I have been reading on my computer screen for several years now, thanks to Project Gutenberg, which provides free downloadable digital copies of works that have entered the public domain, and the PDF file format is a staple for a lot of academic and professional publications. But my extremely poor eyesight has proved to be a serious limitation in reading long articles, short stories and novels on a computer screen. The strain is simply too much, except when it comes to scanned comics, but that is a matter for a different time. The development of e-ink and electronic paper technologies has therefore been of great interest to me, and by corollary, the growth of the e-book reader market.
The Amazon Kindle, now available in India and many other countries around the world, allows users to browse Amazon.com and directly download e-books directly onto their device either over WiFi or over WhisperNet, which connects to Amazon over wireless telephone networks such as GPRS/EDGE or 3G. One can also download e-books onto a computer and sync them with their Kindle, and there's no need for iTunes-esque bloatware. The current edition of the Kindle offers 2 GB of storage, which is approximately 1,500 unillustrated books. Now that's a library I can accommodate in my shoebox Bombay apartment.
My Kindle experience is about a week old, and so far, I must admit that I'm quite enjoying it. The viewing screen is a comfortable 6" and the display is almost exactly like ink on paper. This makes my easily fatigued eyes very happy. I am also able to use the Kindle with one hand, a lifesaver compared to the traditional paperback when commuting on the train, especially during rush hour. Based on the publisher's whims, the Kindle supports an experimental text-to-speech feature which reads out the text of an e-book through an onboard speaker or a standard pair of earphones. Another experimental feature is the built-in MP3 player, but there are far superior devices for that purpose, and this isn't meant to play music anyway.
Amazon's Kindle-friendly e-books use a proprietary AZW file format that supports many readability enhancements on the Kindle, such as page orientation, text size adjustment and the aforementioned text-to-speech service. The Kindle also supports unprotected PDF documents, but does not offer zoom or rotation options. However, if users send the PDF files to Amazon by email, they will convert them to AZW for free. A quick Google search offers a number of DIY solutions for this as well. My experience with unconverted PDF files on the Kindle has been unpleasant, to say the least. The entire page is crammed into the display that is about the size of a pocketbook, making the text too small to read comfortably, and without the zoom function, this can be quite difficult. I promptly dispatched the PDFs to Amazon for conversion, and all is now well in my world.
Despite the reading comfort and ease of use, the Kindle is not an automatic option for most readers. Its user interface is a work in progress, and in the absence of a catalogue and search function, managing a library on the Kindle is a major problem. The Kindle will also struggle to make a significant impact in international markets in the short run, mainly for cost-related reasons. The Kindle's global edition is priced at USD 259, or approximately INR 12,000. The device does not include any content other than a user guide, and all e-books must be purchased separately. One of the significant selling points for the Kindle in the US and Europe has been that the price of an e-book is a fraction of that of a paperback copy. This comparison does not hold true across international markets, due to a substantial markup on e-books sold outside the USA. In India, this difference can be as high as USD 3, or close to INR 150. In India, this represents an increase of 30-50% over the average paperback cost.
The Amazon Kindle store catalogue stores over 300,000 titles in Kindle format, and the India store has access to most of the titles. However, the price is a significant barrier, and it is only to be expected that a number of pseudo-legal alternatives and home-brewed solutions will pop up, as has been the case with most technological advances in recent history. The more significant development has been Amazon's Kindle application for iPhone and iPod Touch devices, which is free, and has all the functionality that the Kindle supports. Amazon has also released a free desktop application for PCs. These apps will serve as a driver for digital books in India far more than the Kindle itself, due to a significantly lower entry barrier. This transition could take years, and the only real catalyst is increased availability at much lower prices.
While many traditionalists would make a strong emotional case for the smell and feel of a new book, I harbour no such bonds. For me, the pleasure of a book is in the reading of what the pages contain, though I will admit to frequently admiring a well-designed cover or an elegant typeface. Maybe I belong to a generation whose exposure to technology in all aspects of life has created an ambivalence to traditional forms of consuming information and entertainment, but I believe that just like painted scrolls became printed books, the next step in publishing is upon us, and it has a digital avatar. I have a Kindle, and I don't think I'm going to let go of it anytime soon.
This article was published in the February issue of JetLite's in-flight magazine, FlyLite.
 It's two months now, and I'm enjoying my Kindle experience even more.