What to expect from Amazon and Apple

Big news is expected from Amazon and Apple, with both companies rumored to be working on handheld media viewers. Here's what to expect.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
5 min read

The New York Times reported this weekend, in an article titled "Looking to Big-Screen E-Readers to Help Save the Daily Press," that Amazon.com is on the verge of introducing a new larger-screen Kindle e-book reader.

A blog post from CNET's David Carnoy ("Amazon to introduce larger Kindle this week?") says that Amazon has scheduled a press event for Wednesday that may be the venue for this announcement.

The larger Kindle (which I think of as a "Kindle Pro," although I really have no idea what Amazon might call it) should be about the size of the Plastic Logic e-book reader I've written about here ("E-books: The flexible future"), with a screen in the 12-inch-diagonal range. Apart from the larger display, it's expected to work just like the current Kindle 2, sharing its paper-like E Ink display and software, perhaps with another round of improvements that could apply to the Kindle 2 as well.

Carnoy also mentions the recent spate of rumors that Apple will be introducing a new "media pad" this spring or summer--rumors he covered in an earlier piece ("Apple prepping two wireless devices with Verizon?"). This gizmo (I'll call it the iPad, following the lead of some other stories on this subject) is said to be smaller than a Kindle 2, but with a larger screen--a combination not difficult to achieve given the Kindle 2's large keyboard.

Kindle 2
Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reader Amazon.com

That suggests dimensions around 5 inches by 8 inches with a 7-inch screen, similar to the Viliv X70 I wrote about in January ("The mobile Internet device: In search of itself").

As I noted at the time, the Viliv X70 is actually a little smaller than the Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 I carried for seven years during my time with the Microprocessor Report newsletter.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about the relative merits of these two device types, so I figured I'd go on record here before Amazon and Apple make their announcements and try to explain what kind of applications and customers will be the best fit for each type.

Here are the major differences I expect to see:

• Displays. Monochrome E Ink for Kindle Pro. Color LCD for the iPad.

• Size. About 8.5 inches by 11 inches for Kindle Pro. About 5 inches by 8 inches for the iPad (less than half the size).

• Software. Amazon's port of Linux for Kindle Pro. Apple's port of Mac OS X for the iPad.

• Media types. E-book and audio support for Kindle Pro. Video, audio, and e-books on the iPad.

Everything else follows from the display choice. I've seen E Ink's color prototypes with video-friendly update rates, but they can't match the quality of an LCD, and I wouldn't watch a TV show on one. I don't expect to see a fast color display on the new Kindle.

With a larger but otherwise familiar monochrome E Ink display, the new member of the Kindle family will not be able to play video or support a wide range of PC or smartphone applications (regardless of the underlying software), at least not with results that would be acceptable to most users.

Still, the smaller display expected to appear on Apple's media pad could handle lightly modified iPhone applications, but the need for a backlight means it can't match the low-power characteristics of an E Ink display. An iPad might get only four to six hours of operation on a charge--enough for a couple of movies and some gaming, but that's about it.

That's probably enough, though. A laptop might be used all day at work and for hours in the evening, but few people would spend that much time staring at a 7-inch LCD. I expect Apple has done its research, designing in a battery just large enough to satisfy most users without making the iPad (or whatever they actually call it) any bigger or heavier than necessary.

One thing I'm really not sure about is whether the iPad will be based on an x86 processor like Apple's MacBooks or an ARM processor like the iPhone. If the iPad was a Windows machine, there'd be no question: x86 all the way, to provide compatibility with Windows 7. Windows Mobile just doesn't have the features or the third-party app support to compete.

But Apple's done a fine job adapting Mac OS X to the iPhone platform, and with iPhone OS 3.0 coming soon, this would be a fine time to apply this OS to devices other than the iPhone and iPod Touch.

The iPad's likely superior variety of software gives it an inherently larger market, but the Kindle Pro's focus on text display could still make it the preferred choice for e-books.

Newspapers--the ostensible reason for a big-screen Kindle--are an interesting in-between case, though. Reading a newspaper isn't like reading a novel. It's a far more interactive process. Most newspaper readers generally don't proceed from the first word of the first story all the way through the last word of the last story; they skim headlines and opening paragraphs and pick only some articles to read fully.

The still-hypothetical Kindle Pro would do a better job of displaying newspaper-style content than the current Kindle 2. Readers would have more headlines to choose from and more text to read between the relatively slow page turns. But the process still can't be as quick as it is with a real newspaper. If newspapers are part of the plan, I hope Amazon has figured out how to take full advantage of the Kindle's underlying compute platform, for example, with intelligent article sorting and highlighting against keyword lists. Will it be good enough? I can't predict that, but we may find out soon.

One rumor I simply don't believe is that the new Kindle might also handle textbooks. Even an 12-inch E Ink display doesn't have enough resolution for most of the textbooks and technical books I've seen. The fine details in figures and the fine print in captions and equations simply wouldn't work out. Also, color would be absolutely necessary for that application, and E Ink's color displays have lower resolution than the monochrome versions. In theory, publishers could be willing to create Kindle-optimized editions from scratch, but I just don't see the business case for such a deal. So I think textbooks are out of the question.

In the long run, I think it'll be possible to merge these two products into one device that can do a good job with text and still support movies and full-featured software. OLED displays consume energy only for "on" pixels, so text display is much more efficient than on an LCD, yet OLEDs can update fast enough for television. (I wrote about OLED and e-paper displays here a couple of years ago; see "Displays have a long way to go".)

In the meantime, the market will remain divided between e-book readers and media players, so watch the news and make your choice. Or just keep reading books and watching TV--there's nothing wrong with that!