter, no matter what the networks said. The screens were simply too small to read a web page with any comfort. Mobile web browsing would not take off until larger-sized portable displays appeared on the market. QED.

Then Apple launched the iPhone, which like all phones, has a small screen. But it also came with some fiendishly clever software which enabled the user to expand the size of text displayed by its browser by simply pinching the image. And it also had an accelerometer which could sense the orientation of the device, so that if you turned the phone on to its side you got the web page displayed in landscape format. Suddenly it became perfectly possible to read web pages on a mobile device. The solution, it turned out, lay in software, not hardware. We were looking in the wrong place.

Same story with so-called eReaders - portable devices that store text and display it on screens. For a long time, our attention was focused on the properties of the screen. How easy was it to read in different kinds of lighting? What was the contrast like at difference angles of view? And so on. The market for eReaders was dominated by Sony, traditionally a manufacturer of neat consumer goods.

And then launched Kindle, its own take on the eReader. Technically, it was inferior to - and clunkier than - the Sony device. But Kindle took the US market by storm, especially after it was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. And the secret of its success? Simple: it's a wireless device that is permanently online via a mobile phone subscription bundled into the purchase price. So getting a new book on to the Kindle is a breeze: click a button to log into your Amazon account; choose a book; hit the "Order" button and in a couple of minutes there's a new book on your device...

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