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Amazon's Kindle DX: The End of Paper?

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Jeff Bezos is known for many things: his irrepressible enthusiasm, his extraordinary tenacity, and, perhaps most memorably, his indescribable laugh. It is a penetrating laugh... high pitched, continuous, relentless and unstoppable. Yet the sound of his laughter is unique and, as I said, ultimately indescribable.

Earlier today, as he announced the new Kindle DX, Amazon's newest and most impressive entry into the electronic paper arena, he was not laughing. Neither were the technology journalists, photographers, and camera crews that had filled Pace University's auditorium in New York to capacity to witness the products' unveiling. Even though two Kindle devices have already been launched and several other electronic book readers are on the market, something different was happening.

More than a decade ago, a brilliant scientist named Joe Jacobson, working at the MIT Media Lab, unveiled the first practical electronic ink display. He predicted the imminent arrival of a new form of handheld and bendable display that would be inexpensive and ubiquitous. Best of all, it would be capable of updating information, like written news stories, on the fly. Later, he spoke confidently of the day when a version of this "E-ink" technology would bring color (and therefore perhaps even video) to such displays. Years and millions of dollars in research have finally pushed electronic ink displays out of the lab and into customers' hands. They still are not in color but these movable, addressable pixels suspended in polymer are finally available to threaten the dominance of the printed page.

Now, I give you permission to roll your eyes and to hear the sound of the kind of laugh only Jeff Bezos can make. That's because futurists have foretold the death of paper, especially newsprint, for well over four decades: ever since the cathode ray tube, the advent of the LCD screen, and the networked universe of email and PDF files. Yet, at least for the past two decades (and probably longer) approximately seventy-thousand trees in Canadian forests have been pulped to make enough newsprint for each and every Sunday print edition of the New York Times. (I've lost my New York Times tree-counter over the past few years so I may be off by a couple of forests here and there.) We are making more paper copies today that ever before. According to a recent Coopers & Lybrand study, there are over 4 trillion paper documents in the U.S. and that number grows about 22% per year.

Which brings me back to the Kindle. You can already download Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book, "The Tipping Point," in less than a minute onto either of Amazon's two earlier electronic readers. Starting this summer, Amazon's latest version, the new Kindle DX, should hit the market. You'll still be able to download Gladwell's bestseller and now access 275,000 other books. You'll be able to store 3,500 books on this new device and read them on a screen that is twice as large as Amazon's previous readers. The device is equipped with a PDF reader so you'll be able to use it for most other documents as well.

But, now, Amazon has made deals with the three of the larger higher education textbook companies (which comprise over 60% of the market) to let students have textbooks available on this device. (They are in negotiations with other large textbook publisher as well.) Instead of lugging thirty pounds of books to class, students would be able to carry all of these and more in a device one-third of an inch thick and weighing less than 20 ounces. Four universities also announced plans to give Kindle DX units to students in pilot programs to test their efficacy as a learning tool.

And newspapers, remember those guys? Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times, came out on stage to join Jeff Bezos to let us know that the Times and the Boston Globe will be available for daily download on this new device. (That's comforting to many of us who wonder how long the Boston Globe will still be available in any form considering the dire speculation that surrounds it and the ad-sparse New York Times.) Through the 3G wireless connection built into Amazon's new Kindle DX, readers will also be able to download dozens of other popular magazines and periodicals, including The New Yorker, Time, the Wall Street Journal, and outstandingly popular blogs like this one. Bezos hopes the Kindle will not only simplify the distribution of books and newspapers but will also reduce the massive environmental waste and clutter of paper and print toner cartriges.

So, have we finally come to that tipping point, where paper copies and paper books and newsprint are finally obsolete? No question, I agree that finally I NEED a Kindle. The screen is crisp, the storage capacity sufficient, and the advantages over carrying textbooks and hardcovers are obvious. The battery life seems adequate and the form factor is lovely. I am even looking forward to having the new Kindle's text-to-speech engine read me books when my eyes get tired or I'm driving the car.

But there is a pretty serious flaw making this e-book less available than it should be: the whopping $489 price tag. Naturally, Amazon had to start somewhere and they know early adopters don't mind paying through the nose. It will take quite a few months before production of these devices ramps up, so it's fair to expect Kindle prices to remain stable (i.e., ridiculously high.) That's a shame as Amazon has finally made an electronic book reader with a large enough screen that is fun to use, easy to carry, and sensible in every way except price.

One last note about Joe Jacobson: his vision that we would one day get our news on an inexpensive screen has been partly realized... in a classy, sharp, and readable way. In a few months, we should finally see many other electronic readers, including one with a screen that actually rolls up... just the way Joe envisioned it. As for e-books coming out in color, my bet is we'll see this materialize using other technology; more stable variants of OLED (Organic light-emitting Diode) displays.

Everyone who has predicted the demise of paper has so far been completely wrong. But that was before the advent of a fully-functional full-figured e-book reader. The Kindle won't end the pulping of forests for paper and newsprint but surely it will light the way.