Technology moves fast. We all know that. We expect to change our mobile phone every year or two and generally aren't too surprised when our all singing all dancing cell looks like bargain basement crap six months down the line. It's the same with more expensive gadgets like computers. Within three years, money allowing, a lot of us will be hankering after the newest and shiniest!
But what about one of the newest gadgets on the block, the ebook reader? It was the Amazon Kindle that brought ebook reading to the mass market and every year a new iteration comes out, which although functionally the same, those slight improvements in screen refresh or clarity are enough to make many people upgrade.
Most bookworms, even the ones who read ebooks agree that a traditional, physical book is a thing of beauty and great longevity. A book you bought six months ago won't be sneered at by other passengers on the train the way last year's mobile phone will.
A wonderful story can be held on your shelves for the rest of your life and passed on to children so that they can enjoy it too; so it seems quite odd to me in concept then that it looks like we'll be encouraged to upgrade the tool with which ebooks are read on every year!
The current generation of Amazon Kindle (called 'Kindle' by Amazon, 'Kindle 3' by everyone else) has definitely got it's design right. It's slim, light, appealing to the eye and well built. It contains some fashionable technologies, like WIFI and 3G and the integrated store makes buying a book almost anywhere a breeze. Last but not least, it's also a very pleasant way to read a book!
But what will the Kindle 4 look like, or the Kindle 5? Like we said, technology moves fast and these things are only three years old (okay there are older readers, but the big boys are playing now with proper R&D budgets!) - surely something is coming down the line that will make this Kindle 3 look as up to date as a wax tablet.
Well, actually, yes something is coming and it's called color e-ink.
It seems strange that in 2010 we're still getting excited about color screens. After all, we've had them for a while haven't we? Look at the ipad, that does color rather well!
Yes, color screens have been around a while - but if it were as simple as that, the current black and white Kindles wouldn't have sold at all. The reason they sell is (in part) down to the 'E-Ink' screens that they use. E-Ink is both the name of the product and the name of the company that supplies them (to Amazon, Sony and many others - they pretty much own the market right now). E-Ink screens are not like traditional LCD ones. E-Ink screens contain little pockets (like pixels) that contain thousands of microscopic 'ink' capsules. Given a positive electrical charge, the capsules rise to the top (showing on the screen). A negative charge will drop them back to the bottom. By charging the correct pixels, the words on the screen are drawn and no power is used inbetween - hence the amazing battery life over traditional LCD screen based devices.
The experience is also much like reading from actual paper, so it's regarded as easier on the eye, particularly in long reading sessions.
So to achieve this in color is quite the technological leap forward - but that's what E-Ink have gone and done:
The first color screen e-ink based ereader has already been announced, so I can see it being very likely that the Kindle 4 or Kindle 5 will be color, or at least have one in the range with a color screen.
So is this reason enough to wait?
Well, like with many gadgets, it really depends on whether the current one does everything that you need, or whether you can see great benefits to going color.
The video above suggests that the real game changer for color based ereaders will be magazines and newspapers. The Kindle offers an excellent service where your newspaper of choice is downloaded every morning to your reader ready for the morning commute. At the moment, a lot of the graphics are chopped out - so the presentation of these papers may get nicer. That said, the current Kindle is perfectly able to render graphics, so I imagine the chopping is actually to keep data transfer costs to a minimum. Suddenly opening the doors to lots of color images going out to all those Kindles is going to increase Amazon's costs no end (and therefore the customers).
I can't imagine the magazine publishers getting too excited. Digital magazines are establishing themselves in droves on tablets like the ipad and in most cases, they're offering a more entertaining experience than a traditional magazine for similar money. The Gizmo app for ipad for example (a gadget mag aimed at 20-30 somethings) includes embedded videos, controllable 360 views of that month's hottest toys and lots of other touch based interactivity. The static e-ink screens, even in color are going to look pretty poor compared to that.
Another thing to consider is the potential price of a color Amazon Kindle. When the first Kindle came out it cost just short of $400, far more expensive than the relatively afforable (and much improved) Kindle 3. A color one is likely to cost significantly more and any books that decide to take advantage might also have found themselves an excuse to push the price of the book up too.
Really, if all you're after doing is enjoying books downloaded from the Kindle Book Store, now is probably the right time to buy. It does it's job really well, black and white is great for text and it's very affordable.
Of course the other thing Amazon could do is not buy their color screens from E-Ink and may decide to take their reader in a whole new direction:
In the US and in more limited form in other parts of the world, Amazon are embracing digital distribution for much more than just books. They also have a substantial MP3 music store and video on demand serving up TV and movies over the internet.
If they were to buy into a technology like the Mirasol screen shown above, an e-ink like screen that can refresh fast enough to play video, yet still look fantastic outdoors in the sun then they may have something to REALLY upset Apple.
If this appeals to you, I'd suggest you don't buy a Kindle. Get an ipad, enjoy the Kindle software on that and all the multimedia wonders it can serve up besides. Then look forward to the day when you can take it outdoors when someone mass produces one of these screens!
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Featured image Credit: Thanks to kmountmaniac on Flickr for licensing under Creative Commons.