RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For bibliophiles who like the feel of books and the look of the printed word on the page, the advent of the electronic book has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. So far, no electronic reader has overtaken the book, but Amazon's Kindle has been causing a stir. It was released last fall, and may now be facing its ultimate test: summertime and the ravages of sun, sand and water. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: At BookExpo, the book industry's annual convention held this year in L.A., there was a palpable buzz of curiosity about the Kindle. Not only did Amazon founder Jeff Bezos fill a ballroom for a presentation extolling the virtues of the reading device, but on the convention floor, people who had never seen a Kindle were eager to get a look at it - or in my case, to get my hands on it.
Can I feel it? Can I see what it feels like?
Mr. JAY MARINE (Director of Product Management, Amazon): You can put your hands all over my lovely Kindle.
NEARY: Okay. It's very light, isn't it?
Mr. MARINE: Ooh, yes.
NEARY: I just did something.
Mr. MARINE: Yup.
What I did was inadvertently touch the button that takes you to the next page. It's easy to do because the button is big. It runs along the side of the screen and is almost as long as the Kindle itself. According to Jay Marine, that was a deliberate design choice. Marine is director of product management for the Kindle.
Mr. MARINE: We have very prominent page-turning buttons because when you're reading a book, and you're sitting down, you don't want to be thinking about where the page-turn button is. You want to get lost in the story, which was the total goal of our design. And so by making that seamless, where you can put your hands anywhere, when you're reading a book, you really come to appreciate that.
NEARY: But is it really possible to lose yourself when reading a book on an electronic device? Sure, the Kindle is light, about the weight of a paperback, and slim - it would fit into most bags easily. But under the screen are a bunch of buttons, similar to the keys on a computer, and I can't help thinking: Wouldn't all those buttons get in the way of a good read? And what if you get sand or water on them?
Not a problem, according to Marine.
Mr. MARINE: We like to say it's sort of like treat it like your Blackberry or other device. I would take it - I would definitely take it to the beach, but I wouldn't bury it.
NEARY: Marine says they're pretty sure a little sand won't hurt the Kindle because they've done a lot of testing on it.
Mr. MARINE: We knew people were going to throw it in their bag. They're going to drop it. They're going to take it to beach - like, it has the work where you want to read. You know, we haven't solved the problem of being underwater and reading with it, but we're going to work on that one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Okay, that sounded like a challenge. So I took the Kindle to the neighborhood pool on a hot summer day.
(Soundbite of splashing)
Mr. ROB PEGORARO (Technology Writer, Washington Post): Ah, what a wonderful day.
NEARY: I was joined by Rob Pegoraro, who writes about technology and reviewed the Kindle for The Washington Post. His Kindle was snuggled between the covers of a brown, leather-like case.
NEARY: So that makes it feel a little bit more like a book, huh?
Mr. PEGORARO: I think it probably counts as pleather, actually. I don't think it's actual leather.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Pegoraro says the Kindle, like the Sony Reader, its main competitor, is actually quite easy to read outdoors because it's not backlit and uses a kind of technology that makes the screen readable in direct sunlight. But the Kindle's big advantage over other electronic readers is that it's the only one with wireless capability.
That allows readers to download books, newspapers and magazines from Amazon pretty much anywhere, at any time. Amazon currently has 125,000 titles available for downloading onto the Kindle, and will convert others for a fee. Rob Pegoraro scrolls through a couple of the titles on his.
Mr. PEGORARO: Let's see. We've got a copy of "The Great Gatsby" and a copy of Michael Lewis' "Moneyball," the book about baseball and statistics.
NEARY: Let's go to "The Great Gatsby."
Mr. PEGORARO: Yeah.
NEARY: Pegoraro read "The Great Gatsby" on his front porch, and while he did manage to forget he was reading it on an electronic device, he also encountered a few problems. Hitting those page-turning buttons by accident was one of them, and when he wanted to go back and re-read something, it wasn't easy.
Mr. PEGORARO: If you can see, the screen is a little bit slow. I'm pressing the previous-page button and it flashes, and then I'm back. That's fine for going one page at a time as you're reading, but if you want to go back two chapters to see okay, you know, what did Daisy first say when they met - you're sort of waiting. You can also do a search, which can be a little easier. Let's see, where - where is the search function on here?
NEARY: Hmm. Well, while Pegoraro was tracking down his search function, I decided to go for a swim.
(Soundbite of splash)
NEARY: A few minutes later, back on the side of the pool, I was ready to explore the Kindle on my own.
All right, so I'm still dripping…
Mr. PEGORARO: Here you are.
NEARY: I'm still dripping, but my - oops, I just pushed that turning-page button by mistake, and I'm dripping on it. Is that a problem? Look.
Pegoraro assured me a few drops won't hurt the device, but looking around the poolside, he assessed the threats to the electronic reader, and a lot of water is one of them.
Mr. PEGORARO: This is not water resistant, so far as I know. I haven't put it to that test yet. There's concrete underneath this, so that -inside this case, it's probably all right if I dropped it just a few inches, but I wouldn't play catch with it.
NEARY: Is it sturdier or more durable than other kinds of technology that somebody might bring to a pool, like a cell phone, for instance, let's say?
Mr. PEGORARO: I think it's probably about the same level of durability. In some ways, it has more moving parts. The screen is certainly - this is an unusual kind of electronic paper screen. I don't want to know what it costs to fix.
NEARY: Pegoraro's pleather case provides some protection, and one young woman I talked to said she puts her Kindle in a Ziploc bag to protect it from water, dirt and especially suntan lotion.
Damaging a Kindle would be costly. The device sells for $360. That price tag was one of the things that put off Beau Marshall(ph). He was sitting nearby, reading a book, so we asked him to take a look at the Kindle. Marshall was impressed by the device but said he probably wouldn't buy one.
Mr. BEAU MARSHALL: The electronics is great if it were virtually free, you know? And if you're raised with them, I understand the kids and the younger generation would probably prefer that. But being rather retro, to put it charitably, I would probably prefer, all things being equal, the printed page.
NEARY: The Kindle, says Pegoraro, may be beating the competition at the moment, but it still has a way to go before it changes the way most of us read.
Mr. PEGORARO: They've still got some learning to do with designing gadget interfaces. It's not quite the iPod of eBook readers.
NEARY: But if the Kindle isn't the future, you can see it from here. A better, cheaper product is sure to come along. And when it does, we may all be reading the classics electronically.
All right, so maybe I should settle back and read "The Great Gatsby" now, soak up a little sun.
(Soundbite of whistle)
Unidentified Woman: Off the rope.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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