Amazon's Kindle has been widely derided as a below-par e-book reader which compares badly with the competition and ignores a history of failed attempts to produce an electronic book. But Kindle isn't really an e-book reader at all, rather the physical embodiment of the Web 2.0 ethic.
The giveaway is the use of a 3G telephony network, rather than Wi-Fi or similar, providing a network connection which is active whenever the device feels like activating it, without the user being aware. That makes for a very different experience than deliberately connecting when the user wants to, one which Amazon calls Whispernet - as Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, puts it: "This isn't a device, it's a service."
But it is a device, and one which is intended to act as a depository of books, so why would it need such ubiquitous connectivity? The gushing Newsweek article on the Kindle references a 2004 study which discovered that only 57 per cent of Americans read a book, any book, in the previous year. Previous e-books have attempted to appeal to that 57 per cent, replacing their paper-based equivalents, but Kindle is hoping to create something new, which might appeal to the rest as well as driving the reading majority to buy more books.
One plan is to reduce the cost of books though advertising: while in-book advertising is generally limited to "other books by this author", and the occasional free chapter to bulk out the page count, books in Kindle can contain adverts which are updated daily. Every time you open a book a different advert can appear amongst its pages (just like this article). But it's not just the bits between the text which Amazon can reach out and alter: even the prose itself will no longer be inviolate.
Authors could update their books while you're reading them; responding to reader feedback, litigation, or even whim. A book could be updated daily, or chapters added when the author has time - readers might subscribe to a book rather than buying it outright.
For technical manuals there is a real value there. Being able to send out errata and updates makes sense, but for the traditional fiction novel it's hard to see the value - unless you've got your Web 2.0 glasses on.
The Newsweek piece quotes Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, who "envisions wiki-style collaborations where the author, instead of being the sole authority, is a "superuser, the lead wolf of a creative pack". Readers will no longer be passive consumers of writing, but active participants able to annotate and add to the content, sharing their thoughts with the world (perhaps why the Kindle has a keyboard?) According to Newsweek this would make authors very happy, as "you'd need to buy [the] book in order to view the litany of objections", but in a world where the vast majority of authors never make a profit anyway, they might prefer their masterpiece to remain their own.
So Kindle is not designed for reading boring old manuscripts written by someone else, but as a tool for participating in the exciting world of Web 2.0. Books might be available on the device, but they'll be no more important to Kindle than their dead-tree equivalents are to Amazon these days.