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Amazon 'Kindles' readers' imagination

Amazon's newest offering is more than an e-book reader: it's a bold step into our increasingly mobile future, argues Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

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CEO Bezos: The Kindle is more than just a "device."
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One laptop per child
Nicholas Negroponte describes the benefits attained by children participating in his 'One Laptop Per Child' program.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Who knew faster cellphone networks would result in a new form of book?

That is the chief lesson to take away from Amazon's just-launched Kindle e-book reader, about which I spoke Monday with CEO Jeff Bezos.

The Kindle is a sleek, thin electronic reader that connects wirelessly to the Internet at broadband speeds and allows users to download e-books, or subscribe to magazines and blogs directly from Amazon.com. Unlike the Sony e-book reader, it does not ever need to be hooked up to a PC.

Bezos says the thing that people have least understood in the early reactions to the Kindle (so named to evoke lighting a spark in your brain) is that it is not a device but a service.

"Once you add that wireless radio and put a store on the device it's really not a device any more," he explains. "But if you call it a device people know what you mean and if you call it a service they don't. A disconnected device is really a device. This is not."

Amazon has included in the Kindle, which retails for about $400, free access to Sprint's (Charts, Fortune 500) so-called third-generation, or 3G, wireless network, which is technically known as EVDO. It's basically the fastest way to get wireless access wherever you are (and faster than the AT&T (Charts) network that gets your web access on an iPhone, btw).

When you turn on the Kindle you are on the net, and you can immediately order a book or a newspaper or a magazine (including Fortune) and start reading. I took my test Kindle home and my daughter immediately asked me to get Alice Sebold's new novel "The Almost Moon." It took less than 10 seconds to download, and she immediately started reading. That was kind of amazing. ("I hope you're not sending it back," she said after a few minutes.)

Says Bezos: "I'm not sure people understand how revolutionary it is to be hiding the complexity of that EVDO network."

Since, by definition, you have ordered your Kindle from Amazon, it already has your information. There's no search for network, sign-on, or anything. Nor is there any sign up or monthly fee.

The reason that Amazon can give away this wireless access is because most of the time you are using it you are spending money on something at Amazon.com. A book like the Sebold costs $10 and a subscription to Fortune $1.50 per month. Amazingly, the company has designed the wireless service so that almost any book, even one of 1,000 pages, can download in under a minute. This may mean that for the first time you can conveniently take with you on an airplane a big tome - like for example Alan Greenspan's recent autobiography (which my longtime Fortune colleague Peter Petre helped him write).

The Kindle is elegant, and pretty impressive even as a mere device. Check out the videos and explanations at Amazon for details. My chum Steven Levy of Newsweek just wrote a cover story on the Kindle which looks at the big picture view of how this advance could change reading itself.

While this device/service was designed specifically for reading, and especially for books, its emergence underscores how completely the tech landscape is changing. Mobile is taking over, as wireless networks get better and faster. The iPhone garnered the lion's share of attention so far this year, rightly so. It allows you to take music, the web and a cellphone in a truly convenient form wherever you go.

But we've also just seen the launch of the revolutionary XO laptop from One Laptop Per Child. (You can buy one for $400 and simultaneously donate one to a child in the developing world at this location. Interestingly, the Give One Get One idea was suggested to OLPC by Bezos.) The XO also functions as a terrific e-book reader, and uses a similar technology for its screen.

Meanwhile, Blackberries and other fancy devices from Nokia and others continue to improve and more and more people are using them to connect to the web. And for all this action at the high end of the market, most of the world now coming online is doing so on cellphones, albeit cheaper and simpler ones.

Interestingly, in a feature Amazon calls experimental, it will allow you, for now, to surf the Web freely on the Kindle, though that capability is somewhat buried in the menus. That means that in fact you can take advantage of its EVDO to your heart's content, if you can tolerate the fact that many websites have software and features that won't display properly. In any case, the search function incorporates Wikipedia, so you will be able to go on the Web to answer any questions that occur to you while you're reading.

It is surprisingly comfortable to read on the screen, from E Ink, which has no backlighting. You shine a light on it to read just like you would a real book. I find the illumination in a conventional screen is a lot of what makes my eyes get tired, so this is a welcome new approach.

The greatest magic of this new thing will be if, as Bezos says, it enables the book to disappear, as it does when we read something that captivates us. "Then you can enter the author's world," says Bezos. His own passion for reading is apparent, and the Kindle's design reflects that, I think.

Is Amazon (Charts, Fortune 500) stock a buy based on this announcement? With its recent surge - it's doubled so far this year, even after a decline lately - that's hard to say. But Bezos is smart and is broadening Amazon's sights even further. The company is changing itself, making it easier to read, and pushing the world even faster toward a mobile future. Quite a set of achievements.  To top of page

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