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As the Amazon Kindle brand approaches its fifth birthday, it seems a good time to assess its place as the guiding force in the e-reading movement.

Nobody can question the scope of Amazon’s achievement. Kindle was the tip of the spear in a full frontal assault on five centuries of reading tradition. Even more, the company opened the door to millions of frustrated aspiring authors. The gate-keepers were overrun. Eighteen months ago, we could still hear the voices of the old guard whispering about making a stand, putting down the insurrection, protecting their print aristocracy. The peasants were revolting!

We hear much less of that today. Traditional publishers have calmed down to the realization that they can survive, even thrive—if they’re smart; if they’re open to brand new paradigms in every area of their field.

When Jeff Bezos first announced the Kindle, he clearly understood what the device meant for the future of reading. The pundits scoffed, but many of us looked up from our Palm Pilots with hungry eyes. We picked up on Bezos’ passion and vision for a new way forward.

Bezos was quickly vindicated. Kindle 1 was a rough tool, but a successful one. Amazon’s customer clout (and the slow reaction of its competitors) bought the necessary time to build the little machine into a truly wonderful reading device. We all fell in love again with reading. Kindle enthusiasts awaited new firmware updates like tots on Christmas morning: new fonts; the ability to organize books into “collections;” real page numbers.

Then Amazon upped the ante. Bezos introduced the Fire, a backlit tablet at a friendly price. Sales predictably soared. It mattered little that the device had its share of bugs—just wait for the firmware! The firmware never lets us down.

Except the updates haven’t come—not too frequently. The weakest app on the Fire seems to be, of all things, its Android reading app. I’ve used two Fires, each with weird problems, such as displaying the cloud library. And for some reason, Amazon has failed to provide the little amenities that helped round out the e-ink Kindles. There is still no collection feature. No page numbers. No universal search.

I always understood the intention of providing an entry-level tablet at the lowest cost, but I figured video and web browsing would be the weaknesses. I expected the reading part of the Fire to sparkle; it bore the Kindle name. I’ve stopped looking for firmware upgrades. Amazon seems more interested in rolling out the next generation of Fires and Touches; putting ads on the displays; renting videos.

These moves are good business, and we’d expect them of Amazon. But when I remember Bezos’s early vision of transforming the reading experience, it’s a little sad to see Amazon becoming just another clamoring brand in the gadget-verse. I hope the company won’t abandon the pursuit of pure, enhanced reading. My Fire is nice, but the K3 is still my go-to advice again—because of the great enhancements they were still adding roughly a year ago. I hope Bezos won’t forget that kindling a fire is only the first step; you have to stoke the flame every now and then.

—Rob Suggs

 
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