This is off-topic, but I just struck myself with a couple of simple ideas related to the Amazon Kindle. I'm sure you know, but just in case, go look at the Kindle, it's an interesting device that uses "E-Ink" to make it's display look a lot like an actual printed page. It connects wirelessly to a cell phone network to download books from Amazon, or I think it can be connected and synced with a library on a computer, or something like that. The important thing is that it's a small, lightweight device that can (apparently) successfully mimic the experience of reading a page from a physical book, magazine, or newspaper. People have responded pretty well to it, and today I noticed that Amazon has had supply issues because of the large demand. Great, but I'm not trying to advertise this device, which I've never even held in my hands, but really I'm trying to make the case that there is such a device and that it isn't horrible. Many people complain about reading text from monitors of any kind, TVs, computers, iPods/iPhones, etc, and that is why they always print things and carry around books and papers and such. The early success of Kindle shows there's a chance these people could be satisfied with a similar device, at least to some extent. This leads me to some obvious observations about the potential for such devices.
Go to a high school, or better yet, just go across the street from a high school when classes let out and students start pouring out from the school. Yes, you will probably be put on some kind of list with the local law enforcement, but do it anyway. You will see that kids are loaded with gigantic backpacks, hanging improperly from their shoulders. This was an issue when I was in school, and I've seen it recently enough that I know it still is. It isn't just teenage garbage that fills those packs, there are a bunch of heavy textbooks. In my days, I know that I often had to leave some books at school or home because I couldn't fit all my books in my bag every day; there are injuries due to heavy bags, which is just stupid. Many times, students take home textbooks just for a few pages, either of reading or homework assignments. Wouldn't it be convenient if they carried one "book" with them that had all their course material at the ready? A Kindle-like device would be perfect for this.
An added bonus is that if publishers work with the content provider (e.g., Amazon), then new editions of books, or supplements, or any number of extras could be provided to under-funded schools and students at minimal costs. Once the burden of putting ink to paper (incurring costs related to ink, paper, layout of presses, binding, packing, shipping, etc) is removed, the cost of materials drops dramatically. At higher education levels, this is even better, since small, esoteric books are really expensive, and authors don't make any money from them anyway, this could take the cost of such books to the floor, and college students, grad students, and professional researchers could actually afford to buy the books that are most useful to them (do you hear the frustration?). If you don't know what I'm writing about, go look at technical books in just about any field, for example, Cloud Dynamics by Houze costs $80+ on Amazon, which is a graduate/researcher level book that is really useful to a relatively small number of people. If we could just download it to our digital library, the cost SHOULD be dramatically reduced while still preserving the publisher's profit and the royalties that Houze gets (which I bet isn't much).
It would also be possible to self-publish under this model, so instructors could upload their class notes to some service which would make the download available to students. This might hurt copy stores, who make a lot of money by selling over-priced readers to students, but would be great for instructors and students.
Similarly, scholarly journals could use this distribution model very easily. They already have online subscription models, by which most people now go to a web site, find the article of interest and download the pdf of the article, which is then read on-screen or printed. This would be a natural extension of that model, and would reduce printing costs and wasted paper.
What needs to be done to make a Kindle-like device actually work for these educational and scholarly purposes? Very little. One potential gotcha is that the current E-Ink technology used in the Kindle does not allow color. This presents serious limitations compared to having a regular pdf or a printed book. This is especially true for high school and lower-level textbooks, which regularly rely on "creative" layout and color to "draw the student in." There is electronic paper with color already developed, however, so this might not be a deal-breaker (example).
The other technology-related speed bump is speed. One of the criticisms of the Kindle, and E-Ink in general, is that it is slow to render pages. I imagine the problem would be worse with graphics-heavy, color-intensive pages, so quick flipping back and forth would be a problem. And as we know, when doing homework or research, there are often periods of intense page flipping, searching for some specific passage or re-reading something that didn't register the first time. There are myriad potential solutions, from having a little screen-space for "saving" passages or efficient built-in searching, to more dramatic changes in E-Ink.
Other problems are design of the device, which would probably require different models catering to grade-school, high school, college, and professionals. No problem. Then there's the potential problem of getting publishers to embrace this model. They're apparently onboard with Kindle, Amazon offered 80,000+ titles when the Kindle was released, but it might be more difficult for the small publishing houses to deal with such a dramatic change in distribution. I don't know enough about publishing to really have a good guess, but we know the music and movie industries have basically freaked out and tried to avoid moving into a digital distribution framework. And then there is the cost of these devices, and how to widely distribute them to schools already strapped for cash. You can imagine the nightmare scenarios.
So at the end, I don't think any of this is new, and I'm sure it has all been discussed much more elsewhere, but I'm suddenly enamored with the idea of carrying a single "book" wherever I go, having all the books I need, and being able to buy technical books for a fraction of the current cost. Maybe this is an idea that a company like Amazon could actually pursue, too, since they probably have enough sway to get a school district to do a test program by providing Kindles and the textbooks needed (except it doesn't address the color problem yet). It would also help to raise a generation of people who don't "need" to have paper in front of them to read.
Here's some ideas to improve the Kindle, though I think there's a conflict with some of these suggestions and the E-Ink interface. That E-Ink technology is not as versatile as a lot of bloggers think it is.
Ouch! Here's Scoble on the Kindle, and he's pretty unhappy about the lack of design. Watch the video, I think these are good points that need to be addressed in this commercial form of the product, but also for some future educational applications.
Another overview of the Kindle, with some of the same criticisms. Down in the comments, someone suggests Kindle Textbooks as a good option for this technology, so at least someone else has thought of this.
Here's a post that thinks Kindle has a chance at textbooks.
There's a thread on the Amazon site about college texts on Kindle. There seems to be support for this, but the publishers aren't yet on board. I really don't think it'll work unless you can buy a textbook for, say $25, as opposed to the paper versions for $50-150. The idea of automatic updates to new editions (maybe with some sanity limits) is so sweet for the consumer that it'd sell Kindles alone. The publishers lose out though, except I bet they could increase their profit margins to make up the difference.