Even if you don't own an Amazon Kindle, you probably own an Amazon Kindle.
Let me explain.
Amazon.com's Kindle e-reader (for purposes of this discussion, we're talking more about the dedicated e-readers than the multipurpose Kindle Fire tablet) is a product, but it's also a service -- and Amazon has made that service available on a wide variety of devices: desktop and laptop computers, phones, tablets and what have you. Even if you never buy a Kindle device from Amazon you can download the Kindle app or surf to the Kindle website to shop for and read Kindle books.
I'm thinking about getting the entry-level, $79 Kindle with a little bit of my tax refund. But I also, as discussed in a previous column, have a new Windows Phone. This week, I downloaded the free Amazon Kindle app for Windows Phone, and, to test it out, I downloaded one of the many free public-domain books available for the Kindle platform. In this case it was Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea," a childhood favorite that I haven't read in years.
A normal-sized smartphone has a little too small of a screen for comfortable reading in long stretches, and of course it doesn't feature the easy-on-the-eyes e-ink display used by many dedicated e-readers. But I was surprised at how readable the text was, and could easily see myself killing time in, say, a doctor's office by reading instead of playing a game.
Once a book is in your account you can read it from any Kindle device or app, or from the Kindle cloud reader (read.amazon.com) if you're on someone else's machine or a machine that won't let you install apps.
And Amazon's Whispersync system allows you to keep all of your different platforms in sync. If I am in the middle of chapter 12 of a book on my Kindle device when I stop for the night, the platform will take me back to that point the next time I open the book anywhere within the Kindle ecosystem -- whether from a device, my phone, an iPad or other tablet, or a desktop or laptop computer. If I've made any notes on the text, those will be preserved across platforms as well.
Some were surprised when Amazon started competing with itself by allowing access to the Kindle platform without the purchase of a Kindle device. I've even seen bargain-basement Android tablets or e-readers advertised as coming with the Kindle app.
But Amazon was crazy like a fox, and by making its platform widely available it's established itself as a dominant force in e-publishing. If it can hold onto that lead, it stands to make money for years to come by selling content, regardless of what device people use to view that content.
Meanwhile, Apple is making inroads in e-publishing, with a broad new initiative to sell interactive textbooks that will run on the iPad. The e-books will sell for $15 per download, as compared to $75 for many print textbooks. That's not the savings it first appears to be, because the electronic textbook would have to be purchased each year; it couldn't be handed down from student to student the way a print textbook is. Tennessee approves new textbooks on a six-year cycle, so a $75 textbook could conceivably be used for six years if it remains in good condition. But the e-textbook would be more interactive and up-to-date than that in a print textbook, presumably a boon to the learning process.
Bedford County already has iPad carts in schools which teachers can check out for specific projects or activities, and local school board members are already talking about the day when most students will carry an iPad instead of a stack of textbooks. But there are cost and logistical issues to be resolved.
Some commentators are criticizing Apple because its initiative depends on a proprietary variation of the public ePub book standard, a branch that Apple would own and control and which competitors could not use.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.