Let's face it: as things stand now, it's hard to read Silman on the bus. Or in bed for that matter. (Every time my wife turns over, she makes a mosh pit of my analysis board.) Sure, if I have a nice diagram to start from, I can follow the main line in my head for a few moves... then there's an alternate line branching off... Ok, I can almost follow that. Now mentally reverse back to the last move in the main line.. Um, did that Bishop just move through a pawn?... Dammit..
Last week, in a move that threatens to put an end to all that, Amazon announced a developer's toolkit for the Kindle e-reader device. This opens the doors to a whole new measure of interactivity between user and content, which of course has been hitherto unnecessary (and irrelevant?) on a device that 1. is primarily about allowing readers to immerse themselves in static, mostly textual, content without needing annual eye transplants, and 2. consequently has a screen-refresh rate about on par with the solar-powered calculator I used in Grade 8.
In terms of technology, it's a case of "you win some, you lose some": The 'digital paper' or 'e-paper' used in the Kindle and other e-reader devices is incredibly legible and easy on the eyes; and once the screen has been drawn, the power required to maintain the display is negligible, making for lots of reading on a single battery charge. The price for that dedication (i.e. to doing a truly great job of representing the printed page) is some pretty heavy limitations on the growth of the e-reader as, for instance, a gaming platform. Forget Need for Speed; I wouldn't even want to try Tetris on one of these things.
Tony Bradley's PC World response to Amazon's move is understandably skeptical, particularly given his emphasis on a widely-held view that the new toolkit "seems like an aggressive move ... to preempt the rise of tablet PC's--like the Apple tablet PC expected to be announced by Apple next week." His thesis is pretty simple: Consumers don't buy e-readers to play Super Monkey Ball 2. Heck, because devices like the Kindle are so specialized (probably key to their success), it's reasonable to assume that their owners have already met their miscellaneous app-related needs on other platforms that are better-suited to the task. However, he does make one interesting concession:
"One reader in particular is pining for a chess app. I have to admit that a chess app certainly seems apropos for an e-reader device like the Kindle. Certainly, much more fitting than say one of the vast variety of fart noise apps available for the iPhone..."
I don't know.. Maybe it's the impending Apple announcement, but I think people are getting mired in what has been (and will continue to be) an apples/oranges comparison. As a result, they are perhaps missing the point of what makes Amazon's toolkit so exciting. Personally, even as a chess & tech enthusiast, I'm certainly not slavering for yet another platform on which to play against an engine (or a remote human for that matter).
On the contrary, Amazon's announcement excites me because of its potential to transform and extend its singular use-case: the act of reading.
Take a book from Silman, for example--How to Reassess Your Chess, let's say. Wouldn't it be fantastic if "Diagram 126" allowed me to visually step through the analysis in the text, and maybe even break out into an experimental side-line of my own?
And that's just one application... There's lots of informative possibilities and sheer fun to be had with a slow-refreshing, largely text- and picture-based medium. If I'm reading the paper, why shouldn't the stock information be updated in near real-time? Even the headlines could change and the stories be updated (subject of course to my opting to refresh them). If the paper has a daily Sudoku problem, why not actually do it on screen? Chess problems? Of course!! There also seem to be interesting possibilities here for text-book publication, especially perhaps at lower grades where work-book activities could be integrated into the matrix of instructive text and diagrams.
On the purely recreational side, how about a little hypertext mystery fiction, wherein the reader herself must help solve the case.. Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books ("If you want to hit the zombie in the head with a shovel, turn to page 32.")? Remember Zork?
As anxious as I am to see the new Apple tablet this week (and I'm going with "iPad," by the way), I'm still pretty stoked at the news from Amazon--in large part because I don't see a greater degree of user interactivity, in itself, as tantamount to an e-reader/tablet-PC convergence. (Give us ultra-fast full-colour digital paper first, and we'll talk.) In the meantime, when trying to guess what designers and developers will do with this toolkit, I think it's vital to think outside the App Store--and hope the developers do likewise.