I’m wondering if ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bracelets ever caught on in the UK. You folks don’t tend to get as worked up about the guy as the evangelicals do over here. The reason I mention the ‘WWJD?’ bracelets is because I wanted to talk about the philosophical effects of a ‘What Would Steve Jobs Do?’ bracelet.
I have Amazon’s new Kindle ebook reader at my elbow here. It is much on my mind at the moment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a consumer device that was so undeniably cool yet so ungodly ugly. But I think Jesus wouldn’t really mention that it looks uncannily like a tool I keep in the backseat of my car to chip ice off the windshield. No, Jesus would definitely talk about Kindle’s strengths, which are legion.
On the surface, the Kindle appears to be no different from any other attempt to consign newspapers, magazines, and books to the scrapheap of history. It’s a slim handheld device roughly the size of a large paperback book, and it sports the standard-issue high-resolution black-on-grey E-Ink display composed of pixels that stay black forever without drawing any additional power. You can either load your own desktop documents on it, or purchase electronic books from Amazon’s Kindle Store. On top of tens of thousands of bestsellers and old standards, Amazon can automatically send you your morning newspapers and monthly magazines, too.
So far, we have the same nominally-interesting device that Sony and other companies failed to push.
Quietly brilliant Aha... but I haven’t told you the awesome bit: it secretly contains a 3G cellphone radio that maintains a constant high-speed internet connection no matter where you are in the country. This connection is free, free, free (no monthly fees of any kind) and the Kindle also has a built-in web browser. It’s not as good as the browser built into the iPhone, but it’s a perfectly adequate mobile browser... and it works just fine with Google Reader.
Which immediately propels the Kindle into the Giga-awesome range. Don’t think of the Kindle as a $399 device that allows you read a Jackie Collins novel slightly awkwardly. Think of it as the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s your personal portable interface to a sub-etha net that contains every piece of information ever published.
So my question is: what would Steve Jobs have done, if research engineers at Apple had presented the Kindle to him as a prototype of a proposed new product? Because it’s hard to imagine a device that’s less Apple-like.
Yup, it’s ugly, but it’s also a seriously shaggy in spots. E-Ink is a great display technology from the viewpoint of battery life, but despite what its fans claim, it isn’t nearly as easy to read as paper or even a conventional digital display. There’s a visual fart every time you turn the page (the entire screen has to reverse itself before anything new can appear on it) and apart from big friendly buttons for turning pages, the sole user-interface element is an awkward little elevator that you roll up and down.
I’m fairly certain that if an engineer seriously proposed to Steve Jobs that he put an Apple logo on such an imperfect device, he’d count himself lucky that Steve gave up after only attempting to jam the Kindle inside the guy’s mouth.
Normally, of course, I’d use this visual as a springboard to a smug, self-satisfied essay about how Apple is one of the few companies that dedicates itself to craftsmanship and to exploring how to connect a piece of hardware to its user.
But I think the Kindle is the only thing that challenges the iPhone as the coolest new device of 2007. It makes me wonder how many times Apple has missed out on shipping something awesome in its stubborn pursuit of perfection.
Reviews of the Kindle have inevitably described it as “an iPod for words”. But the Apple device that I think about when I muse about the Kindle is actually the Newton MessagePad. Ten years ago (and under a different CEO) Apple set out to invent the PDA and revolutionise pen-based input. And they did it a most Apple-ey sort of way: they wanted to get it absolutely perfect. For the most part, they really succeeded. It was fresh — and it was a total re-articulation of the whole concept of computing, engineered for handheld use. It was cancelled a few years later, after failing to really catch on.
Palmed off Compare and contrast with the Palm Pilot PDA, which was released about a year later. It wasn’t anywhere near as advanced or pretty. But it cost less than half as much as a MessagePad, and it actually fit in a shirt pocket. Those are both very attractive features; the public voted with their wallets, turning Palm into an immediate sensation whose fortunes could only be dashed by the arrival of the Smartphone and the utter irrelevance of PDAs.
Behind the doors of Apple’s research and development department lies a wonderland of unimaginable delights. Apple R&D has built functional PDAs, and tablet Macs, and AirPort Extreme base stations that hover towards you silently to help you tie your bow tie. All these and far more, by the score... and they’ve all remained under wraps. At Apple, ‘functional and practical’ isn’t good enough. They have to revolutionise. They need perfection.
Spiffy. But in the meantime, the general public is tapping urgently at the steel door with cash in hand.
It’s all well and good to lean back with a glass of fine port and philosophise about (let’s say) the proper role of an electronic book reader in a society where mass-media is becoming increasingly hybridised. But while Apple spends years stroking their beards, companies like Amazon are more than happy to take those people’s money. And as frustrating as this may seem to an Apple user... those people will be more than happy to use an ‘imperfect’ device like the Kindle, and turn it into an unchallengable industry leader.