Amazon expected to preview large-format Kindle

Just three months after rolling out Kindle 2.0, Amazon's hosting an event in New York on Wednesday, during which it's expected to preview another upgrade -- one with a bigger screen, PDF support, and annotation capability. The unit will be tested this fall at various universities.

An assortment of magazine and newspaper publishers are also invited to the event, hinting that a change in the relationship between those content providers and Kindle's no-ads-no-pricing-control philosophy may be at hand.

Most early commenters say that a large-format Kindle is probably better news for universities than for the publishing industry. Om Malik summed up the problem tartly: "How does that expression go? Ah yes -- a drowning man will clutch at a straw."

To date, Amazon's offered subscriptions to nearly 60 magazines and newspapers via the Kindle, but both the relatively small monochrome screen and Amazon's insistence on setting prices have been sticking points for the content providers. It may be that the continuing squeeze on the industry's pocketbook, has caused, as they would have said in the Nixon-era White House, their hearts and minds to follow.

Owen Thomas, currently taking a victory lap before departing Valleywag, was more direct. "Like the libertarian wingnuts who would rather flee to science-fiction cities on the sea, escape to outer space, or cosset themselves in an online fantasy...than live in reality, the addled lords of print like [Hearst executive Phil] Bronstein would rather dream of a technological rescue than face the hard work of survival."

And what about textbooks? Anyone who's majored in a discipline with bulky or otherwise difficult source material has dreamed of a device that would condense, say, 3,500 years of philosophy into something one could carry, with notes, in one slim backpack. (The books are bad enough, but getting the papyrus in there safely can be a bear.) Amazon's chosen an interesting cross-section of universities for its pilot program, too: Reed College, Case Western Reserve University, Pace, Princeton, Darden School at the University of Virginia, and Arizona State.

But taking textbooks digital could lead to another burden for students: a financial one. It's thought that the students involved with the pilot program will have the cost of the devices subsidized by their schools, but every student knows that textbooks are not only cripplingly heavy but cripplingly expensive. It's unclear what incentive if any textbook publishers would have to drop prices for electronic versions of their wares. And with Amazon's notorious digital-rights management controls in place, it seems unlikely that students would retain the right to sell back textbooks at the end of the term -- a nontrivial consideration for the cash-strapped.

One analyst suspects that Amazon may get more than it bargained for if students find it worth their way to circumvent the Kindle's DRM. Mike McGuire, a media analyst at Gartner, told BusinessWeek late Monday that he suspects that there will be "some fairly significant DRM issues" on campus as motivated and tech-savvy. Amazon dodged the content-restriction bullet with music, offering restriction-free MP3s, but things could be very different when hundreds of dollars are at stake at the end of the term. And Amazon hasn't been shy about cutting off access to content on the Kindle when one's account on the site is canceled. Could "Amazon ate my textbook" become the new "the dog ate my homework?"

Finally, blogger and e-book veteran Stephen Arnold raises a point about the Kindles we've known so far: They're neither backpack-friendly nor cheap. Engadget has the scant details available on what it claims will be called the Amazon Kindle DX -- compressed keyboard chiclets and a 9.7" screen. (And the site has photos, which we've excerpted above with thanks.)

Nice, but as Arnold notes there are other design issues to consider: screen contrast, the interface, and above all, the durability problem. Arnold is on "his second or third" Kindle, and he's found that "these devices are not sufficiently sturdy to deal amicably with airport security checks." The average dorm room is at least as tumultuous an environment over time as five minutes at a TSA checkpoint; whatever Amazon's showing off Wednesday, textbook publishers, students, and the parents who fund them will be wise to look at much more than a newly larger screen.

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