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At a press conference held at the Morgan Library in New York City this morning, Amazon announced a new version of its Kindle electronic reading device. While the new device offers important improvements over the original Kindle, it is most significant as a sign of Amazon’s ambitions to dominate the transition from printed books to electronic ones.

The Kindle 2’s biggest new feature is text to speech, powered by software from Nuance. The device can read a book aloud to a user, and is designed to make it easy to switch between reading and listening. At Monday’s launch event, Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, demonstrated this technology by having the Kindle read from the Gettysburg Address. The device betrayed the stilted speech that is characteristic of most text-to-speech software, but nonetheless pronounced the words clearly and accurately.

Most of the other changes to the Kindle are improvements designed to further its ability to “disappear” while the user is reading, as Bezos put it. At just under a centimeter thick, the device is smaller; is, at 300 grams, slightly lighter than the previous version; and turns pages 20 percent faster, Bezos said. The e-ink technology powering its screen is also a newer generation, displaying sixteen shades of gray rather than four. And the Kindle 2 has enough storage space for 1,500 books instead of just a few hundred. The Kindle 2 will sell for $359 and, as with the first Kindle, will come with free wireless access to Amazon’s store.

While these updates may be welcomed by prospective users, the Kindle 2 is most significant as part of a strategy that Amazon is developing to deal with the anticipated shift away from the printed word.

Amid signs that the market for electronic books is finally gaining momentum, Amazon could face stiff competition not only from other electronic reading devices, such as Sony’s e-Reader, but also from increasingly capable smart phones and other portable Internet devices.

For example, last week, Google announced that it had reformatted more than 1.5 million books for reading on iPhones and Android phones. Although Google’s offering currently consists of only public-domain books, Frances Haugen, product manager for Google Book Search, says that the company intends to work with partners to offer new books as well.

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Credit: Amazon

Tagged: Computing, Business, Amazon, Amazon.com, e-books, e-ink, text-to-speech, electronic reader, electronic book

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