Amazon's new Kindles don't have keyboards, an omission which says more about how the Kindle has evolved than any of the shiny new capabilities which have been added.
To understand why the keyboard was so central to the Kindle's aspirations, it is important to remember that Kindle wasn't just supposed to be just an electronic book reader. The Kindle was supposed to be a new way of interacting with textual content and with dynamic content, which updated itself and invited consumer participation. It was supposed to be a physical embodiment of the Web 2.0 dream.
Only people didn't use it that way, they used it to read books, lots of books. It is sometimes fun to ask Kindle 1.0 users why they think their electronic book has a keyboard. One gets some interesting (and often inventive) replies, but mostly uncaring ignorance – it's there, but they don't really use it.
It wasn't supposed to be like that. In the pre-publicity for the Kindle, we were promised dynamically updated books which invited "wiki-style collaborations where the author, instead of being the sole authority, is a superuser, the lead wolf of a creative pack".
Context-sensitive embedded advertising, within books, was supposed to be the first step, followed by automatic errata and then invited contributions that would allow fans to share book annotations and comments. Eventually the author is reduced to the role of administrator, though how the scribe is to make a living was never fully explored.
The key components of that dream were Whispernet – constant connectivity over the cellular network – with the aforementioned keyboard forever reminding readers that what they held in their hands was not a book but rather a portal to the next generation internet.
Both features are absent from the Kindle Fire, which uses Wi-Fi for connectivity. Whispernet, which will work over Wi-Fi but without ubiquity, is now called Whispersync – the change of name reflecting a reduction in aspirations. The Fire will have a soft keyboard, for when users want to enter text, but the most basic models of Kindle now lack a keyboard or a touch screen – severely limiting their utility as two-way devices.
In fact, four years on, the only thing we've got is dynamic adverts pushed to the idle screen in exchange for a discount. We haven't even got automatic errata distribution, which would still be a killer application for technical manuals.
Instead, backed by Amazon's catalogue of content and some well-placed celebrity endorsement, the Kindle has become the electronic book reader of choice. But as the technical literacy of buyers has steadily decreased, so has the opportunity for turning every consumer into a producer.
So, perhaps wisely, Amazon has decided electronic books should be just that: devices for consuming literary content, not participating in an internet revolution. That also applies to devices designed to consume video and audio, the Kindle Fire won't encourage you to shoot your own ending to The Great Escape, but it will let you watch it.
Back in 2007, Amazon bought into the Web 2.0 dream of mass participation in media creation, but it also managed to hedge its bets and create the world's most successful e-book platform. That platform is now transforming into a media platform delivering video and audio content as well as books, but in doing so it is also abandoning its Web 2.0 aspirations.
Which, all told, is probably a good thing. ®