February 24, 2009

An ode to the Kindle

Like many avid readers, I have strong feelings about the experience of reading a book and the idea of reading on a black and white electronic device has always seemed very odd to me. No color cover? No more "new book smell" or the feeling of holding a book? No more additions to my bookshelves when I'm done? No more... uh... mmmh... that's all I can think of, really.

This is what went through my head when the Kindle 1 was announced, over a year ago. The idea sounded vaguely intriguing, but also clearly sacrilegious for someone like me who's been fascinated by books since I was a little kid. I took a look at the early Kindle reviews and at the device itself and I dismissed it. It was not for me, and while the technology was promising, I was sure that it would take at least another five years before anything technologically credible came on the radar. I wasn't ready to let go of my paper books yet.

The announcement of the Kindle 2 a few weeks ago made me go through the same questions again, and this time, the answers surprised me. Without even realizing it, I was strangely more open to the idea of reading on a clunky-looking black and white device. This was really puzzling since while all the early reviews praise the Kindle 2, everybody agrees that it is a minor upgrade over the first version. More like a Kindle 1.1.

But despite this fact, not only did everybody already seem to like the new device, they also raved about how they liked their Kindle 1. A lot of Kindle 1 users even said they had already pre-ordered the new version, despite the steep price ($359, same as the Kindle 1 when it came out) and the fact that it was just a minor upgrade. While the sales of the Kindle 1 are believed to be decent but modest (betweeen 400k and 600k according to unofficial sources), the device has certainly created a niche of fans who just couldn't consider their reading world without the Kindle incorporated in it.

Interestingly, all of them say that they are still reading paper books, so it's more about enhancing their experience than completely revolutionizing it. You read as many books on the Kindle as you can, but you use paper books for the rest.

Thus began my slow mental conversion to a world of electronic words. Over the past few weeks, I started to think about what it would be like to have a Kindle, and as the days went by, I realized how many strong points the Kindle offers. So many more than I initially thought. So two weeks ago, I ordered one. Amazon informed me that it shipped today and I just can't wait to receive it.

Here are some of the strongs points I found about the Kindle these past weeks, in no particular order.

  • Search
  • I tend to read fiction books most of the time, and I particularly enjoy complex plots. The downside of such books is that you need to pay attention to every page you read or you might miss essential parts of the story. The other night, I came acros the mention of a character that had been introduced briefly about fifty pages earlier, but I just couldn't remember who that person was. I have grown used to this kind of limitation in regular books and I just read on, hoping that the context will refresh my memory about who this character or what this event is. The Kindle's ability to search through my books will certainly allow me to fill in these blanks. Of course, this applies to non-fiction books as well in case the index doesn't cover that particularly subject that you want a quick refresher about.

  • Folding and breaking
  • I usually take a book with me for lunch. Unfortunately, very few books lend themselves to table reading, so I usually limit myself to magazines that I can fold so that they will hold steady on the table while I eat. It's just not practical to bring a novel with me since I'll need one of my hands to keep it open while I eat. The Kindle doesn't suffer from this limitation.

  • Newspapers in a readable form
  • I enjoy taking newspapers on long car trips to break the monotony and do some out loud reading for everyone in the car to enjoy (and also to spark conversations). Unfortunately, I don't always remember to buy them when we stop, and newspapers are just hard to handle overall, especially in a car. Not so with the Kindle, since you can download them on the road. However, it looks like paper subscriptions can only be purchased monthly, which wouldn't work for me. I hope that the Kindle will allow me to buy individually pieces of newspaper soon.

  • Dictionary
  • I have always loved words, whether they are in my native language (French) or my current one (English). I just can't bear the idea of reading a word and not knowing exactly what it means. Inferring its meaning from the context is just not enough to me. I usually use my trusted G1 to look up new words, but I already know I will be using the instant access to the Kindle dictionary quite a bit.

  • Saving space and trees
  • I have to say that I really enjoy having shelves lined up with hundreds of books. They are part of my history, a lot of them are associated with great memories. Unfortunately, most of the books I read are easily forgettable and after a little while, the space they occupy becomes a concern. As a matter of fact, a lot of the books I read five or ten years ago are stored in cardboard boxes that I don't even bother opening when I move. While the sentimental part of me laments the fact that these shelves are going to fill up much more slowly with a Kindle in the house, the practical me is quite excited at the idea of using this space for better purposes.

  • Price
  • Kindle books are cheaper. I usually make a point of never buying hardcovers because my book queue is usually always filled with titles and there is very little reason for me to pay a premium for a book that I will probably only get around to reading in a few months from now, so when I notice a new book that I want to read, I set a reminder to buy it in paperback in my calendar in six months from now and I forget about it. With both hardcover and paperback cheaper in their electronic form, not only will I be saving some money, but I will probably be tempted to read current books more.

  • Weight
  • I am currently reading Godel, Escher and Bach (832 pages) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (624 pages). I usually carry at least one of those in my back pack when I go to work, so I can read it on the shuttle. It may not seem like much, but the weight adds up, and carrying a Kindle instead will certainly a big relief for my back.

  • Immediate download
  • As I mentioned above, this is probably not a very strong argument since the urge to own a book "right now" does not strike me very often, but this ability will certainly develop over time, at least for newspapers and maybe for more books.
Of course, not everything is rosy in the Kindle world and there is a lot of room of improvement. Some of the points that I already know will probably bug me a bit are:

  • No color
  • Not a huge deal for me at this point, but I certainly hope that the e-ink (or other) technology will improve over the next few years so that it becomes possible to display full color graphics.

  • Clunkiness
  • Even the Kindle's most ardent supporters admit that the device doesn't look very good. On top of its clunky look, the Kindle has come under criticism for dedicating so much space to a keyboard, which represents such a minority in use compared to just reading. I am guessing the keyboard is made necessary by the fact that e-ink is not a touch screen technology, but I'm hopeful that we will be able to get the best of both worlds in a few years.

  • Steep price
  • $359 is a lot of money. While you do recoup some of it by buying books cheaper, this price stills puts the Kindle out of reach for many potential users.
As you can see, I am very much looking forward to receiving my Kindle 2 and I'm curious to see if it will live up to my wild expectations.

Posted by cedric at February 24, 2009 08:42 AM

Comments

I'm looking forward to your review. :) I'm on the fence myself but I'm kinda leaning that way. The folding thing is a great point. I've recently "discovered" graphic novels so the no color thing is kinda disappointing but at least those will fold open most of the time. :)

Posted by: Justin Lee at February 24, 2009 08:55 AM

I think you've overlooked something that I've just rediscovered: the library. What I really like about the library is that it makes it trivially easy to "test drive" authors for free. For example, I recently discovered David Gemmell, who writes these ancient Greece historical novels which are amazing. For me, the library is only for recreational reading (as opposed to technical programmer reading). Which turns out to be good because there are only a very small percentage of recreational reading books that I want to re-read later on (e.g., Farley Mowat's Grey Seas Under is great during wintery stormy weather).

Posted by: lumpynose at February 24, 2009 10:27 AM

Also have a look at

ncdl.lib.overdrive.com/AE6B1F16-8B22-4981-9881-A148C63AA5B1/10/246/en/Default.htm

(Why the wierd url?)

Posted by: lumpynose at February 24, 2009 10:31 AM

Ceric,

After reading your post I got the impression that you were not aware of other e-book readers available on the market.

Take Sony PRS-505, for example ( www.sonystyle.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?catalogId=10551&storeId=10151&langId=-1&productId=8198552921665245740 )

I bought a bunch of those for my friends in Russia, and it's considered one of the best (if not THE best) readers there - truly indispensable on those long subway rides.

I haven't actually held a Kindle, but the Sony reader is light-weight, small, slick, and the screen quality is amazing.

please don't consider this to be an advertisement for Sony - just a personal opinion.

Posted by: Dmitriy Volk at February 24, 2009 01:46 PM

Hi Dmitriy,

I'm well aware of the Sony e-reader and I looked at it as well. The problem I have with it is that I have to hook it up to my PC to get new books, and considering that I buy 99% of my books from Amazon, the Kindle has a big leg up over it.

What finally convinced me that my office mate has a Sony reader and he ordered a Kindle 2 :-)

Posted by: Cedric at February 24, 2009 05:57 PM

Ah, that's interesting. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't sell a lot of Russian books, so for me and my friends it's important to be able to load books from any source, plus, of course, the ability to update the firmware to display Cyrillic properly.

Sorry I unintentionally misspelled your name, BTW

Posted by: Dmitriy Volk at February 24, 2009 06:10 PM

I'm the office mate and I indeed just ordered a Kindle 2 to replace my Sony Reader. I was quite happy with the Sony product, especially in terms of size and design, but their books store is really not that great (unless, apparently, you are into romance novels), requires Windows (Mac/Linux alternatives suck), the PDF support is a joke and it's slow. That said, it's a great device that I really enjoyed so far.

Posted by: Romain Guy at February 24, 2009 08:07 PM

Looking forward to hearing you review of the Kindle. In the meantime, I figured you would like to see what the insides of your new toy look like.

www.boygeniusreport.com/2009/02/25/kindle-2-teardown-reveals-some-surprising-surprises/

Posted by: Rob Kedoin at February 25, 2009 08:48 AM

I have the Sony reader. I bought it mostly to read PDF files and it does not do a good job of it. The Kindle is interesting to me.

Does it work well with PDF? As Romain mentioned, the Sony reader does not work well with PDF.

Posted by: Rick Hightower at February 26, 2009 09:24 AM

I have strong feelings about the experience of having to scroll horizontally in order to read a blog post.

Posted by: Erik at February 26, 2009 03:11 PM

Well, welcome to the club. However, I suggest a better device than the Kindle, that you already have: I have been reading lots of books on my ... PSA/smartphone for years (I started with my psion 5 many years ago). It has the same advantages of the kindle but it is free (you already have it), it has backlight (you can read at night), and you always have it with you! (I can read in the supermarket cas-hier queue). Note that smartphones with a scroll wheel (like the p1i) offer a much greater user experience. The size is smaller, of course, (but it much lighter) so the experience is more like reading a newspaper column than a page book. But I read "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" on it, which is no small feat considering the size of the book and the huge footnotes...
It does not work well with pictures or samples of code, but I guess for this a netbook could be a better solution anyways.

Posted by: Colas Nahaboo at February 26, 2009 03:17 PM

Sorry, but reading on a PDA/Smartphone is worse in many ways. The battery will run out very quickly, you can't read it well in the sun, the screen is even smaller than the Kindle's (which I think is already a bit small), there is no support for any of the features that I described in the post (search, bookmarking, notes, etc...). I could possibly see the point in an Android Kindle application, but even so, all the restrictions above would probably make me use it less than a Kindle.

Besides, how do you get newly released books? You can't. You have to pirate them. Sorry, but I buy my books.

Posted by: Cedric at February 26, 2009 05:49 PM

Cedric... with a reader like mobipocket which I currently use, you get search, notes bookmarks, dictionaries. You can read a smartphone in daylight, just turn off the backlighting, try it (did this during a 4 hours train ride). And having only one battery to take care of is easier (you can recharge on USB or alkalines). I admit that Windows-based PDA/phones are horrible, but others have excellent battery life and ergonomics (again, you should try the analogic scroll wheel to scroll pages, it allows a non-disruptive reading flow and a one-hand operation).

PS: Sorry, but I will never buy DRM-crippled material anyways. For ebooks I liked, I buy the paper version so that I can lend them to friends, just as I would have done before ebooks. And, anyways, most of the recent books I read were not available on the kindle, as they were from French authors. Also, you know, the kindle channel is not the only source of legit ebooks...

Posted by: Colas Nahaboo at February 27, 2009 06:03 AM

The main disadvantage of this device is DRM - Digital Restrictions Management.

You don't own the books you buy, you can't l_o_a_n a "book" to your friend when you're not using it, and when one day the provider decides to change the terms of (or discontinue) the service you may end up with nothing. Just like it happened several times before with DRM-restricted M_P_3s.

It'd be be pretty dumb not to understand this.

Posted by: DRM sucks at February 27, 2009 09:39 AM

I understand the DRM restrictions perfectly, they just don't bother me that much. I don't l_oan books that often and if I want to share a book, I'll just buy it to that person and give it to them as a gift. Note that it's also possible to share Kindle accounts, so that's another way to do it.

I have found that most people who pirate books/software/whatever in the name of freedom and claim that they would buy them if they were chea_per or DRM free are hypocrites. They just pirate because they can do it in all impunity but their shiny principles about fair pricing would go out of the window if the downloads could be traced to their home.

DRM doesn't suck, it's just certain forms of it that do, but it's sad that you can't understand that something like DRM is necessary in order for the industry to exist at all.

Another example of DRM that I find reasonable is Steam, but I'm pretty sure that it's unacceptable to you as well.

Posted by: Cedric at February 27, 2009 09:56 AM

I simply thought it was disingenuous, if not outright misleading, not to mention DRM as a disadvantage. Here's why:

A regular book can last you a lifetime. How long will your DRM-restricted copy last? How will you read your "books" when your device breaks? What happens to your "books" when Amazon find the service unprofitable and discontinues it? What happens if you want to read your "books" on another (better and c_heaper) device that competes with Amazon's?

This device is an attempt to kill the second-hand book market and, at the same time, to give the suckers an opportunity to buy DRM-restricted copies almost at the price of regular books. It's also great for implementing an Orwellian type propaganda machine: next time you read your "book" you may actually be reading a different version of it, with certain parts changed/censored out.

As for your "I have found that most people... DRM is necessary in order for the industry to exist at all", you can pile up as many fallacies and anecdotal evidence as you want, it'll still make a poor argument.

Posted by: DRM sucks at February 27, 2009 03:42 PM

www.macworld.co.uk/mac/news/index.cfm?newsid=24331

You may want to take a look at the Asus Eee T91 since you're such a gadget geek :)

Posted by: Frank Bolander at March 3, 2009 11:00 AM
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