The Future of the Ebook

Gadget? What Gadget? Amazon Doubles Down on Content, Looks to the Really Long Term

Jeff Bezos don't give a flip about gadgets.
 Gadget? What Gadget? Amazon Doubles Down on Content, Looks to the Really Long Term

“But I really like the wall scrolls feel in my hands.” — Cicero. Not you. (Photo: flickr.com/irishwelcometours)

Were you watching closely during Amazon’s Kindle press conference? Because if you were, you just saw Jeff Bezos make one of those centuries-long bets his friends are always talking about. Behold, the literary equivalent of the Clock of the Long Now–a bet on a future where ereaders are about as out-of-the-ordinary as a tea kettle or a wristwatch.

There were several interesting details in the publishing portion of the announcements. The good, old-fashioned Kindle ereader got several updates, including a paperwhite background, more fonts, and a backlight that’ll go eight weeks without a charge. All that’ll now set you back a mere $69. The company’s publishing arm also debuted a brand new form, between the single and the full-length book: Kindle Serials, at $1.99 a pop and seamlessly, automatically updated with each new installment.

Charles Dickens would be so proud. (He’d also probably write a great serialized novel about people who work in Amazon fulfillment centers.)

But it’s worth taking a step back and looking at how, amid the @Horse_Ebooks-like babble, Mr. Bezos framed the whole concept of the Kindle (via The Verge’s excellent liveblog):

“Kindle Fire is a service. Why? Because they’re gadgets, and people don’t want gadgets anymore. They want services that improve over time. They want services that improve every day, every week, and every month.”

Of course, it’s no great shocker that Amazon’s betting on content, nor is the reasoning particularly mysterious. Even those of us who own and love a Kindle Fire can admit it’s not the marvelous techno-futuristic, I-raided-this-from-an-alien-spacecraft experience that an iPad is. Amazon’s specialty is content. Between all the content from traditional publishers, the self-published works, and a new line-up of in-house productions, Amazon has quite an inventory up in the cloud. And after a decade-plus of doing what they do, the company has more data points than stars in the night sky, all the better to put optimal selections in front of your face.

But when Bezos clicked to that big “NOT A GADGET” slide, here’s what we saw: The CEO of Amazon, taking one big, final swing at the idea that there’s any distinction between “book” and “ebook.” Pay no attention to the delivery device, other than to note that the Kindle provides you the best access to the most content.

Without straying too deeply into the thickets of literary history: When you hear the term “book,” there’s a good chance you still think of a physical book–paper pages between two pieces of rigid material. But for all the passionate defenses mounted of that specific technology, it’s still just that–a technology that had to be invented. That technology is really something called a codex, from the Latin for “block of wood. Romans used scrolls, but sometime in the Middle Ages Western civilization made the transition to the form we now take for granted.

It honestly sounds like Jeff Bezos is betting on a future where the vestigial “e” drops off “ebook” and the Kindle is just another book platform, one you’ll gravitate to because it’s the best way to access a great, whopping library.

Normally we wouldn’t ascribe this level of far-sighted ambition to anyone but a mad scientist or a megalomaniac. It’s certainly not what one expects from the CEO of a publicly traded company, subject to quarterly earnings calls like any other mere mortal. But then again, this is a man who’s devoting a substantial chunk of change to building a clock in the desert, meant to keep time on the scale of tens of thousands of years.

The question is whether all that geologic scale planning really makes sense in a business where the ground’s about as stable as Yellowstone National Park.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com