Thursday, May 29, 2008

Is this the future of reading?

I ordered my Amazon Kindle within 24 hours of its announcement last winter. No surprise there, I'm a technophiliac. I'd previously tried two other electronic books. They didn't work out well, but hope springs eternal, and the Kindle seemed to offer things that they didn't, like the size, weight, and readability of a paperback book. I looked forward to a much larger selection of books and periodicals, because Amazon already dealt with all the major publishers.

After nearly six months of using my Kindle, it seems like time to reflect on a) Has it has met my expectations and hopes? and b) Is it a preview of how most publication and reading will be done in a decade? My answers are a qualified Yes, and Probably. I'll first mention some of the reasons for these answers and then discuss some areas where the Kindle could still be improved.

Although it had been mentioned by many reviewers, it was still surprising to me how quickly the experience stopped being "reading on the Kindle" or "using a Kindle" and became just "reading a book." The difference between reading a Kindle book and reading a paperback or hardback became as subliminal as the difference between reading a paperback and reading a hardback edition of the same book. When I'm reading at full tilt, I'm just reading. The Kindle doesn't get in the way at all.

One nice feature is that the Kindle offers a choice of six type sizes that I can change at will. I could not easily read anything smaller than size 1, even with my reading glasses. Anything larger than size 6 would not fit enough material on the page to seem like a book anymore. Mostly, I use size 3, but if my eyes are tired, I may shift to size 4.

A major attraction is Kindle's seamless integration with the cellphone system, which is handled and paid for entirely by Amazon, and is essentially invisible to the user as long as there are "enough bars." This enables real-time shopping on Amazon from the Kindle. The power of instant gratification should not be underestimated; the promise of delivery of new-bought books "within one minute" is very conservative (at least in Palo Alto and various places I've traveled). And the availability of free samples of most books is actually an improvement over the browsing I typically do in a bookstore.

When I travel, I no longer take along a paperback to read on the plane or a newspaper. Subscriptions to the New York Times and Reuters (with real-time updates) keep me at least as well connected to the news while traveling as I am at home; a Kindle is a lot easier to read on an airplane than a paper newspaper, and I'm not stuck with USA Today at my hotel.

The guideline that the Kindle's memory will hold about 200 books seems conservative--and I increased that by a factor of ten with a $15 SD flash memory card. But there's no need to keep my entire library on my Kindle. Amazon keeps track of what I've bought, plus all my annotations and bookmarks, and I can download it again in a minute as long as I'm in cellphone (or computer) territory.

So yes, the Kindle has basically met my expectations and hopes.

A major surprise is that my wife Jane--who is severely technophobic and wouldn't click a mouse for a bet--saw me using the Kindle regularly and decided to try it. Now we are a two-Kindle household. Jane reads a lot more than I do, averaging well more than a book a day. Kindle books are always cheaper than the same content sold by Amazon in any other format; often as much as 60% cheaper than hardbounds. I figured that the financial breakeven point would come in 3-4 months (without even taking into account the cost of new bookcases) if she actually used it. She really does. She no longer makes two trips a week to the bookstore, and has started buying paper books only if the title is not (yet) available on Kindle. And she can download any book I've already bought, at no extra charge.
[Note: My computation was before the recent $40 reduction in the Kindle's price.]

Selection: Amazon claims 120K Kindle books, including 90% of the best-sellers from the New York Times and similar lists. This seems fairly accurate, but there are a few caveats:
  1. New books tend not to be available in Kindle format until they become best-sellers, so there's a good chance that I won't get instant gratification when I try to purchase books when I read their reviews.
  2. 20th Century books that are still in copyright are very under-represented, so I didn't find troves of some of my favorite authors' books. J.R.R. Tolkien, James Clavell, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Eric Ambler, et al. are either poorly represented, or not available at all.
  3. Books that are not in copyright are over-represented. If multiple publishers have brought out cheap editions, chances are that they are all available for the Kindle (and presumably counted separately in the 120K).
Is Kindle the future of reading? Well, not the future of all of reading, but I'm convinced that it is pointing the way to how a major chunk of the world's reading will be done a decade from now. Good ergonomics, vast local storage, almost instant access to new materials, and value-added features like searching, highlighting, annotating, and clipping (with the results saved by Amazon and available anytime, anywhere), combined with lower prices, make a really compelling proposition. It can only get more attractive as Amazon moves towards its stated goal of eventually making available everything that has ever been published anywhere (to the extent allowed by the copyright owners). And it will help to solve a serious overpopulation problem in the bookcases of my house.

But the current Kindle isn't perfect. Here are some areas where I hope to see some improvement before too long:

  1. Grip: To make page-turning really easy, the Next Page and Previous Page bars consume both sides of the Kindle device in the area where one would naturally hold it. In my experience, the Kindle cannot be comfortably held for reading without a cover. The Amazon-supplied cover isn't too bad, once some Velcro is added to hold the Kindle securely in place, but I expect to see many improved cases and covers cropping up soon from third parties.
  2. Keyboard: Having a keyboard is critical to the Kindle's local search and Amazon search capabilities; it vastly enhances the value of the device. Having a full QWERTY keyboard makes the device a little larger (or, depending on your point of view, makes the reading area a little smaller), but not enough to be a problem. I prefer the larger Kindle keyboard geometry to the thumbs-only geometry of my Treo, but the keys themselves have a squishy feel, and aren't good enough for touch typing. So the keyboard doesn't really support some of the Kindle's theoretical capabilities, like typing in reviews of books, or email. For those, I want a real keyboard.
  3. Color: Would be nice for illustrated books, and is rumored to be on its way (even outside Amazon's April Fool announcement).
  4. Booklists: I have enough content now that I'd like more flexible ways of organizing it. The built-in options of sorting by most/least recently viewed, author, and title are useful. However, I'd like to have one list of professional books, another of science fiction, one of classics that I really should read someday, another of books that I re-read regularly, and ...
  5. Web browsing: There's a primitive Web browser incorporated as an Experimental Feature, but it does really, really poorly on rich sites with structured content--most notably, on Amazon's own website. You'd think they'd at least find a way to handle that well!
  6. Kindle-to-Kindle communication: I'd like to be able to send evaluations, samples, perhaps even purchased books, to Jane's Kindle without having to leave my reading chair and go to my computer.
  7. Dictionary: Yes, there's a decent built-in dictionary included in the price of the Kindle, and yes, there's a feature to invoke it directly from a book as I'm reading if I encounter a word I don't know. Great in theory. However, in practice, it only looks up the first definition for each word, which is frequently not the definition that I'm looking for. Also, since it looks up common as well as uncommon words, and displays definitions for just four or five words, it often doesn't get to the word I needed to look up. Also, the documentation says that I can choose the dictionary to use, but the only choice I am given is the built-in dictionary.
  8. Search: Searching for all occurrences of a word or phrase in my entire Kindle library is really amazingly fast (think seconds, not minutes), especially considering that my library contains (on the SD card) the complete works of Shakespeare and several other authors, the King James Version of the Bible, and several massive reference books in areas of interest to me (e.g., movies). But I would like to be able to restrict the search to the book I'm currently reading (think milliseconds, not seconds). And there are odd little anomalies. Some books apparently only get indexed if I store them in the Kindle's main memory, others, only if I store them on the SD card. Some books seem to repeatedly fall out of the index, although I can add them back. The anomalies do not appear to be correlated with any obvious property of the book, such as its length or format. So there are probably other books that are not indexed and aren't being searched that I haven't even noticed.
  9. Formatting: Because it has to adjust to six different type sizes, text has to be dynamically reformatted. For most books, there's a choice between being justified (straight margins) on both sides, or just on the left. I prefer left-justified (as in this blog), because it reduces the situations where a huge amount of white space has to be put between words to stretch out a line. But even with left-justification, the Kindle generates more visually obnoxious lines than it needs to, because it refuses to break lines at hyphens and en- or em-dashes, all of which are just as good as whitespace as points to break. It's astonishing that they would slip up on that. Don Knuth will not approve.
  10. User interface: The thumb-and-click wheel isn't the selection mechanism I would have chosen, but it's tolerable. When I think of the Kindle as a smart book, it doesn't seem bad. It's when I think of it as a portable computer that I start to get frustrated. E.g., "This ought to be ideal for crossword puzzles: It has plenty of screen real estate, a keyboard, and a built-in dictionary. I wonder why the Times doesn't include their crossword? Oh, no 2D pointing. Doh."
It sort of seems like I had more items for this list, but I'm having a senior moment. Anyhow, on a different day, I might have a different list of peeves, with at least three or four different items rising to the level of being mentioned.

Updated 6/3/08 to add: I've remembered the 11th item for the list: Specular reflection. One of the great advantages of the Kindle is that it uses a passive display technology. Black and white are created by controlling reflectance, not transmission. So there is no backlight, and no power is consumed while displaying a page, only while changing it. This means that the display does not "wash out" in bright surroundings like LCD and plasma displays do.

However, the Kindle screen does not seem to have an anti-reflection coating. This means that it is prone to specular reflection in any environment that has small, bright light sources--think of the sun, or any light small enough to cast a sharp shadow. To read the Kindle in the presence of such light sources, you must find a way to position it so the lights do not reflect off the screen into your eye. "Glossy" paper has the same problem, but has the advantage of a much higher contrast ratio than the Kindle provides. I expect an aftermarket of anti-reflection films for the Kindle to develop.



Comment by Blogger slger:

Hi, Jim. Your review gives a goood feel for this new reading modes -- isn't it great?

I've been using comparable technology for 2 years, since becoming print disabled. The Levelstar Icon delivers newspapers and books from, a growing library of 37,000 books. I mostly read on the American Printing House for the Blind Bookport with about 600 books in hand, also plays mp3 and reads downloaded documents. All this text is read with the synthesized voices like old DecTalk, amazingly comfortable, expressive, and speedy once you get used to them. Frankly, while I miss out on some content, I would never go back to reading with my eyes glued to a screen.

Hint for your browser. Try,, and other pages designed especially for mobile phones. BTW, the Icon, a Linux PDA, also reads web pages nicely, but we will all need a big jump in capability for accessible-rich media.



12:10 PM  

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