Lucy Ellis, The Kindle: Past, Present, Future

This blog is part of an ongoing series focused on the Kindle, drawing on the experiences and perspectives of final-year English Literature student, Lucy Ellis. These blog posts are being written as part of Lucy’s first project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University.

Part 2

E-book futuresNow in 2013, the Kindle has established itself well into the lives of millions of readers. It’s bizarre to think that entire libraries – the big dusty rooms characterised in scary movies – could eventually be replaced with an electronic tablet no bigger than one of the books itself. The Kindle is happening, but where did it start? What’s the story behind it?

Although I have admittedly spent hours trawling through the internet searching for the original Kindle-like model before Amazon launched its e-reader, the shift from the written book to electronic actually began in 1971 with Project Gutenberg. Set up by Michael S. Hart, it was named it after Johannes Gutenberg (b. 1398) who revolutionised the printing industry by inventing a movable type printer and allowed knowledge to become widespread. Project Gutenberg was the first voluntary effort to digitise and archive books so that they’d be more accessible to the general public. Now forgive me for not having extensive technological knowledge, but considering the internet only really took off in the 1990s, the fact that the first digital library was established in 1971 is incredible. Hart’s mission statement for the project was ‘to encourage the creation and distribution of e-books’ – a phenomenal initiative that I feel has been overlooked in comparison to the current e-reader craze. Project Gutenberg is still running and as of this year has claimed 42,000 books in its entire collection.

However, in the years leading up the release of the Amazon Kindle, there were other similar e-readers released in the market that didn’t receive the same reaction. In fact, they failed miserably. The Rocket eBook, released in 1998 by Martin Eberhard and Jim Sachs, had a 4MB flash memory (enough to last up to thirty-three hours per charge) and could fit up to ten regular sized books. I guess you could compare it to an early iPod, where you had to plug it into your PC to download those 10 precious books. Although this tablet didn’t have the same memory capacity or mobility as a Kindle, I’m surprised it didn’t take off considering it was the first of its kind. It was remanufactured as the REB 110 in 2000, this time coming with a stylus to write notes and customised fonts for people with visual impairments: a step closer to the model we see now. Still, perhaps considering its cost of $299 and (I think) horrendously unattractive exterior, the REB 110 has disappeared amongst the rubble of other technology introduced in the 2000s.

Is wasn’t until seven years later on 19 November 2007 that the first Amazon Kindle, created by a team led by Jason Merksoki and working for billionaire Jeff Bezos was sold to the public. Unlike the earlier tablets, the first Kindle was light, had built in wi-fi to download books anywhere, and could hold up to 200 books at once. No wonder it sold out within five and a half hours.

So the Kindle blew its former predecessors out of the water. A mobile, digital library that forgets you’re not reading a printed book in minutes. But where’s it going? How can the history of the book move further than this? Jeff Bezos has a lot to say about the vision of his invention, and now that fictional texts are slowly swaying over from print to electronic devices, other types of literature are expected to follow. ‘I think tablets are going to be very important for the future of newspapers’, Bezos claims. With the consumption of physical newspapers rapidly decreasing as the internet provides more new content, if Bezos’ prediction is correct, perhaps the old sight of a paperboy delivering on his bike will cease to exist.

Beyond the Kindle, we could be looking at an entirely interactive world. The new QOOQ tablet, not yet released in the UK, is a saviour to the keen home cook. With a database of 4,000 recipes complete with individual step-by-step video tutorials, and a kitchen proof screen that withstands messy hands, literature is going beyond a standard shift to the electronic. It’s become interactive. Admittedly, this is heading away from Cardiff Book History and the Kindle and into more general electronic forms of literature, but it’s all relevant. Our perception of reading a book is changing, and I wonder how prepared we are for that.

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