Kindling, plus my dream machine

I’m not buying one of Amazon’s Kindles until it comes with these features. And until Apple makes it.

Pretty much every review I’ve read of Amazon’s new version of the Kindle has been mostly positive. (Not counting those of the Author’s Guild (as explained by my hero (although I disagree)) or the anti-DRM set, of course). They already got as close as they’re going to get to a “sweet spot” with the business model, like it or not, and now the second iteration of the device itself has fixed most of the inconveniences with the first version. Personally, I’ve got absolutely no need for an e-book reader — I read a total of nine books last year, and that was pushing myself. Even still, the new machine is so well designed, even I had a moment of gadget temptation.

Now, Amazon’s released the Kindle App for the iPhone (warning: link opens iTunes store). It’s alarming how quickly I went from skeptical to converted: I went from “just downloading a sample to try it out” to buying my first book in under 15 minutes. (It was The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal, which was very funny and I’d recommend to anyone over 18). I quickly finished that one and picked up a Terry Pratchett book that’s been on my wish list for months, as well as a couple of travel guides for an upcoming trip, so I can carry them around in my pocket.

The Stanza (another iTunes link) reader is still more solid and full-featured. The difference, apart from Stanza’s lack of support for graphics, is of course, Amazon. With the Kindle app, you get the size of Amazon’s collection and the convenience of having everything go through one account. Stanza’s made it as easy as it’s ever going to get to find what you’re looking for across a wide range of free and paid sites — but it’s always going to be a wide range of sites, instead of just one place, with one click. I feel as if I’m betraying some loyalty I’m supposed to have to independent bookstores and smaller websites, but it’s just a fact: I’ll take the path of least resistance wherever it’s available.

I still wouldn’t recommend the Kindle app without reservation, though, and reading on a phone is never going to replace paperback books. Reading a 270-page book by someone as easy to read as Peter Sagal is one thing, having to slog through something longer and/or more “serious” on a tiny screen isn’t anything I’d look forward to.

But the Kindle 2 looks so close to being an e-book reader I’d actually use; so close that the concessions they made in the design are maddening. The problem, from my perspective, is the target audience. Or to be more exact, the fact that I’m not in the target audience. They had to target People Who Read, the kind of folks who are skeptical about “electronic books”, who read enough to consider spending 350 bucks on something to carry all their books, who insist that they love the feel of paper and the smell of old bookstores.

I’m in the crowd of People Who Don’t Have the Attention Span For Reading, the folks who are skeptical of anything that doesn’t have an LCD screen, who wouldn’t hesitate to blow money we don’t have on devices as long as we can rationalize they have multiple purposes, and who insist that we love the feel of chrome and plastic and the smell of Best Buys. I’d be perfectly willing to sacrifice the readability of the Kindle’s e-Ink in favor of color, the battery life in favor of its being multipurpose, and the “Whispernet” cell connection in favor of simple wifi that lets me sync with a desktop client.

In short, I want a cross between a tablet PC and the mini PCs or personal media players that for whatever reason, still haven’t quite caught on while everybody else chases after “netbooks.” A tablet PC from Apple seems like such a natural, I’m convinced the only reason they haven’t announced one yet is to spite me personally. (Is it because I compared Steve Jobs to a serial killer? That was a joke!) Here are the specs for my ideal machine:

  • 9-10″ color screen. Any bigger than that, and it’s getting into tablet PC territory. I had a 12″ laptop for a while, and it was just a little too big to use comfortably on a plane, and a little too small to do anything productive. Something Moleskine-sized.
  • About the form factor of the Kindle 2. A little thicker would be necessary, sure, but it wouldn’t have to be a full-sized Tablet PC.
  • Backlit screen. Amazon touts the Kindle’s lack of backlight as a plus for readability; I say that I do most of my reading in bed or on planes, and it’s nice not to need an additional light.
  • Pressure-sensitive touch screen. I’d want to use it for drawing and sketching, as well as note-taking. So it should support a stylus as well as touch. Handwriting recognition is still built into OS X (and Windows).
  • Runs Mac OS X. The desktop version, ideally, although a modified version of the iPhone OS could be made to work.
  • Wireless-N connectivity. The Kindle targets people who hate synching with a desktop machine; I can’t imagine myself ever buying a book while at a beach, or even at an airport, so looking for a plain old wireless hotspot is fine by me.
  • Open development. It needn’t be open-source, but at a minimum something like the Apple AppStore instead of having to run proprietary apps only. You’d need note-taking, drawing, and naturally, e-book reading software at least.
  • Skip the keyboard. A big chunk of the Kindle’s space is taken up by a keyboard that’s not as usable as a real keyboard. If my dream machine had a USB slot or a Bluetooth receiver, then I could use any one of the hundreds of full-sized keyboards already out there. Apple makes 2 now that are so thin, it’d be reasonable to carry them around with the device.
  • Removable storage. Apple’s already proven that this isn’t a deal-breaker, as many of us saps have been perfectly willing to spend big money on devices that have hard and fast memory sizes. Still, a compact flash or even memory stick slot would be nice.
  • Headphone jack, speakers, stylus slot, etc. I’d assume these would be included as a matter of course, but just in case any engineers are out there feverishly scribbling down design notes from my blog.

So: something in between an iPhone and a Tablet PC. Nothing in that list is in the realm of the impossible, I don’t think — it’s basically a Wacom Cintiq plus a MacBook Air. Of course, those are two of the highest-priced pieces of “luxury” electronics available, so the machine I’m describing would probably cost 1500 bucks at a minimum. And have a battery life of about two hours.

But there’s got to be a market for that, right? There are all kinds of devices out there that are almost the same thing, but with exceptions — sub-$300 mini PCs without the touch screen, iPod touches that have to stay pocket-sized, tablets that have to contain a full-featured PC, personal media players that are trying to stay iPod-sized. Am I the only person who’d love to have a notebook PC that acts like a genuine notebook?