Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Amazon's Kindle -- harrumph.

I've been pumped to buy an Amazon Kindle, or whatever the state-of-the-art ebook reader turns out to be once the publishing and technology dust settles. But stories like this one in today's New York Times make me wonder: is the technology going to enhance our enjoyment of books and other things in print, or will it just be another source of irritation?

It turns out that the Kindle, which has that text-to-voice feature, doesn't know how to pronounce the name of the United States president. It's also not clear about how to pronounce the name of Boston's basketball team (it's thinking "Celtics," with a hard C, instead of "Celtics," with a soft C).

Speaking of irritants: Look, if I want to mispronounce words, I can do it on my own. I don't need the help of an ebook reader. I accept the fact that my Garmin GPS unit, which also is equipped with that text-to-voice feature, can't articulate street names as clearly as I'd like. But, then, I use my GPS unit to do that which I cannot -- namely, to (usually) get me from point A to point B without taking me through the Amazon rainforest. But reading? I've been doing that for myself since I was about five years old. And, as long as my eyesight holds out, I expect I'll be doing it for myself as long as I live. So, if the Kindle (or any ebook reader) is going to lend an electronic voice to the conversation, it has to do a better job than to decide that "Barack" rhymes with "black" and "Obama" rhymes with "Alabama." If there's a person or place in the news and I'm seriously concerned about mispronouncing it -- and if my radio and my television set break simultaneously, and I don't have access to a computer -- then I can see asking the Kindle to tell me how to pronounce, say, Thomas Cholmondeley or Abu Ghraib. If the voice-to-text technology is going to help me get lost in the linguistic equivalent of the Amazon rainforest, then I don't need it.

And I'm not sure I'd be excited about paying for that which I don't need.

So fix the technology, Amazon (and other ebook vendors), or you're just giving this book publicist an excuse to sit on the sidelines of the emerging technology for an even longer period of time. I'm excited about the new technology . . . now you just have to show me that the whole package really works, and you'll have yourself a new customer.

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