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Could a new Apple tablet rival the Kindle?

July 27, 2009 |  9:39 am

Kindleandquestion
Today the Financial Times reported that Apple "is racing to offer a portable tablet-sized computer in time for the Christmas shopping season," confirming long-swirling rumors. "The touch-sensitive computer will have a screen that may be up to 10 inches diagonally."

Apple's first overtures seem to be with the music industry, which sees the device as creating seamless interactive environments for music listening -- with both gatefold-style art and links accompanying downloads. Books appear to be a secondary but present concern. FT reports:

Book publishers have been in talks with Apple and are optimistic about being included in the computer.... which could provide an alternative to Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and a forthcoming device from Plastic Logic, recently allied with Barnes & Noble.

“It would be a colour, flat-panel TV to the old-fashioned, black and white TV of the Kindle,” one publishing executive said.

Even bookish types care about color. Nicholson Baker took the Kindle 2 for a spin; in this week's New Yorker, he writes of his disappointment with its gray-on-gray screen.

The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.

Baker's piece gives a good overview of both the hype and constraints of the Kindle, and the background of how it works (its screen does not work like a computer's). Among the issues he has with the Kindle: an absence of notable literary works (no Nabokov), which isn't really the Kindle's fault; problems with rendering complex illustrations, significant in the case of a several-thousand-dollar manual for nuclear power plants; a kind of silly name; a $395 price tag. And that's not all:

Sure, the Kindle is expensive, but the expense is a way of buying into the total commitment. This could forever change the way I read. I’ve never been a fast reader. I’m fickle; I don’t finish books I start; I put a book aside for five, ten years and then take it up again. Maybe, I thought, if I ordered this wireless Kindle 2 I would be pulled into a world of compulsive, demonic book consumption, like Pippin staring at the stone of Orthanc....

What's clear is that expectations for what an e-reader can do may be outsized. Should the machine on which we read really change our reading habits? Is it too much to expect the device we read to improve how we read?

Perhaps if any company can make such a device, it may be Apple. Although Baker eventually finds his way to liking his Kindle 2, he prefers using the Kindle app -- on his iPhone. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Kindle DX / Amazon.com

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