A li­brary in your lug­gage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - David Car­roll

MO­BILE phones are use­ful and iPods are en­ter­tain­ing. But in my book the most im­por­tant ac­ces­sory for any trav­eller is, well, a book. There’s noth­ing like ly­ing be­side a pool im­mersed in a good novel, or us­ing a long flight to catch up on read­ing. But when trav­el­ling for any length of time, pa­per starts to get heavy, es­pe­cially if you want to carry a cou­ple of nov­els, some mag­a­zines, a guide­book and that pile of doc­u­ments you’ve been mean­ing to sort through.

Just be­fore Christ­mas, the world’s largest on­line re­tailer, Ama­zon.com, re­leased a de­vice in the US that is likely to res­onate with well-read trav­ellers. Three years in the mak­ing and about the size of a pa­per­back novel, Ama­zon’s Kin­dle stores up to 200 elec­tronic books (or e-books) on its in­ter­nal me­mory and hun­dreds more on an op­tional me­mory card. It can also down­load news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and blogs, but Ama­zon has yet to de­tail any plans to ex­port the Kin­dle be­yond the US.

Us­ing a key­board, nav­i­ga­tion bars and a scroll, Kin­dle users can sort through e-books by au­thor, date or ti­tle, book­mark key pas­sages, make notes or high­light text and change the font or type size. If a word is baf­fling, just look it up in a pre-loaded dic­tionary.

The Kin­dle uses e-ink, which makes words look more like they do on printed pa­per. And e-ink re­quires no back­light­ing, which elim­i­nates the eye strain as­so­ci­ated with com­put­ers or per­sonal dig­i­tal as­sis­tants, and al­lows users to read in di­rect sun­light. Most of th­ese func­tions have been avail­able for some time on other e-book read­ers (of which there are many). And for the most part, they are just at­tempts to do what the sim­ple pa­per book (or p-book) al­ready does . . . and in most cases does bet­ter.

But the two new fea­tures that make the Kin­dle revo­lu­tion­ary are its free built-in wire­less con­nec­tion and the fact it plugs users straight into Ama­zon’s enor­mous e-book­store. Es­sen­tially Ama­zon is ap­ply­ing the iPod-iTunes model to e-books, with users able to browse through more than 90,000 ti­tles and down­load their se­lec­tion at any time and any­where in less than a minute.

There are other ad­van­tages: Kin­dle users can down­load the first chap­ter of any book for free and sub­scribers can have the latest edi­tion of their favourite news­pa­per or mag­a­zine au­to­mat­i­cally de­liv­ered in a screen-friendly for­mat. Bud­ding au­thors can even up­load their own con­tent to the Kin­dle Store and have it con­verted into an e-book.

Nev­er­the­less, the Kin­dle is far from per­fect. At $US400 ($440) a reader and $US10 a book, it’s not cheap and e-books can’t be passed on. Also, e-ink only works in black-and-white and some files, such as Word doc­u­ments or PDFs, have to be emailed to Ama­zon for con­ver­sion into a Kin­dle-friendly for­mat.

Pre­dictably the de­vice has reignited de­bate over the fu­ture of pub­lish­ing. P-book lovers de­cry it as mis­guided mad­ness and the last gasp of a doomed en­deav­our. ‘‘ The Kin­dle is go­ing to go down like the Lusi­ta­nia,’’ one critic has de­clared. But e-book lovers claim it’s an im­por­tant step in an in­evitable evo­lu­tion.

The e-book mar­ket has been painfully slow to de­velop dur­ing the past 10 years; e-books in the US ac­count for fewer than 1 per cent of to­tal sales. That’s hardly sur­pris­ing, given the ro­bust, easy-to-use, bat­tery-free p-book is pretty hard to im­prove on. But e-book tech­nol­ogy and adop­tion is only go­ing to im­prove and Ama­zon’s size­able in­vest­ment in the Kin­dle is go­ing to speed up the process. Thin­ner, cheaper, stronger, more flexible e-book read­ers, ca­pa­ble of us­ing colour e-ink and han­dling all man­ner of file for­mats, are not far away.

That’s got to be good news for any trav­eller who likes the idea of car­ry­ing a li­brary in their lug­gage. David Car­roll’s col­umn on new travel tech­nol­ogy ap­pears monthly in Travel&In­dul­gence.

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