Steven Johnson has an article in the WSJ about the Amazon Kindle and why e-books are awesome. Here.
It's hard not to agree that e-books are only going to grow in market share, and that the ability to buy instantly, and to search text, are of real value.
But I can't get myself quite as excited as he does, at least not in the short term, and not with the current generation of e-readers.
Fundamentally, I think I don't buy the comparison of the e-book to e-music. Some of the commenters made these points, but: we listen to music over and over again; most books are read once. And music, before the iPod, really did lack portability. No one's running with a Discman (or at least not very quickly). And certainly no one was running with a 100-CD Discman. But books? Pretty portable as they are, unless you're trying to carry a couple dozen at a time.
The three problems for me with something like the Kindle:
1. I read too much to buy -- I get most of my books from the library, and the Kindle wouldn't let me do that. At $9.95/book, I wouldn't buy many. Johnson treats potential book spending like it's unlimited, but for most people I don't think it is. He says the Kindle makes it possible to start books and never finish, to jump from book to book to book. At 99 cents, maybe. At $9.95, not unless you're rich. But this is a pricing problems more than a technology problem. Throw the Netflix model on this -- rent the books for a certain amount of time, unlimited rentals for some monthly cost -- and suddenly I'm a little more interested. Tell me I can have whatever I want to read for $14.95 a month and I'm suddenly thinking about the trips to the library and the 3-month wait for new books, and I'm getting tempted. (That is, if I wanted to read books on a screen... but we'll get there....)
2. I hate the idea of carrying around another device. Books are easy. You drop a book, it doesn't break. You lose a book, it's okay. You lend a book to a friend, great. On the subway, I'm not worried someone's going to steal my book, I'm not worried about scratching my book, I don't have to treat my book with kid gloves. I'm already carrying around a cell phone, I don't want something else I have to deal with. But this is a platform problem more than a problem inherent to e-books. Merge a phone and an e-book reader into something with readable text... which I'm sure will happen a few generations of e-readers from now... and I'm thinking about it.
3. You can't skim an electronic device. I flip pages, I skim, I interact with a book in a different way than I interact with a screen. This problem is the one I can't get past, but it's also the one that the next generation probably won't have. And even though somehow I've seamlessly moved from reading newspapers in paper to online without any struggle at all, I don't feel like I can do that with books. To have it in my hand, to turn the pages... this is a Luddite's reasoning and it won't keep the e-books away and yet... it's real for me.
Bottom line, for me, is that, right now, e-books fill a need that I'm not convinced is there. I hardly ever need to be carrying more books with me than I want to carry, and I hardly ever want to make an impulse buy that Amazon is too slow to fulfill. I like the physical interaction with books, in a way we never had to deal with as far as music or movies -- CDs aren't the same as books, you're using a machine anyway, it's not nearly as big a transition.
Where I think e-readers would really make an impact -- let me rent them in the airport or on a plane. Pre-loaded with a library of books, or the rental price includes the ability to rent two books, additional books cost $1, you rent it at the airport when you leave, you put down a hefty refundable deposit, and you return it when you get back from your trip -- bring an entire bookstore on vacation with you and it costs $14.95 for the privilege. That I would do. And if the e-reader really did make my life easier on vacation, and I got hooked? Then they'd have a new customer.
So why aren't they doing that? Why isn't Sony setting up e-reader kiosks at airports and trying to hook travelers on the product with a cheap taste of it? I don't know. I think they should be.