I’ve been waiting roughly 10 years for a good eBook reader. In fact, I’ve even tried several times to make them myself out of ultra-mobile PCs, tablet PCs, various Linux-based devices, phones, and old disused laptops. Once I accepted that I would probably never come up with a solution that I could stick with for more than a few days, I started eyeing technology from Sony and Seiko. And then just as I came to the conclusion that the world simply wasn’t ready for eBooks yet, Amazon launched the Kindle. I had one in my cart and scheduled for next day delivery before I even fully knew what it was.
The Kindle is Amazon’s new wireless reading device. Interestingly, they don’t call it an eBook reader. They use the term "wireless reading device" which is actually very accurate, and much more descriptive. All marketing and buzzwords aside, Kindle is a device for wirelessly downloading and reading eBooks, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. It uses electronic ink for a high-contrast and power-thrifty display, and it even hints at music and web browser functionality, as well.
I’ve only been using my Kindle for about four hours, and most of that time has been spent reading, but here’s what I have to report so far:
- The screen is nice. This is the first time I’ve seen electronic ink, and I’m impressed. The contrast is good, although not as good as pure white paper. It’s more like a newspaper which, for me, is sufficient. There’s no color, and since it renders in grayscale, images are not especially exciting. But purely for reading text, it gets the job done.
- The Kindle uses "free" EVDO from Sprint to deliver your content wireless. I put the term free in quotes because to me, it feels more like the cost is built in. Yes, Amazon is the one paying Sprint (the Kindle doesn’t require any type of data plan — it’s ready to go right out of the box), but it feels to me like the bandwidth costs are built into the content you download. This isn’t a criticism of Amazon, however. It’s much better than having to pay yet another monthly subscription fee.
- All the content you download is recorded on Amazon’s servers so if your Kindle is damaged or it needs to be replaced, you can easily re-download everything you purchased (even your annotations and bookmarks are backed up!). Since the storage capacity of the Kindle is limited (180MB of internal memory which they say will store about 200 book and newspaper files), you can even delete content from your Kindle, but re-download it again later for free (the iTunes Store could learn a thing or two from the Kindle). You can also use SD to expand the Kindle’s memory essentially infinitely.
- The processor in the Kindle is a bit pokey. At least, I assume it’s the processor that is responsible for the pause when you turn pages or type. It might also be that electronic ink takes a while to render. This is my first experience with electronic ink, so I have nothing to compare it to. Regardless, I don’t find the slight sluggish feel of the device to be a detractor (although I’m sure future versions will be noticeably faster). In fact, once you get into the rhythm of reading, you know to hit the "next page" button as you start the last line of text on the page so by the time you’ve read it and your eyes are back up at the top, the page has refreshed.
- I haven’t used it enough in the real world to comment on battery life yet. Amazon claims about a week of use with the wireless turned off, and with the wireless going, you’ll need to charge it approximately every other day. I’ll probably get in the habit of plugging it in at night so I never have to worry about it, and/or turning off the wireless if I don’t think I’m going to use it for a few days.
- The Kindle isn’t all about eBooks (hence the term "wireless reading device"). You can also download newspapers (11 newspapers are currently available, 8 in the US), magazines (8 are available), and blogs (307 are available). Periodicals are automatically delivered via EVDO as soon as they are available, so your newspaper is waiting for you in the morning, and new magazine issues hit your Kindle before they hit the newsstands. Kindle also has The New Oxford American Dictionary built in so you can quickly and relatively easily look up words you don’t know. Of course, you can also bookmark, annotate, highlight, and virtually dog-ear.
- If you dig deep enough, you’ll find that the Kindle also has a few other tricks up its sleeve. You can email Word, text, HTML, or image files to your Kindle (each Kindle account gets it own email address), and for 10¢, Amazon will convert them into a format your Kindle can render, and send them to your device. You can also do this yourself for free simply by connecting your Kindle to your computer via USB and copying your Word, text, HTML, or image files into the appropriate directories on your Kindle. PDF files are experimental which means they might partially work, and they will probably work better in the future after some firmware upgrades. You can also copy MP3s over and use your Kindle to play music (this feature is no doubt in preparation for selling audio books), and there’s even a built-in web browser that you can use to pull up a few sites. The speed is more than acceptable, but the rendering is poor enough that I think sites will have to be designed specifically for the Kindle to make them worth viewing.
- The Kindle has a built-in keyboard for things like searches and annotations. It looks kind of cheap, and feels kind of cheap, but I’ve found it to be surprisingly usable. In fact, after just a few words, I found I could type much faster than the Kindle could render, however input is buffered, so eventually it catches up.
- The scroll wheel (jog dial, as Sony calls it) makes navigating relatively easy, though it could use some texture. My finger often slides on it instead of spinning it. The next page, previous page, and back buttons are conveniently placed on the sides of the device, and they feel fairly robust, though I will try my best never to drop my Kindle. The one criticism I have of the button layout is that it’s hard to pick up or handle without hitting a button that navigates away from what you wanted to look at. Buttons cover so much of its surface that it almost feels booby-trapped.
- The Kindle’s navigation system is reasonably good, though it takes getting used to. The inclination is to scroll up or down to get at previous or next pages which doesn’t work (and rightly so — this is supposed to be a book!). And the back button doesn’t work like a browser’s back button. In other words, back doesn’t take you to the last page you looked at; rather it seems to take you to the last navigation juncture, or menu. Although this is confusing, once you understand how it works, it’s pretty efficient.
- I mentioned above that the Kindle is ready to go right out of the box. I mean that quite literally. You take it out of the box, plug it in, turn it on, and start using it. Kindles are even pre-configured with your account information, so you don’t even have to enter your Amazon credentials. This was probably the simplest and best initial experience I’ve ever had with a device. It blows my mind that this Kindle was configured with my account information, boxed up and shipped to me, and I was reading the Washington Post in less than 12 hours. Amazon has this process perfected.
- Ok, so now the cost. The device itself is $399 which I frankly think is too expensive. I know Amazon is trying to both squeeze the early adopters a la Steve Jobs, and recover the millions they put in to the Kindle in R&D (for the record, I don’t have a problem with either of these tactics — they’re called "good business"), but I think they are going to find a lot of resistance at that price point. Videos on their site have testimonies from well off authors gushing about the Kindle, but the average reader is most likely going to think pretty hard before dropping $400 on something they didn’t even know they needed ($400 buys a lot of books which, incidentally, can be traded with friends). Anyway, the price will undoubtably come down once sales stagnate. The more interesting question is the price of content. Books go for $9.99 and less, newspapers go for about $9.99 per month, magazines seem to go for about $1.49 per month, and blogs cost $1.99 per month. I think all those prices are quite fair with the exception of blogs. There are a lot of things Amazon got right with the Kindle, but the decision to charge a monthly fee of almost $2 per blog is not one of them. Not only does charging to read a blog come pretty close to violating the very definition of a blog (in my liberal interpretation), but reading blogs on the Kindle isn’t even practical since you can’t follow links in any kind of a sane way. And since I read about 50 blogs on a regular basis, the idea of paying $100 per month for the privilege of reading them on my Kindle rather than for free in my very powerful RSS aggregator just isn’t appealing. I know we all want to create sustainable business models around blogs, but I don’t think this is it.
- So now the other big question: DRM. Amazon’s DRM story makes perfect sense to me. First of all, in all the videos I’ve watched and literature I’ve read on the Kindle, I haven’t seen a single mention of DRM, and quite frankly, that’s how it should be. I can see books and newspapers on my Kindle’s file system when connected to my computer via USB, but presumably if I were to copy them to another Kindle, they wouldn’t work. Fair enough. They shouldn’t. But once I’ve purchased content, I essentially own a license for it which means I can re-download it to my own registered and authorized device as many times as I want. In my experience, this is as good as DRM gets. The fact that you don’t even have to mention DRM, but it all just sort of makes sense, says it all to me. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind seeing an "all you can read" option for one monthly fee (like Rhapsody for literature), but I’m happy with the current model.
So what’s my overall impression of the Kindle? I’m very intrigued. It’s not perfect, but it would be unfair to expect it to be. The Kindle is amazingly complex when you consider the technology, content, and the business behind it. And it’s amazing how simple it all seems from the perspective of the end user. I think Amazon has outdone even Apple on this one.
The day will come when we will all have multimedia pads: devices with bright and colorful 12"-15" multi-touch flexible screens that are capable of very high contrast, very low power consumption, video, animation, etc. When that day comes, the Kindle will look like a Palm III next to an iPhone. But that day is many many years away (probably 10 to 20), and I applaud Amazon for taking the first solid step in that direction.
For the time being, I think the Kindle is going to be most successful with books. Probably not children’s books, cookbooks, field guides, or technical manuals with lots of diagrams, but simple fiction or business books which are nothing but words. I’ll use it for reading newspapers, but I’m fairly certain that condensing a newspaper down to a 6" screen just isn’t going to resonate with many newspaper readers (with the exception of people who travel frequently). Most people I know are very attached to their newspaper reading and coffee drinking ritual. Or they’re happy reading newspapers online for free. And since most magazines are more about the ads, graphics, and pictures than they are about actual content, I don’t think magazines will do particularly well, either. I’ll be shocked if more than a handful of people are willing to pay to read blogs, and you’d be crazy to browse the web or listen to MP3s on a Kindle since you probably have an iPod, iPhone, or another 3G wireless device currently within reach.
But the Kindle makes perfect sense for good old-fashioned books. I think everything that we’ve become attached to about books can be successfully replaced with the Kindle. And then, of course, there’s everything about the Kindle that is far better than standard books (on demand delivery, bookmarks, annotations, built-in dictionary, font adjustment, huge capacity, etc.). In my opinion, the biggest barrier to the Kindle becoming the best way to read books right now is the number of titles available. Of my current "to read" book list, only one title is available for the Kindle. I’m sure I’ll find plenty to keep me entertained in the meantime, but eventually the Kindle will need to become more than just a conduit for best sellers. Eventually, I’m going to need to get any book in the world on my Kindle in 60 seconds or less, or I’ll have to go back to killing trees.