Friday, March 14, 2008

The Amazon Kindle: Before and After "Reviews"

A few months ago, Stephen King wrote one of his last page Entertainment Weekly columns ("the Pop of King" I think the column is called) on the Amazon Kindle. It was a good piece, but demonstrated something that irritates me about his more recent opinion writing, and his EW column in particular: his tendency to enter a full blown cultural discussion that has been raging for the better part of a decade, and act like he’s the first one to bring it up.

The Kindle is part of a ongoing really broad discussion about digital delivery of print media but has many of its own wrinkles. It is difficult to even begin discussing something like that in the one page he had to work with, but King does an OK job bringing up a few of the issues. This paragraph:

Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There's a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium

This is a good example of the plus/minus nature of discussing a topic so huge in such a small column… it’s a really nice encapsulation of some of the points into one unified statement, but it suggests the topic boils down to this, and it most definitely doesn’t. It confuses me that King doesn’t hint that this is the tip of an iceberg that all sorts of people (other writers, notably Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, and Douglas Rushkoff, cultural critics, publishing executives, and futurists of all stripes) have been trying to get a hold of for at least 6 years. At the very least, his “Uncle Stevie” delivery seems to trivialize the topic beyond what he’s directly addressing.

When discussing the Kindle at that time, I had specific areas of concern, some of which King aludes to:

The catch: For now, you can only order the (electronic books) at the Amazon-run Kindle Store. The advantage: It's cheaper than your local big-box store, with $9.99 as the price for many new releases.

I was (and still am) of the opinion that the proprietary format SUCKS at this stage of the game, in ways an article of this size doesn’t have time to get into, and $9.99 for a data stream has to be compared not only to buying the book, but also to free libraries and other authors who make online versions of their work available for free as a loss leader to the book “artifact.”

From the outside, I could see some other issues: the design didn’t maximize its screen size (dumb move). The damn thing apparently couldn’t handle graphic novels, even manga. The Black and white only screen was a small issue, but limited what you would want to purchase for it. These technologies are designed for a reason, and the e-book reader that I felt I needed was one designed to facilitate the emergence of a portable e-book culture/sub-lifestyle, not one designed to serve the biggest online seller’s business model.

Then I got to use one.

For Valentine’s day, I wound up getting my wife one (I know, I know, tres romantique' – it’s better than a cutting board), and my opinion changed somewhat.

The first thing I need to mention is my reason for the big buy, which I think puts a finger on a significant missing element from my pre-purchase comments. The deal went down because my wife was looking to find better oportunities as a reader, being been part of a dying breed – the sub-culture of used book store exchanges for credit bag-ladies (books always go back in a brown paper grocery bag). She (unlike me who, when I read a book, want the relic of my experience to stay with me forever) likes to read fast, sometimes more than a book a day, and then get rid of them. This used to occur by buying books, reading them, and exchanging them at a used book store for half credit. We can no longer find a used book store that will allow this, therefore she buys books, reads them, and then they sit around in a the afforementioned brown bag until they get donated to someone. For her, the idea of paying less for a non-paper version of the book makes real sense, and Amazon has Kindle versions of ALL the books she reads. In my original comments, I applied MY model of reading to the new technology, but not my wife’s. For my wife, this works, and Amazon’s system provides better access to these books than is possible with any other reader.

Most of the negative comments about the Kindle still hold, but they are less important in the face of the above noted specific utility to my wife and the process of actually handling the thing (making my own mental adjustments once I put it through its paces). One such complaint is its proprietary nature - the thing will only supposedly handle Amazon’s proprietary file type and mobi files that are unprotected, with Amazon offering to convert files to their format via e-mail. Several comments – 1. this should really cheese you off if you have already invested in buying lit files or, especially, protected mobi files – but converters exist, and you don’t have to go through Amazon to recover your other files – you can convert and directly upload them; 2. the system will handle the usual image file types with an image viewer that is for some reason a secret (there are a lot… A LOT… of
undocumented things you can do with the Kindle and the image viewer is the best of them – large images load really slow, though).

The price point of the books is still an issue, but if you’re not looking for a new release best seller, the price isn’t 10$... its less. The books my wife reads go for about 3$ and change, a little over half the paperback price. As suggested above, this is a good deal because, at best, she would sell her out pile to a used book store for credit, which is certainly worth less then half the new price, but in practice, we can’t really recover any of the cost now anyway. The price point discussion veers into deeper waters, though: what are the rates for authors? Do they get the same as a paper book sold? Less? More? The consumer base probably could get a better price point than this direct from the authors, but with Amazon positioning itself in the market this way (with this closed technology), it works against the potential of authors selling directly to the consumer, one of the major potential benefits of the internet to the book market. As an example: would you rather pay 6$ for a new book with the author getting all of it (minus slight overhead) or pay 10$ so the author can get 3$? Amazon’s model (and the design of the Kindle itself) assures us that we won’t get this choice.

I still don’t like the way the screen size isn’t maximized, and the lack of an illuminated screen option seems dumb in a product of this cost (about 400 bucks). The screen itself is pretty neat, though – it is a non light reactive surface so you can read it in just about any conditions in which you could read paper (it reads great in glare) and the battery life is incredible… if you turn the wi-fi off when you are not downloading, you can read for weeks without recharging. The keypad is not great to use, and I’d have rathered a flip out design, with the keyboard coming out when you need it, but the screen taking up closer to all the front surface instead of the 65-70% or so that it does. One moderately significant quibble… it is impossible to handle the unit while doing anything other than reading (e.g. plugging in the power, putting in an SD card) without hitting the next page buttons, witch are right at the edge. Also, I managed to freeze the unit a couple of times, requiring rebooting that I had to figure out how to do on my own.

Given the image viewer option and the way the web pages load, reading manga on the thing should easily be possible (although the screen is of a suboptimal size). Since they are not making manga available now, I think Amazon is probably still a bit worried as to the stability of the image viewing, and is trying to find a better security method for these kinds of files. The way black and white line images display, however, suggests that getting a clean image is not a problem, which is very hopeful (the screen saver is line art that displays nicely).

The cell connection method is a bit wonky. We got good downloads and web viewing, but I had to “reboot” the WiFi several times after it would seize up (turn the unit off for 20 seconds or so, then back on with the switch… easy, and takes less than a minute, but it happened quite a few times, all while I had 4 or 5 bars). There is a list of blogs and magazines to subscribe to, but since you can web surf for free (free cellular web access, at least at this point… I predict this will change once they decide the web surfing is not “experimental” anymore) you can get most of this content for free, so as a model it’s a bit odd. Their e-mail is useless as such as messages must contain an attachment to be viewed, and you are charged 10 cents to convert and send anything (from “how ya’ doin’” to the complete works of Proust). In the right setting, it could be used as a 10 cent per use text message service, but we have cell phones for that. The Google maps cell locator is cool – the fact that you can use an e-book reader to find the nearest gas station is funny to me somehow.

All in all, having the thing in my hands has improved my feelings towards it. Most of my complaints are either early adopter/beta test type stuff (most things will be fixed in a year or so… we’ll definitely see manga) or are problems with the business model derived from a philosophical difference of opinion between me and “the man.” A basic wish list on my part would include a bigger screen, illumination, native support of lit, doc and txt files, and immediate manga availability. Other desires would include better price points and stability (of both the unit and network). I was prepared for the negatives, but was pretty surprised by the positives of the Kindle once I had used it (the mp3 support was a pleasant surprise). I think with some tweaks, this platform could work, and I’m not shocked by the Kindle’s early success. If you are a high turnover book reader and have a reading habit which is not properly served by the library (or are just a technophile), the Kindle is a really decent choice, as well as being the only game in town for much of the market.


At 4:14 PM, Blogger cfw123 said...

An excellent and thorough review by a person who originally didn't like the Kindle, but now that he's used one, apparently does. I see this all the time. Negatives are overcome by real contact and experience.

Of course there are many sources for materials on the Kindle not from the Kindle Store. I have sent lots of .pdf files to it, which are text wthout tables, and they all converted excellently. I now have over 450 Books on my Kindle most of which were free out of copyright books, which I really love much better than the new ones.

You really have to take the usual "you can't do it on a Kindle" with a grain of salt -- in allmost all cases the writer just didn't know how to do it.

And I love my Kindle, and take it with me literally everywhere I go, in the hopes of finding a few minutes now and then to get some reading done. Even the edge switches don't bother me anymore now that I know exactly how to handle it.

Charles Wilkes, San Jose, Calif.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Todd C. Murry said...

Thanks for the comments. Yeah, my negative reaction was partially because my paradigm for usage was too specific.

At 4:26 PM, Blogger mortonmanor said...

Todd, A good read. The whole DRM issues is a complex one. As you point out, Amazon's DRM is only intended or available for books that are sold on the web site. An author or publisher can freely use the pocket mobi or other tools to make their content easily available on the Kindle (without DRM protection though).

If you ever update this post, you may want to clarify that there isn't any Wi-Fi in the current Kindle. Rather all wireless is via the WhisperNet cellular connection.

Good post.



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