Book review: Former Kindle exec on Kindle flaws, Nook strengths and Google’s future in ebooks

Jason Merkoski was a founding member of the Amazon (s AMZN) team that launched the Kindle. He no longer works at Amazon, and in a new ebook, Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading (Sourcebooks, ebook $9.99) he discusses how the Kindle came to be, the features it (and other e-ink readers) lack, and what he imagines the future of digital reading will look like. While Burning the Page often reads more like a series of rambling blog posts than a well-edited narrative, it offers some interesting thoughts on how technology will change books and reading in the coming years.

Merkoski ran technology departments for a number of companies and headed e-commerce initiatives at Motorola before joining Amazon as a technology manager in 2005. For the next five years, he served at the company in a number of Kindle-related roles, helping to launch the first two Kindle models and the Kindle DX. “I first joined a team that built the electronic books for Kindle, but I went on from there to do it all,” he writes. “I invented some of the technology used in ebooks and launched the first few Kindles. I’ve traveled to book fairs in New York and London and Frankfurt to evangelize ebooks. I’ve watched ebooks being made in the Philippines and supervised the assembly of Kindles in China. I’ve talked to the White House, former presidents, and astronauts about ebooks.”

I found Burning the Page the most interesting when Merkoski discusses his experience at Amazon, working directly for CEO Jeff Bezos. “I worked in a modern version of Gutenberg’s workshop,” he wrote. But he can’t share much:

  • “I believe Jeff [Bezos] wanted Kindle to be his legacy to history. He wanted it to succeed.”
  • “The Kindle organization was in some ways a startup within Amazon and benefited from Jeff Bezos’s venture capital infusions, long-range vision, and full support.”
  • “Jeff originally wanted the Kindle code names to come from Star Trek, since he’s such a Trekkie, but more literate minds prevailed.”

While Merkoski describes himself as “the closest there was to an ebook shaman, a tribal elder who could talk to all the people who joined Amazon after me about the early days of Kindle, provide the inside scoop,” he doesn’t (and may be legally unable to) provide any inside scoops in this book. So the next best thing is when he can speak specifically about e-reading platforms — including the advantages of Amazon’s competitors. The development of the Kindle was highly secretive: “No outsiders had seen the Kindle because it was created in a perfect vacuum from the very beginning,” Merkoski writes. That resulted, in 2007, in a $399 device that sold out in five and a half hours, remained out of stock for months and got a lot of mixed reviews (facts that Merkoski doesn’t mention).

Kindle’s flaws — and what competitors did better

Future versions of the Kindle improved on some flaws: Merkoski calls the Kindle 2, introduced in 2009, “truly an incredible device.” But “in fits of wakefulness, I thought about how Kindle lacked nuance, style, fonts, and things like multimedia…Kindle’s success made new ideas paradoxically difficult, as if everyone was walking around on stiletto heels on a glass floor, careful not to run, not wanting to take the wrong risks.”

Kindle competitors, he says, have done better in lots of ways. Take Barnes & Noble (s BKS): “Out of all the retailers who sell dedicated e-readers, they’re the most innovative. They’re the first to release new book-reading features and to innovate on the hardware side. They were the first to have touch-sensitive e-ink screens…They totally get the social experience of books in the way that it crosses over from the real world to the digital. They can innovate so fast because they’re not burdened with their own R&D group.” Likewise, “companies with more humanistic sensibilities than Amazon will win the e-reader war by making the experience more human, more playful…let’s face it: there’s still something emotionally bereft about a Nook or a Kindle.” The winner on that front, he says, is Apple’s iPad.

Ultimately, Merkoski believes, “Amazon is winning the ebook revolution, but it may lose the war…Competitors like Barnes & Noble and Apple have successfully blurred the lines and proven that they can provide a great media experience, so Amazon’s brand matters less in the eyes of readers now.” He says “it’s hard to love Amazon…at best, you respect Amazon for its obsession to detail, for its cheap prices, and for how it achieves the promised arrival dates for its products.”

Oddly, Merkoski doesn’t mention the Nook division’s terrible performance these days, or the company’s inability to cut into Amazon’s market share. Nooks, he claims, are “downright futuristic.” And that’s really where he wants to go in this book: How will ebooks, reading and writing change?

What’s next: High-speed head plugs and a “Facebook for books”?

Let’s be clear: Merkoski loves books. An endless number of sentences like “Books are priceless,” “Books can inspire us toward greatness,” “Books hold the repository of human knowledge, and then some,” “Reading is an act of bathyspheric descent into the depths of an inky-black ocean,” “For me, it really is about books. They’re not commodities, but soulful voices that actually speak to you” become increasingly irritating as the book goes on and weigh down Merkoski’s ideas on what the future of reading could actually look like.

Once you cut through the platitudes, Merkoski envisions some specific innovations that are interesting and imaginative. For instance, “the future might hold some sort of high-speed plug that goes into an author’s head, some way of taking an author’s imagination and converting it directly into a digital format. The same high-speed cables will connect you to the author’s original experience.” That sounds horrible to me, but another idea — a screenless e-reader that uses a pico projector to project an ebook onto a blank surface (like a ceiling or the pages of a blank book), pulls ebooks from the cloud and is navigated by voice commands — seems like something that could actually exist in a few years.

Ultimately, Merkoski believes there will be

“just one book, a vast book that includes all the others inside it, which I call the Facebook for Books. You’ll be able to start reading from an ebook and naturally segue into a different one, just by following a link. It could be a bibliographic link, or just a link to a book that influenced the author and that’s been annotated as such by a reader like you or me. You will be able to link forward or double-back and keep reading…The more content you get, the more cumulative the connections are between books, and the more intertwined and rich the network becomes.”

The company best situated to make this dream a reality is not Amazon, Merkoski believes, but Google — thanks to its knowledge of search engines and the vast number of titles it’s scanned for Google book search, “Google has digitized more of human culture than any other retailer or library.”

For now, rights issues are in the way, and so books, “our greatest repository of knowledge and inspiration, aren’t participating in conversations with us online, with the exception of public-domain books that lag by at least ninety years.” It will take “a sea-change in opinion about ebook pricing models,” Merkoski acknowledges, before such a hyperlinked database of books can legally exist — even though we have the technology to put it in place now.