First Click: The Kindle Oasis is a cork in a desert of screwcaps

April 14th, 2016


I don’t think I’ll be picking up the new Kindle Oasis, Amazon’s latest top-end e-reader; upgrading to my beloved Voyage from a Paperwhite was decadent enough, and the $289.99 price tag on the Oasis is something else entirely. But I do appreciate that it exists. Amazon has made some interesting design decisions with the Oasis, enough to make it a refreshing cork in a desert of screwcap gadgets.

Winemakers agree at this point that you don’t lose anything tangible by using a screwcap. Unlike corks, screwcaps provide a perfect seal, they’re easy to put back on, and there’s no chance of the wine getting spoiled through cork taint. They’re also a lot cheaper to produce. But there’s something about corks that makes winemakers and drinkers alike want to keep them alive. They’ve been used for hundreds of years, and that little ritual of popping the bottle open still carries a hint of romance. For countless people, twisting a cheap piece of metal off just won’t ever capture that.

There are corks in the tech industry, too, among others. The physical keyboard on the BlackBerry Priv won’t be any faster than a touchscreen for most people, but the satisfying tactile response has an appeal that goes beyond a spec sheet. Electronic camera viewfinders are now more versatile than optical units, but DSLR shooters prefer the latter because it’s more pleasant to look at natural light than to peer through a tunnel at a screen. And many drivers, myself included, will always prefer a car with a manual-transmission gearbox for no other reason than the heightened sense of connection to the vehicle.

Some of these corks do have technical advantages of their own, but they aren't the main reason why they stick around. Instead, corks continue to be relevant because they offer a familiar touch of tactile, natural delight for those who don’t want to move to screwcaps. And make no mistake, screwcaps are the dominant force in just about any industry these days; the canonical example is the world-changing iPhone, where the guiding design philosophy was to shave off as much as possible in service to what’s happening behind the glass.

The paper-like, reflective E Ink screens that Amazon uses in its Kindle e-readers aren’t quite corks — books themselves are corks, whereas Kindles until now have acted like pure gadgets. But E Ink can be used like a synthetic cork, aiming to offer the physical benefits of an older product while maintaining the technological advantages of the digital age. You can’t watch YouTube on a Kindle e-reader, sure, but you can’t really read a book at the beach with an iPad.

And the Kindle Oasis is Amazon’s most cork-like product ever. Not only does it come with one of three leather battery covers that emulate the feeling of a book, the entire product was designed around them. Amazon’s industrial design director Marc Walliser tells The Verge that the company wanted to offer "more of a paper-like instead of tech experience," giving the leather cover "a lot of personality and emotion." The Oasis is thicker on one side than the other, which helps with one-handed reading and also lets the cover fill in to create an even whole; the device also brings back honest-to-goodness page-turning buttons. Although battery life and screen brightness have both been improved, those aren’t big issues on cheaper models any more. Instead, the reasons why one would buy the Oasis over a Voyage or Paperwhite are almost entirely subjective. That’s why it’s a cork.

I have almost no complaints about my Kindle Voyage; it does everything I want it to. But even with its E Ink screen, it’s a cold, digital screwcap, which is a problem for Amazon when you think of how much better the iPad is at being a screwcap — most would disagree with me that the Voyage is worth the price. So consider that the whole reason for dedicated Kindle e-readers to exist at this point is to recreate the reading experience with digital convenience for book lovers, and the Oasis starts to make a lot more sense. Amazon is building on its existing strengths and targeting high-value customers that are willing to pay, which makes the Kindle Oasis its most convincing step yet into the world of corks.

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