The textbook of the future?

Amazon.com's second-generation e-book reader, the Kindle 2, released early last month, is making headlines around the technology industry and the economics blogosphere.

Put simply, the thing is selling like hotcakes. This success comes despite the reader's high entry cost - $359 - and is especially amazing because of its resistance to the effects of the constantly deepening recession.

The high number of sales can be attributed to the Kindle 2's less-advertised features. Amazon has labeled the product an "e-book reader," but it goes so far beyond that. Most notably, the Kindle 2 features free wireless connectivity through Sprint's EVDO network, which reports positive reception in most centers of civilization, including Geneseo.

Through this wireless Internet connection, Kindle users can download books in under a minute, on-demand, thanks to Amazon's "WhisperNet" service, which basically acts like an Apple App Store for literature junkies. Users can also use this free mobile Internet connection to access Wikipedia entries.

A favorite webcomic recently joked that "Kindle 2 + WhisperNet = Hitchhiker's Guide," and I don't think that's entirely off-base.

The success of the Kindle system, then, isn't really a hardware success. The real triumph is in the software and its on-demand access to new books. Like Apple's App Store, WhisperNet provides instant access to an online bookstore, connecting consumer to producer effortlessly and without any transfer of printed money.

Now, if the Kindle economics framework is to survive and succeed, the Amazon people need to tap into a key market: us, the textbook consumers.

Literature junkies love the smell and feel of old paperbacks and your average reader of novels won't see the need to spend upward of $350 for 2GB of storage space and instant access to new materials.

If Amazon could make a friend out of the textbook industry, however, it is likely that the average student would reap considerable savings using a Kindle and electronic texts over the course of a four-year program.

The Kindle 2 supports highlighting as well as bookmarking and electronic dog-earring, assuaging some concerns of those of us who love annotating our books. For the economically minded among us who already buy used textbooks, the e-book versions would be cheaper and come without the scribbling and chaotic highlighting of each book's previous owner. Additionally, the Kindle 2 can comfortably fit all the texts a college student may need over four years of studies, without any deletion.

Come to think of it, Amazon would be wise to advertise environmentally-friendly products on the market. If the popularity of metal water bottles on campus is any indication, it's a market that has plenty of demand among students.

If Amazon started a "green machine" campaign and made a friend of the environmentalists, they'd tap into another strong market and add demand among students they should be targeting. As a positive externality, if the Kindle 2 ever does reach the popularity of the iPod, it really would mean a whole lot of saved trees and a reduction in paper waste.

So, would you buy a $359 Kindle if it meant an overall savings during your college years, plus less strain on your back, no more hassle during textbook-buying season and some good environmental Karma?

Alex Berberich is a sophomore IR major who hopes an Amazon will kindle a relationship with him.

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