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Through the Kindle window

December 06, 2007

Amazon.com's Kindle has been out for a couple of weeks now, and the ebook reader has earned generally lukewarm reviews, with complaints ranging from the speed with which it renders pages to its "Fisher-Price" design. But there's at least one aspect of the device that has garnered near-universal acclaim: its seamless connection with the Amazon online store. As Rob Pegoraro writes in a review in today's Washington Post, "Once you set up a Kindle with your Amazon account, everything downloads directly and almost instantly - no computer or special software required."

That's not precisely accurate, of course. The Kindle is itself a computer, and it relies on special software running both on its own drive and on the central Amazon computers that it ties into. But from the customer's point of view, Pegoraro is right - the computer and the software are invisible, as is the Internet connection, which is both continuous and free. If the Kindle is flawed as a window onto literature, it offers a pretty clear view onto the future of appliances. It shows that we're rapidly approaching the time when centrally stored and managed software and data are seamlessly integrated into consumer appliances - all sorts of appliances.

The problem with "Web 2.0," as the concept is commonly understood, is that it constrains innovation by perpetuating the assumption that the web is accessed through computing devices, whether PCs or smartphones or game consoles. As broadband, storage, and computing get ever cheaper, that assumption will be rendered obsolete. The internet won't be so much a destination as a feature, incorporated into all sorts of different goods in all sorts of different ways. The next great wave in internet innovation, in other words, won't be about creating sites on the World Wide Web; it will be about figuring out creative ways to deploy the capabilities of the World Wide Computer through both traditional and new physical products, with, from the user's point of view, "no computer or special software required."


The web-refrigerator or net-toaster really only provides an embedded browser (and IP) as the additional feature, not 'the internet', in the same (dumb) way a PDA-phone does.

If I want Voip on my fridge, I need another feature (a voip ph), non-web chat then another feature (IM), email client I need a toaster ready email client, and so on.

Of course, on demand means the fridge-with-browser can provide "everything". Is that feasible in practice? I don't want everyone reading my email every time they're waiting for some toast.

The flip side is to have a proliferation of purpose-built appliances (eg the stand alone mp3 player, the kindle, etc) with wonderful purpose built interfaces and (perhaps) access to the cloud (no more syncing my mp3 player!), but my pockets/briefcase are already at overflow.

As for Web2 being locked into a computing device model, I think it too is locked in to the browser: "web as a platform" means content consumed/produced (r/w web) only through a (so far) browser resident 'application'. But would I want a personal wikipedia appliance? A facebook appliance too? Nope, definitely not.

So, for computing to disappear from view *everything* will be web enabled, thus everything will be a computing device and therefore the browser must die/standardise because I sure as hell don't want to be reinstalling my firefox extensions every time I buy a new bit of furniture or whitegoods (and can I login just by putting my feet up on the coffee table?).

Posted by: daintree [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 6, 2007 01:35 PM

See now, I love the notion of "Appliance Computing", because it foretells the future, which is that the Web as we know it (being web pages, HTML, AJAX, JSP, ASP.NET, and the rest of the alphabet soup of technologies cobbled together to make Tim's invention workable) is on "the Green Mile".

All we're really waiting for to sweep out the trash that has been the World Wide Web is anywhere anytime gigabit wireless ethernet, and hopefully some smart folks will put the 700mhz bandwidth to that use.

We get there, heck, as Nick alludes to, we likely won't even have computers anymore, not in the general purpose can do anything on it computer sense, and certainly not in the 500GB hard Drive, 4 core-2.5 ghz processor sense.

You'll have an ipod with maybe an 8 gig cache (incase you drive through a tunnel), but that will be wirelessly connected to your music repository in space, (that you own or rent).

You'll have a tablet that you read books with, take notes on, play solitare, and whatnot.

You might even have a terminal or two that you use to do more general purpose tasks,

and yes Daintree, your Fridge will be wired in, so it can call for a service repair technician when it leaves prime operating range, and you know it might have a screen too, because it's the best place to put the family schedule, (go to best buy right now you can buy a fridge with a TV imbedded).

Posted by: Leigh McMullen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 6, 2007 06:02 PM

Your argument is that internet will be like water or electricity: a utility that makes every appliance work -- seamlessly. Assuming that the flow will drip from one of them is therefore making the same mistake as the XIX-th century enthusiasts envisioning a mill or a steam-machine at the centre of the house, making all the modern equipment work? Well, can I think that all the electricity goes through a meter, with a big switch [Product placement!] -- and that likewise, the internet will, as it does now, flow through one pocket sized DSL-modem/server to all the Wifi appliances; and that Amazon idea will simply be used as a business model on the tablets we will carry around to read, be informed and entertained?

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 7, 2007 05:04 AM

Honestly, I'm stunned that you could stand up and say this as if it were in any way a surprise - and particularly stunned that you could argue that the Web 2.0 rhetoric constraints innovation by focusing people on the browser! I don't see any indications of that at all.

I look at Flickr and I see that Web 2.0 has always included uploader applications, Aperture plug-ins, data that lies outside the individual website to be used on other people's sites, phone clients for both updating and accessing information. I look at OSX widgets and iPhone applications and Netvibes and I see that data from these sites is designed to express itself everywhere. I look at Last.fm and I see that one of the main ways people consume and influence the web is through a media player (the last.fm client) updated by iTunes. Twitter has mobile apps, SMS interfaces. Pownce has an AIR client. I could go on pretty much indefinitely.

Honestly, as pretty much anyone who had read any of the stuff about Web 2.0 including Tim O'Reilly's piece (and anything I've been saying at conferences for the last three years) could tell you, 'Web 2.0' isn't about websites as much as the websites are expressions of the data behind the scenes. They're really good interfaces for manipulating and dealing with information, for exploring it. That's clear in pretty much all the intelligent commentary for the last few years. Social software is a way to improve communication and collaboratively create data. This data along with all the other data that people are opening up is available everywhere, in any place the network reaches, and is designed to be hybridised with everything else, which makes it more powerful. People inputting their own information around that data, nuancing it either consciously or unconsciously with their ratings, tags, comments or behaviour adds another layer to what's available programmatically - a platform to build other things upon. That's the whole bloody point!

The only bit of the rhetoric that maybe is focused exclusively on the web is the improvement in web interfaces, which make it easier to create data sources and manipulate information. As the default interface to the data, and the data platform upon which everything else runs, that doesn't seem to me to be a total shock.

I would go as far as to argue that NONE of the Web 2.0 properties that you might talk about conform to that idea of the browser above all. Every one of them is designed to manifest outside the browser and many of the most successful do so most ardently - and that's even if you ignore simple expressions like RSS feeds.

The emergence into physical stuff is a natural step for all of these - or at least it would be a natural step if some of them hadn't already taken it. I'm thinking of iTunes and Flickr phone clients for a start and Apple TV.

I think the thing that annoys me most about your piece here is that it's the same rhetoric that you always take - that there's something inherently suspicious about all this weird utopian rhetoric of these mad futurist, self-important technologists - that somehow none of it really applies to the rest of the world, because those people are so detached from reality, and that finally they're all missing what's really important.

All of which would be rather more convincing if you weren't recapitulating what we've been saying for the last three years.

While I'm sure it helps promote you in the eyes of people with power and money to be suspicious and critical of new technology and set yourself up to be an impartial arbiter of what's happening, free of hype and applying real-world values (or however it is you sell this warmed over stuff), I'd argue that you're ultimately doing yourself a disservice. You just look ill-informed!

Posted by: Tom Coates [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2007 01:59 AM

Our industry has a long history of moving from the special-purpose device to the general. For example:
- Wang standalone word processor --> PCs
- Simple cell phone --> Windows Mobile/Palm
- Portable MP3 player --> iPod/Zune

The last two tracks are themselves converging, to a device far more powerful than the computers aboard Apollo spacecraft (or Wang word processors).

It won't be long before users complain, "If only my Kindle could check the weather, or click-through an ad in the NY Times, or get my EMail, or...."

Connecting the fridge to the 'Net to track incipient failures may be a standalone app. (Though even these simple ideas aren't easy; try installing an Internet-connected thermostat, a device that does exist today.) But the moment you put a screen on it and make it interactive, it will inexorably, I believe, tend toward a general purpose computer.

Posted by: George Geist [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2007 03:25 PM


I apologize for annoying you, but I think you're missing my (fairly simple) point, which is that entrepreneurial activity in the "Web 2.0" still manifests itself largely through the creation of sites. (This observation has nothing to do with the means by which those sites are created and maintained and the behind-the-scenes data flows, which you do a good job of describing). If you ask Joe Blow what Web 2.0 is about, he'll talk about social production and point to sites like Facebook and Flickr and Wikipedia etc. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but in conceiving of the net as being about web destinations (from the user's or customer's view, not the designer's) you put blinders on entrepreneurs and their funders. Once you begin to think of the net as a World Wide Computer that can be integrated into and consumer good or appliance, you greatly expand the field of innovation.

Also, to do my part to reduce ambiguity and reader annoyance, I've made a small change in the post to make my point clearer. What used to read:

The problem with "Web 2.0," as a concept, is ...

now reads:

The problem with "Web 2.0," as the concept is commonly understood, is ...


Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2007 08:58 AM

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