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Wish for a book

That’s the e-book promise. You access a global library of books. While you do have to pay to buy books from the Kindle e-shop and get them instantly delivered, there are also many free e-books out there on the Web.

books Updated: Oct 31, 2009 17:55 IST

The Kindle landed on my desk in Amazon.com’s trademark compact brown box. It took three minutes to open it, another two to strip the wrapping and plug it in to charge, and it powered on. That was it.

The Kindle woke up, connected to a mobile network (I don’t know which one), and downloaded a welcome letter. A few taps and we started browsing the Kindle Shop. My two-year-old daughter was going Barney, Barney, so we looked for Barney, found Mother Goose, and finally clicked on a big fairy tales collection. It took three minutes to download (the mobile signal is iffy in our Gurgaon apartment) and I got an SMS saying $2 had been charged to my Amex account. I'd bought my first e-book.

The Kindle is here. Well, sort of. Amazon has launched a global version of its iconic e-book reader in October, and killed the US-only version. It works in most countries, including India, via AT&T’s partner mobile networks. It’s $259 for US delivery, but shipping to India and a customs duty deposit takes it to $379 (just over Rs 19k, if you pay by credit card).

An e-book is the electronic copy of a book, and you read it either on your PC, laptop or iPhone, which is inconvenient, or on an e-book reader – which is closest to the real book experience. An e-book reader is a slim tablet with an e-paper or e-ink display. That’s a black-and-white display that looks rather like paper. It’s not backlit, and you can read it indoor or outdoor, even in bright sunlight – but not in a very dark room, without some light. Just like a regular book.

The Kindle’s e-ink display makes it easier on the eye, and saves power – it takes just a wee bit of power when turning a page, but none at all when it’s displaying it. The display is nice: just a wee bit shinier than a typical book page. Amazon claims a two-week battery life with wireless off. I got a week of usage, reading all of the The Lost Symbol, and some of the fairy tales on the read-aloud text-to-speech mode, with intermittent wireless use.

Text-to-speech is “experimental”, and interesting – though the voice is flat and mechanical, and my daughter quickly lost interest. It brings books within reach of those with poor sight. And also allows a short break from reading if you’re tired. This is the smaller (and nicer) Kindle 2, with a 6-inch display and 2 GB of memory to hold nearly a thousand books. The all-white design, the experience... all will remind you of Apple, as will the fact that you can neither change its battery, nor slip in a memory card, nor get it repaired in India.

The wireless delivery is the real essence of the Kindle. Amazon calls it WhisperNet, and it worked only in the US thus far. It now works in India and a hundred other countries (via local mobile networks). Search for a book from the Kindle shop, click on buy, and you get it wirelessly delivered to you. There’s no monthly charge; the e-book price covers delivery. The fairy-tales e-book I bought would have been free on the web, but the $2 I paid covered wireless delivery.

That’s the e-book promise: wish for a book, and it’s there. You access a global library of books. While you do have to pay to buy books from the Kindle e-shop and get them instantly delivered, there are also many free e-books out there on the Web. Not all the books are accessible: for instance you can’t buy The Lost Symbol e-book from India due to rights issues. Nor most Indian-author books The Kindle is expensive. (If you want to just try out e-books, you can download a free Kindle reader for your iPhone – or wait for their free downloadable version of the Kindle reader for your PC, in a few weeks.) And there’s no India-specific content yet, no Indian newspaper or magazine tie-ups, no local repair or support service. Unlike with competitors, there’s no touch screen, no wi-fi, no expandable memory, and you can’t lend or borrow an e-book (without lending the Kindle itself). There isn’t even a cover or case: that’s $30 extra.

So I don’t expect to see a flood of Kindles selling until the price drops to the Rs 10k level. But for the price... well, think of what you can do with it if you’re an avid reader. Wish for a book – and you get it in minutes. What a great idea for that mountain retreat, far from the madding crowd and the big bookshops. It’s not near perfect, but think of it as a preview...of the future of the book.

The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Living Digital. pkr@cybermedia.co.in, twitter.com/prasanto