Hacker Runs Ubuntu Linux on Amazon's Kindle 2

Amazon’s Kindle family of e-book readers has changed the game on e-books and e-book distribution, by making an intuitive, easy to use e-paper reader into a mass-market publishing platform. Books are now sold on many websites as “Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle”, referencing the format of the book’s publication in varying editions. Now, a hacker has put a variation of Linux on a Kindle 2, raising the question as to what Amazon might do to enhance the device’s range of operative capabilities.

Other e-book readers using e-paper displays are now on the market, and Sony has created a touch-enabled e-paper display, in collaboration with e-Ink, the same firm that produces Amazon’s Kindle monitors. But the Kindle, in part due to the book-publishing focus of its designers and marketers —the device is meant to be as much like reading a book (meaning you don’t search Google on the same page, just because someone whispered something in your ear while you were reading)—, is the paradigm marker.

There is a clear vested interest in not turning the Kindle into a mobile computing platform, because that would make free reading widely available and possibly further undermine Amazon’s sales of hard-copy text, something the Kindle is meant to counter. But Sony’s Reader devices will now make available community library texts and Google Books free copies, and Apple’s iPhone and anticipated touchscreen tablet will put pressure on Amazon to make the Kindle more dynamic and web-ready.

With a hacker successfully running Ubuntu Linux on a Kindle 2, there is an experimental precedent that could lead to new product directions for the Kindle family of devices. Amazon is already experimenting with a very rudimentary web browser, best for text-only viewing, which could benefit from significant optimization in terms of processing power and speed, as well as coordination with web-site and coding designers to make more websites instantly and comfortably text-only.

Privileging text is something the Kindle is designed to do, but making its relationship with non-Kindle media more dynamic, so that the text-first platform Amazon is aiming for can capitalize on the power of the information age. Not aiming for at least that level of interactivity seems, at this point, a bad choice for Amazon.

One blog commenter called the Ubuntu hack for the Kindle “Probably the lowest power netbook in the world”. The comment is telling, because it points out a very important fact of the Kindle paradigm: the e-paper monitor, because it does not require backlighting to operate, only needs power to change what it displays, not to display content, and consumers are aware of this benefit, because it both reduces energy consumption and extends battery life.

E-paper is fundamentally different from LCD and plasma monitors, far less energy intensive, and has its own appeal for a wide range of consumers and industry interests. Creating a fully functional e-paper netbook or handheld computer could be a major breakthrough not only for the device’s producer, but for the direction of publishing and communications technologies.

There is interest, for instance, in using low-energy e-paper to redirect processing power and achieve dramatically higher processing speeds for major computing and web functions (at least where video is not part of the function). Amazon may be ideally positioned to test the ability of e-paper devices to function across computational and web-communications platforms for most communicative functions.

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