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Amazon yesterday launched a $399 electronic black-and-white e-reader called “Kindle” that can quickly download books and customized versions of newspapers, magazines and blogs over a limited-use free EVDO network. Seven newspapers are included in the first batch of content: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Atlanta Journal Constitution and San Jose Mercury News.

Subscriptions are generally $5.99 a month, with The WSJ priced at $9.99 and The New York Times at $13.99. Daily editions are kept for up to seven days. Books are generally priced at $9.95. There is also a selection of blogs to subscribe to for 95 cents a month and up. You can also e-mail MS Office files to yourself, or anything else, for 10 cents a pop, but Amazon is not playing up the always-on network capabilities beyond the fact that it isn’t Wi-Fi and its spotty reception.

The difference between Amazon’s reader and previous electronic editions from Olive Software and others is this one is expressly designed for portability. The downside is that it is in B&W and doesn’t readily enable rich advertising or multimedia. It is telling that Olive enabled these extras, but never caught on: People didn’t want to pay extra to be tethered to their PC (or apparently, for any other reason).

Reading a paper on the Kindle is probably better than reading headlines on a cellphone, but not as good as reading the fully graphical online edition on an iPhone. Still, it makes you think how far newspapers have come in the past five years or so. I might like it on a commuter train, where Wi-Fi isn’t readily available and space is tight. More than 200 testers for Amazon have left reviews of their experience on the Amazon site, and they are generally positive. Of course, they weren’t paying for the subscriptions, or the device, which is the price of a low-end laptop.

Will there ever be a reader that makes a newspaper palatable and profitable? For more than 20 years, newspaper companies have spent tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, trying to develop an ideal device. Microsoft has also been in the game, forming a partnership with several newspapers for its tablet devices. Since Vista’s launch, the tablet has become more realistic because it doesn’t require so much software downloading. But it is unlikely there are many users for it.

I like the idea of Kindle, and I hope Amazon gets around to sending me a review copy. But I bet Kindle won’t really catch on as a newspaper reading device. And its inability to support advertising makes it nothing but a premium news product. Some people will try it out, but if any of the local papers have more than 300 subscribers a few months down the line, I’d be surprised.

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