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E-book reader devices on verge of identity crisis

Having finally tweeted from a Kindle, I can safely say it’s irrelevant to the core mission of e-ink e-book readers: to preserve the simplicity and calm of the paper book in a digital form. As they grow in features, they lose their defense against the iPad.
Image: Amazon's Kindle 2 e-ink e-book reader
Amazon's Kindle 2 (above) and DX just got an update that included the ability to post to Twitter and Facebook. The question is, does this kind of frilly feature distract from its core benefit as a simple easy-on-the-eyes replacement for paper books?Mario Tama / Getty Images

Over the weekend, Amazon's Kindles were granted the power to post Twitter and Facebook updates, with automatic links to Amazon sales pages. What, you don't think that's a core part of the reading experience?

It's a pretty significant software update that also included password protection, online annotation backups, and the ability to pan and zoom inside a PDF document. While a few of these updates make perfect sense, the general piling-on of features does not.

Having done it, I can safely say that tweeting from a Kindle is not relevant to the e-ink reader's mission: to preserve the simplicity and calm of the paper book in a digital form. When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the Kindle in 2007, he insisted, again and again, that the technology has to fade away, "so you can enter the author's world."

This isn't some complaint in a vacuum about aesthetic purity and all that. No, as the Kindle and other e-ink-based e-book readers grow in functionality, they lose their sole defense against the iPad.

Newsweek's Dan Lyons wrote a piece today about how the Kindle has kept chugging along in the wake of the iPad's rather quicker take-off. According to a generally accepted but unconfirmed estimate, more than 3 million Kindles have been sold since its introduction, two and a half years ago. Apple reported that it had sold 3.3 million iPads — since April. But as Lyons said, Forrester Research estimates that the number of Kindles will double this year, attributed mostly to price drops — the standard Kindle is now $189, down from $259.

The point of Lyons' piece is to say that customers are looking for what one Amazon exec calls the "uncompromised reading experience" — something for which Kindle is way better suited than the iPad. It's true, the far less expensive Kindle is lighter, has an easier-on-the-eyes screen made of e-ink instead of glowing LCD, and can run for weeks, not hours.

But the iPad is a very functional e-book reader, despite the comparison. I don't mind the weight — sure, my 2-year-old frequently tells me I have "big muscles," but let's be honest, 1.5 pounds is roughly the weight of the average American cheeseburger. It's not that heavy. As for the other gripes: I love to dim the screen down and read without any other lights, after my wife goes to sleep. And I only charge that 10-hour battery once or twice per week — I hardly think about it.

Right now, I'm reading "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel. I am using the Barnes & Noble app. Since the book is fiction that stars a bunch of actual historical figures, I often tap a name, tap the Wikipedia button and jump to the online encyclopedia for some context. It's great, it's seamless, and — when multitasking comes with this fall's promised iPad iOS4 update — it will be quicker than turning pages for most e-ink readers.

In other words, even if the iPad can never deliver as comfortable a pure reading experience as a Kindle, the LCD screen and faster processor of a tablet computer is far better suited to an enriched reading experience. If you try to give an e-ink interface too many pop-ups and zooms and pans, the experience becomes nauseating.

Even Amazon's sudden surge in ebook sales could more likely be attributed, perhaps single handedly, to the iPad app. In the last month, Amazon sold 180 Kindle e-books for every 100 hardcovers. In other words, the real reason that the iPad hasn't "killed the Kindle" is that it is a Kindle.

I say, to Amazon and to all the other book vendors trying to make headway in the digital market, treat the iPad as the flagship, and the e-ink reader as a nice extra. Amazon's iPad app is overdue for an update that delivers keyword search and a dictionary (something found on the Barnes & Noble product), so why did this week's big update go to the Kindle?

Lyons closes his piece by saying that, during an interview, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told him there was a market for "a purpose-built reading device," as opposed to a "Swiss Army knife" like the iPad. I believe that, at the right price, this is absolutely true. But it doesn't explain the feature creep.

Password protection doesn't take away from pure reading, and annotation back-up is essential for students. But building new graphical interactions for a screen technology that is politely termed "sluggish" and overlaying distractive technologies like social networking definitely veer from the original stated mission, and add to consumer confusion.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others should take a lesson from the cell phone business: When phone makers tried to sell "feature" phones, they got smashed between the growing smart phone market and whatever's free. Keep e-book readers simple, clean — and cheap. Or yield to the tablet tidal wave. This middle ground is messy, and only getting messier.

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at . Just don't expect him to write back if he's on his Kindle. He'll be busy reading.