But Amazon has something none of the other players can match - the world's largest online bookstore and a powerful position with the publishing community. Its library of 90,000 e-books includes almost all the bestsellers. And, unlike typical e-book pricing, Amazon is selling electronic books at a very reasonable price - $9.99 for most new books and as little as $3 for older titles. I was on the verge of spending $18 for "Boom," Tom Brokaw's new book about the '60s but am instead reading an electronic version that I bought for $9.99.
It's as if Bezos stole a page from Steve Jobs' playbook. Kindle is the iPod of e-book readers and Amazon's electronic bookstore is its iTunes. But Kindle has one more thing going for it. You can use it to buy books and you don't need to be in a WiFi zone or connected to a PC.
The device is equipped with a high-speed cellular modem that lets you use the Sprint EVDO network to connect to Amazon's bookstore. It's a cinch to search for a book once you order it; you can start reading in about a minute. Because it uses a cellular network, you can do it from almost anywhere, including airport boarding areas and even moving trains. And there is no charge for using the network. Amazon picks up the tab. All you need is an Amazon account which you already have if you've bought from them before. That built-in modem also lets you access Web sites but the process is so awkward that it's almost a non-starter.
In addition to books, you can also purchase subscriptions to selected newspapers and magazines that are automatically delivered on the day of publication and you can subscribe to selected blogs for a fee. In most cases, these same periodicals and blogs can be read for free on a PC. You can also transfer your own Microsoft Word documents but you have to pay 10 cents per document to e-mail them to your Kindle. The device comes with a USB cable to transfer documents or music, but the Kindle's music playback interface is primitive at best.
Bezos said his goal was to create a reading environment that felt as natural as a book. To some extent he pulled it off, but not completely.
Pluses include an easy-to-read screen that allows you to change the type size to suit your eyes and situation. Another plus is an easy interface. You page forward using either a very large button on the right side of the device or go back and forth using smaller buttons on the left side.
The screen is reflective - there's no backlight, so it works great even in bright sunlight. Power is only consumed when you press a button to turn the page or fetch another book. The screen itself doesn't use power when you're just reading. Amazon claims two days of battery life with the wireless radio on or a week if the radio is switched off. It takes two hours to recharge.
You can also set bookmarks, highlight text and even make notes within the text though doing this is not as easy as it should be.
There are some drawbacks, starting with the $399 price tag. True, e-books for the Kindle are generally cheaper than paper books but you'd have to buy many books to recover that initial cost. It would make a lot more sense if it were under $100. Or they could have justified the price if were also a decent music player, Web browser and PDA.
Another drawback is an annoying black flash on the screen when you push the next page button. It only lasts for about a half-second but it's visually jarring. The device will remember what page you were on if you leave the book or turn it off. But if it crashes - which happened to me once - it can lose your place (though you won't lose your books). Even if it doesn't crash, there are other ways to lose your place and, unlike a paper book, you can't just leaf your way through the pages to find it again.
The first batch of Kindles sold out quickly and Amazon says it won't have more in stock until Dec. 6. But my guess is that the Kindle will have modest success and won't become a bestseller. But it does point the way to the future of reading. As paper and other natural resources get more expensive, this is the obvious way to go, especially for students and school districts who are now burdened with heavy, expensive and often outdated text books. But if I were Jeff Bezos, I'd worry about Steve Jobs. It wouldn't take too many Apple programmers to turn an iPhone and an iPod into an iReader.
A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid