A library in your luggage
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.