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November 20, 2007

More Kindle Commentary

• So my early enthusiasm is waning. The IP protections seem like a dealbreaker. I can't read pdfs? I have to pay to aggregate blogs? Amazon is fairly clearly trying to follow the iPod model, where your technology gives you such an early lead, that you can lock up all your content and nobody's the wiser. But even the iPod only locks up iTunes content -- it doesn't try to keep me from playing music I already have, or that a friend gave me, or that I downloaded off the net. Kindle does.

• That said, if Amazon really has figured out the technology, someone else will match the product without the locks. Or Amazon will decide to open the Kindle in order to better corner the market. If e-book readers really are the future, just as iPods were, the important thing is that someone kicks off our brave new world. The Kindle may do that, even as its many locks and constraints open the market for a successor.

• If the Kindle does work, it will make much more of a difference for non-fiction readers than fiction lovers. I don't think the advantage is in size -- a book really isn't that big. It's in information delivery. I really want some technology that allows me to clip parts of books, make annotations I can e-ail to myself, and better organize the information I glean from reading. Simply looking over words is a tremendously inefficient way to absorb knowledge, and it's long past time someone came up with a product that helps correct for my brain's sieve-like nature and general failings.

• Isaac Butler makes a fair point here, offering the Hayekian case for print:

Why will it be unsatisfying? Because it's not a book. I don't mean to be conservative here, but the simple fact of the matter is that there's something about books that just works. It's not that explainable, so it's hard to try to phrase it as a counterargument, but here goes...the book is one of humankind's perfect inventions... like bread, or the wheel (or, I'd argue, cheese). You might be able to improve on its design but you can't fundamentally change the thing. It's perfect as is. It's survived as a human invention for a truly shocking amount of time. As sentimental as this sounds, I just don't think that many people really want to cuddle up with their electronic reader and delve into the latest from Henning Mankell.

November 20, 2007 in Books | Permalink


I believe it was Asimov who wrote one of those cute future-retro story in which a man shows off his new invention, a reading device requiring no batteries, easy on the eyes, etc., and all are amazed to see his "book" made of paper. (And then it turns out it's a cookbook of MAN!!! Yes? No? Maybe?)

Posted by: El_Cid | Nov 20, 2007 2:23:47 PM

El Cid, the reference to that great "To Serve Man" Twilight Zone episode is apt. Amazon wants to eat me, not serve me. What is this thing other than a siphon into my credit card account? And one more thing: Kindle is not a book-friendly name. It makes me think of Farenheit 451, Nazi book burnings, and Joan of Arc.

Posted by: Michael Markman | Nov 20, 2007 2:35:02 PM

Isaac Butler makes a fair point here, offering the Hayekian case for print:

Why make such an appeal to nostalgia or ineffability? If the hype about the readability of the Kindle is accurate then it's better than anything else of its type, but it's still an expensive and relatively fragile thing controlled by a keyboard.

Books aren't better than the Kindle for most uses because they're old and familiar. Books are better for most uses because they come in a range of sizes; they retail for $25 or $30 at the most, at least for fiction; if you lose or ruin one book then it's a problem, sure, but it's still only one book rather than your entire library; they can be given as gifts easily and with a more personal touch than a certificate or e-mail code or something; you can mark a specific page or section in a way that's immediately visible from the outside; you can flip through them in a way that leaves two or three pages visible at a time; and you can have multiple books open in front of you at once.

Speaking of popularized science fiction, there's a scene in the Minority Report movie where Tom Cruise is on a train and the guy across from him is reading a newspaper from the future: it's a sort of flexible paper-thin digital screen. The text and images on it can change with the touch of a small button or with the latest news being uploaded wirelessly, but the reader can carry it and read it just like a newspaper in the year 2007, and he throws it away when he's done with it. Until we get eBooks that can be used like that, there will still be a place for paper and ink. I'm not saying it's impossible, but we're nowhere near there yet.

Posted by: Cyrus | Nov 20, 2007 3:10:11 PM

The two advantages of the book over the prior technology - the scroll - were non-linear searchability and information density. Both these advances have been improved upon. The greatest advance of the book over the scroll - the ability to flip to the page you want, without scrolling through the whole document - has been superseded by computerized search functions. And it's hardly worth talking about information density. Where these requirements, rather than the pleasure of the physical object, are paramount, books are disappearing. I'm a lawyer, and as any lawyer can tell you, the law library of tens of thousands of volumes is a thing of the past.

The book's survival is based now on its value as an entertainment medium. It is superior only in uses where legibility and portability are crucial - that is, where the enjoyment of the experience of reading is as important as the information conveyed. The book will disappear entirely when there is a device that can deliver the reading experience with close to the same degree of pleasure that a book can, e.g., with the following characteristics:
1) size and weight comparable to a magazine like People or the New Yorker;
2) flexible;
2) non-breakable;
3) legibility as good as that of print;
4) price compatible with an entertainment device, e.g. $100 with the first book free.

Kindle isn't there yet, but the technological requirements don't seem insurmountable, do they?

Posted by: Bloix | Nov 20, 2007 3:44:29 PM

I can understand the arguments about sentimentality and reading fiction, but even as a middle-aged guy I don't think I'd have much trouble "curling up" with a novel on an electronic reader, since I read on much worse screens all day, and I imagine whippersnappers like Ezra are even more comfortable with reading that way.

It seems that decent e-book technology could kill off printed reference books pretty fast, just as the Internet killed off dead-tree zip code directories and Books in Print. Paper can't compete in searchability or up-to-date-ness, and those characteristics are vital for reference books.

Posted by: KCinDC | Nov 20, 2007 3:57:44 PM

Oh, and that old lawyer on the Star Trek episode who insisted on sticking with a huge library of paper law books was insane.

Posted by: KCinDC | Nov 20, 2007 4:01:26 PM

My immediate thought was that this would be great for grad students like myself. I need to read large quantities of journal articles, book excerpts/chapters, essays, etc. Printing them out is wasteful, especially if I'm not going to re-read them, but it'd be great to be able to carry them to seminar and mark them up.

But if it won't let you read pdf's or scan things in it really loses its appeal.

Posted by: rufustfyrfly | Nov 20, 2007 4:07:10 PM

Is it color? Can it show movies? Do audio? Will um, fluids ruin the screen? Could be real nice for curling up in bed.

Posted by: hairy jim | Nov 20, 2007 4:25:34 PM

For $399 you can buy a hand cranked OLPC that is bright enough to be read outside. For your $399, you will also be buying an OLPC for a child elsewhere in the world.

It's 3 lbs, can be used as "traditional laptop" or flipped into an ebook reader, has higher dpi than the kindle and more pixels. Free wifi, not expensive EVDO.

Why not buy one for Hanukkah present Ezra?

In fact, why not use your Opinion Leader powers to get all of the bloggers in your blogroll to buy one or more for Hanukkah or Christmas?

Posted by: Nicholas brother of John | Nov 20, 2007 4:31:57 PM

Kindle might work well for those of us who have to do a lot of professional reading. This evening I'll have to lug about 10 lbs of trade mags and newspapers onto the train with me. Might be nice to compress it all into one little Kindle and read it whenever I want.

Physicians could more easily keep up with medical journals, etc. Attorneys could keep a law library in their brief case.

But I'm still skeptical about that screen.

Posted by: Kevin Walker | Nov 20, 2007 4:32:50 PM

It seems to me that the strongest selling point of the Kindle is rapid access at a significant discount to the hot books of the moment (eventually access to obscure books could become another selling point). My impression is that the big movers among books are the fiction books, and that these are also the most time-critical (you can't wait for the cheap used or remaindered copies if you want to be au courant). Of course, that's my outsider's impression.

On the fiction vs. nonfiction front, as a voracious reader of nonfiction, I think Ezra's wrong. Most nonfiction - i.e. history, biography, and classic works on science - doesn't really date, and so used is as good as new (better in some ways). My first stop for any specific book is Abebooks, and when shopping I mostly browse remainders and visit used book stores. If digital really catches on, there'll be no more remainders (and fewer used books). On the other hand, if all the out-of-print books were to become available on demand at $5 a book (which would be a standard price for a used book before shipping), this would change everything - and, unfortunately, drive out of business all those used bookstores I love to shop in.

The real play Amazon is making here has nothing to do with the hardware. The only reason Amazon has to own the hardware is so it can own the store (see: Store, Itunes), and if Amazon can become sufficiently dominant with its store it could lose the hardware business with total equanimity. The powerful move Amazon is making here is that they own your library. I caught some of Bezos on Charlie Rose last night, and what he promised was this: if you discard a book from your Kindle and want it later, they still know you own an electronic copy and you can re-download it for free. Give them five years of this and you can never afford to leave Amazon - or you lose your whole library. I suspect that few readers who care enough to spend $400 on the hardware are the sort that throws books away when they're done reading. And the hardware will change to unrecognizeability (and possible independence from Amazon) while Amazons's store remains and continues its deathgrip on your library: the Kindle is a wireless-communication, data-storage, and large-screen display device. It's easy to imagine the Kindle fusing with your internet,computing, and GPS needs, and only your pocket size will differentiate the Kindles of tomorrow from your cell phone.

P.S. Isn't there a major copyright issue with electronic and on-demand publishing? My understadning was that some standard author contracts state that copyright is with the publisher until it goes out of print, and then back to the author. New technology means it's never out of print ...

Posted by: Warren Terra | Nov 20, 2007 4:33:54 PM

Bloix has something near the correct list of requirements.

"Kindle isn't there yet, but the technological requirements don't seem insurmountable, do they?"

The technological requirements don't seem insurmountable for vacation condos on Mars either, as long as you're not worried about doing it today.

The problem with Kindle is that the technology isn't anywhere close to being ready to bring out a reasonably priced ebook reader that is functionally competitive with a book.

This was most definitely not the case on the eve of the introduction of the iPod. In that case, the technology was in place, but no manufacturer had put the pieces together properly.


Amazon seems to have made some poor choices with Kindle (tho the DRM approach is not one of them) and some good choices as well. The problem is that even if they'd made 100% good choices, they still wouldn't have a compelling product for anyone other than edge cases. The technology just isn't anywhere close to being ready yet.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 20, 2007 5:26:06 PM

"But even the iPod only locks up iTunes content -- it doesn't try to keep me from playing music I already have, or that a friend gave me, or that I downloaded off the net. Kindle does."

Folks covering the "information wants to be free" beat seem oblivious to a central fact here.

The music industry is unique in that they were selling digitally reproducible non-DRM product to their consumers long before the iPod debuted.

No other industry is going to make that same error. Ever.

This has some crucial implications.

Unlike with music players, content partnerships are going to be crucial for things like book readers.

Kindle is not going to sell other than to electronics enthusiasts and some edge cases. But once the technology gets cheap enough to produce a reasonable dedicated ebook reader, the DRM model is going to be much like Kindle's. And whoever can sign up the most book and magazine publishers, be that Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, or other, will dominate the market.

Of course, that assumes that tablet PC's haven't hit the sweet spot by then. And, if the technology is in place for a decent ebook reader, the technology will also be in place for a kickass tablet PC. My bet is that a decade from now, you'll be reading ebooks on a multipurpose tablet PC, not a single-purpose ebook reader.

Kindle is likely to end up as a technological isolate, not a progenitor.

(And tangentially, what's up with the physical keyboard on Kindle? I understand why folks might want a physical keyboard on a communications device like a cellphone, but on a system where the keyboard is used only occasionally, Kindle just screams out for an iPhone-like screen keyboard that can be summoned on request.)

Posted by: Petey | Nov 20, 2007 5:55:32 PM

"That said, if Amazon really has figured out the technology, someone else will match the product without the locks."

Locks? You can read your own text files on your Kindle. You can transfer them for free using the supplied cable, or email them to Amazon and get them via the cell network for a small fee.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 20, 2007 6:09:32 PM

I think Mark Pilgrim put it best:



Posted by: Carlos | Nov 20, 2007 6:25:15 PM

'kindle' makes me think its going to cause a manic/depressive episode.

and do they really think people will pay for blogs. really.

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 20, 2007 7:02:15 PM

"and do they really think people will pay for blogs. really."

You're paying for the cell network, not the blogs.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 20, 2007 7:05:01 PM

I'm always baffled by the deficiencies of tech coverage.

The revolutionary thing about Kindle is the network arrangement - you get access to a high speed cell network on a pay-per-use basis, rather than with the monthly contract you'd have to pay for to use a device like an iPhone or a roaming laptop.

And pretty much no one bother writing about that. Weird.

I'm bearish on Kindle. I don't want one, and I don't think many beyond the gadget curious are going to want one. But the network arrangement is pretty interesting. It may end up being a model for more interesting devices in the future.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 20, 2007 7:13:19 PM

huh, ok. yeah i didn't figure that out until i watched the youtube infocommercial about it.

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 20, 2007 7:41:47 PM

"you get access to a high speed cell network on a pay-per-use basis"

But you can access only what Amazon lets you access!

Posted by: bloix | Nov 20, 2007 10:25:57 PM

"But you can access only what Amazon lets you access!"

In terms of the network, makes sense to me. How else could they work it?

If they gave you a real web browser and let you surf on the EV-DO network, they'd have to charge you $50 - $70 per month before any content fees.

By offering a limited selection of books, mags, papes, and blogs, Amazon can meter network usage at a price point that seems reasonable to consumers.

(Tangentially, I've always thought that one of several reasons Apple went with a slower network for the initial iPhone was that to offer the simplicity of flat rate network pricing with a faster network would've seemed too expensive to consumers.)


And, as far as "what Amazon lets you access" goes, you can load up the device with as much of Project Gutenberg or your unfinished novels as its memory will hold for free, as you long as you do it using the supplied cable.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 21, 2007 1:49:27 AM

My first reaction to Kindle was 'damn, thats what I wanted to do', the more I have found out since the less I like it.

First thing is the display. Don't use electric ink, the technology is simply not ready for prime time and probably won't be so for up to a decade. Sony has a similar bookreader and it has bombed so far.

Use a real LCD display, back it with enough battery power to run for 8 to 12 hours and make it so that it can show movies as well.

Second thing is the content. Amazon wants the book reader so it can sell books. But the person paying $400 for the device isn't really getting much more than a modest increase in convenience.

8Gb is enough to store 400 plus books. So ship the reader with 400 classics from the Guttenberg library. Give them a DVD or five with extra. In other words don't sell the reader, sell the library. $400 is a lot of money to pay for a gadget but not much to pay for a library of world classics.

Third, WiFi, not cellular. I could not beleive it when I saw that their wireless access was to a cellular network. A mobile device has to be multi-function to be worth carrying. The trick is to combine functions that don't conflict with each other. A book reader needs to be a Web reader and a movie reader. That means high capacity broadband which means WiFi.

This strikes me as a piece of technology wrapped up as a product rather than an attempt to solve real needs.

Posted by: PHB | Nov 21, 2007 8:32:12 AM

Simply looking over words is a tremendously inefficient way to absorb knowledge

I've had great success with actually reading those words, but then that's me. Simply looking at my exercise equipment has also proved rather ineffectual at keeping this spare tire from coming back...

Posted by: The Critic | Nov 21, 2007 5:09:07 PM

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