E-books have emerged from the shadows with Amazon's launch this week of its $399 (£200) Kindle e-book reader and service in the US.
I've found e-books intriguing for a while now, as they could be easier to store, and easier to read than their paper brethren.
The concept of Sony's Reader, the first significant contender in this market, was solid, but its hardware didn't impress me. Though Amazon's Kindle design is even less splashy, its usability touches are enough to make me consider using an e-book reader.
Amazon integrated a 3G cellular radio into the Kindle and uses its new Whispernet EvDO service to wirelessly transmit e-books to the Kindle. You don't need a PC to make a purchase: Just browse the Kindle store and download your reading material. Notably, no service charges or contracts are involved - Amazon covers all of that in the background.
Kindle: The iPod of e-books?
Can Amazon do for the fledgling e-book market what Apple did for the digital music market?
Amazon doesn't sell just books, but books are certainly perceived as a cornerstone of the company's business. If you're looking to buy a book, logically you might turn to Amazon; competing e-book approaches don't have that advantage.
So who will the Kindle appeal to? Folks who are ready to take their reading digital. Avid readers who are running out of shelf space for their books. Commuters who are tired of wrangling newspapers while getting ink on their fingers.
Who will stay away from the Kindle? Travellers who want to read on a plane during takeoff and landing, when you can't use electronic devices. Readers who enjoy a good book in the bath or at the beach. People who aren't already comfortable with digital gadgets. And mainstream shoppers will certainly find the Kindle's high price a turn-off.
For some buyers, though, the price won't be a deterrent. The conveniences I've cited may be enough to sway them, or perhaps the Kindle's integrated wireless networking and no-PC-required approach may be appealing. Maybe they'll appreciate the savings over buying physical books. Despite the Amazon reader's bland design and the fact that this first-generation device leaves some room for improvement, the Kindle and its corresponding service have succeeded in rekindling my interest in reading e-books.
Unassuming, functional design
The Kindle, which is larger than the average paperback book but not as thick, won't wow anyone with eye-catching good looks. It's a boxy rectangle of white plastic with a matte finish (though it comes with a leather cover). A 6in electronic-paper display from E Ink covers the top portion of the device; a keyboard dominates the bottom quarter.
The keyboard, with its rectangular keys set mostly at an angle, is easy to use. A rubberised surface on the back of the device makes it comfortable to grasp. The Kindle supports up to 2GB SD Cards, but unfortunately the slot is located beneath the removable back plate and is not readily accessible.