Though the kindle could, in theory, support all these uses, it has not been built with them in mind. There is no button with a speech bubble that, once pressed, spirits you instantly to Amazon’s discussion page for your book, or for that particular chapter of your book. There is, as of yet, no effort by Amazon to advantage the Kindle’s offerings by bundling them with supplementary material from the author, or with a compendium of related studies and essays. Even the iTunes Store, Apple’s electronic retailer, bundles extras with its CDs. The comparison with Apple is instructive. At this juncture, Amazon is selling the Kindle much as Apple did the iPod—as a device whose primary advantages over its predecessors are in physical size and electronic storage. In the iPod’s case, that was a true assessment of the situation: the iPod bested the CD player not by allowing you to do more with music, but by allowing you to carry more music in your pocket. In the Kindle’s case, it’s a limiting approach.

Of course, this is the Kindle 1.0. Already, Amazon is showing signs that it means to improve the product. The Kindle has a section full of beta software, including a music player and that lousy Web browser. But those, again, are particularly uninventive advantages—they’re the same standard-issue applications present on cell phones and PDAs. Rather, the Kindle needs to leverage its power in the market—Amazon is a dominant bookseller that moved more than $3.5 billion worth of media (books, music, etc.) in 2006. Authors can’t afford to ignore its market, and so Amazon, alone among large booksellers, has the leverage to convince authors to begin writing at least in part for the electronic text market. If it made a Kindle able to support discussion groups, it could convince authors to participate in them. If it made a Kindle able to support updates, it could convince authors to release supplemental material down the line.

At the end of the day, the true advances won’t come in the Kindle, but in the content. Just as the capabilities of the device will shape what authors decide to do with it, so too will the decisions of authors shape the evolution of the device. The Kindle’s homepage already features videotaped testimonials from such literary luminaries as Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis, James Patterson, and Neil Gaiman. But what the Kindle, and Amazon, need is not their kind words, but more of their written words, composed with an eye toward the possibilities offered by electronic text. Just as the early television shows were really radio programs with moving images, the early electronic books are simply printed text uploaded to a computer. Amazon could use its unique position to change that.

This may, ultimately, prove to be Amazon’s truly crucial role—not driving the future of reading so much as the future of writing. E-reading technology will push forward even without Amazon’s involvement. The Kindle will soon face stiff competition from a bevy of able competitors. Sony already has an E Ink reader on the market, as does iRex Technologies, and the latter allows you to scrawl notes on the screen with an electronic stylus, then upload those notes to your computer. In the next year, Polymer Vision will bring out Readius, a cell phone that includes an E Ink reader with a rollable screen. Amazon, of course, has plenty of resources and by far the best market position. But if the Kindle’s successor or competitors are to succeed, it will be because Amazon used its status as the world’s largest online bookseller to force authors to think seriously about creating content that works better than the book, that goes where the book cannot, that’s interactive and cooperative and open in ways that printed text will never be. 


To watch Klein discussing the future of reading, click here.

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Ezra Klein is an associate editor at The American Prospect.