In the Midst of a Knowledge Revolution

The book is the best knowledge tool ever invented. This intellectual tool can only be compared with the invention of fire and the wheel. It has been with us for a very long time in its present form.

Before books were invented, scholars and scribes wrote on papyrus or parchment paper. These papers were so long, they had to be rolled up and tied closed with a string. This rolled up paper was called a scroll. The scroll represented the early stages of the book.

Students in ancient Rome would write upon a wood tablet, covered with wax on one side, using a stick called a stylus to write with. Later, holes were drilled through two wood tablets and tied together. This would open like a book and was coated with wax on the inside for writing on. Eventually people began placing sheets of parchment paper between these wooden slabs. This is how the ancient Romans invented the book as we know it today.

Since the Romans, books were written by hand which was very painful and slow. Therefore, there were very few books, and of course even fewer readers. The first publishing revolution took place in the XV Century (1450-1455) with the printing of the Bible by a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg. The Gutenberg Bible was the first mass-produced printed book which ignited a revolution in the publishing industry. Gutenberg’s printing press process, with refinements and increased mechanization, allowed for the first time, the mass production of printed books and has remained the means of printing until the late XX Century.

According to Steven Levy of Newsweek Magazine, “A book is an object that is superbly designed, wickedly functional, infinitely useful and beloved more passionately than any gadget in a Best Buy. It is a more reliable storage device than a hard disk drive, and it sports a killer user interface. (No instruction manual or For Dummies” guide needed.) And, it is instant-on and requires no batteries. Many people think it is so perfect an invention that it can’t be improved upon, and react with indignation at any implication to the contrary.”

Jeff Bezos 44, the CEO of Internet commerce juggernaut, passionately believes he can improve upon one of humankind’s most divine creations: the book itself. Like a modern Gutenberg, he wants to create a revolution (already in progress) that will change the way readers read, writers write and publishers publish. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Bezos released—with great fanfare—the Amazon Kindle, an electronic device that he hopes will leapfrog over previous attempts at e-readers and become the turning point in a transformation toward the Digital Book a.k.a. Book 2.0.

The Kindle (named to evoke the ignition of knowledge) has the dimensions of a paperback, with a tapering of its width that emulates the bulge toward a book’s binding. It’s thinner than most paperbacks, weighs 10.3 ounces, and uses E Ink, a breakthrough technology that mimes the clarity of a printed book. The Kindle gets as many as 30 hours of reading on a charge, and recharges in two hours. It allows you to change the font size: aging baby boomers will appreciate that every book can instantly be a large-type edition. The hand-held device can also hold up to 200 books on board, hundreds more on a memory card and a limitless amount in virtual library stacks maintained by Amazon. The Kindle also allows you to search within a book for a phrase or name, just like a Web browser.

Another Kindle success factor, is to display newspaper and magazine publications in ways that more closely resemble the print versions. One of Kindle’s features is the ability to download content from between 50 to 100 newspapers, magazine and other business publications, including The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

You can find some of these features in other previous e-book gadgets, namely its closest competitor, the Sony Reader. The Kindle’s real breakthrough springs from a feature that its predecessors never offered: wireless connectivity, via a system called Whispernet. (It’s based on the EVDO broadband service offered by cell-phone carriers, allowing it to work anywhere, not just Wi-Fi hotspots.) As a result, says Bezos, “This isn’t a device, it’s a service.” This convenient characteristic allows you to download digital books, newspapers, and magazines from the Internet wherever you are.

The coolest thing you can do with a Kindle, hands down, is buying a book—just clickBUY” and, bang, you have the book in less than a minute. Like the name suggests, Kindle is Amazon’s way of burning down the traditional paperback book business. The Kindle has been praised for its selection, more than 100,000 books, blogs and newspapers, and for the speed of delivery, less than a minute. Fans include such authors as Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis and Neil Gaiman.

Even though it has a selling price of $399—Ouch!—the first run sold out within a few hours. Amazon has declined to give sales figures for the Kindle—at least 2,000, judging from the number of customer reviews—but has said repeatedly that supply is not keeping up with demand, with the device often out of stock. Publishing officials are reluctant to discuss sales figures, but say that they have seen double digit increases in e-book sales since the Kindle’s release, including renewed interest in downloads on the Sony Reader. Sales for the most popular books are in the hundreds, comparable to the number for the Sony, which came out in 2006.

Public sightings of e-books remain rare compared to iPods or iPhones, but e-book readers have caught on in the industry. The Hachette Book Group USA, Simon & Schuster and Random House, Inc. are among those using Sony Readers (which sell for $299) to review manuscripts and executives are far more likely to say they’ve read an e-book. This means that e-books are slowly catching on and e-book readers are increasing in numbers.

Jeff Bezos has done the seemingly impossible: He’s created a piece of technology more bookish than a book, and in the process, set in motion a knowledge revolution only comparable to that of Johannes Gutenberg.

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