Several people have asked me for a demo of an Amazon Kindle, just assuming that I have one. It's a logical assumption to make: two of my greatest loves are books and gadgets. And since the Kindle is a gadget for reading books, you'd think it would be a no-brainer. Yet I do not have one, and currently I have no intention of getting one.
It's not that I don't like the idea - far from it. I've been waiting for years for a good electronic book reader to appear, and I've tried out several over the years. I used a Rocket eBook for about six months on and off: too heavy, screen was too hard to read. I read a few books on my old Palm Tungsten: screen too small, too hard to read for long periods of time.
I used a Fujitsu Stylistic Tablet PC for about a year, and used its electronic book software quite a bit, purchasing dozens of books from Fictionwise.com. That was the best yet, but using a PC as a reader - even a tablet laptop that didn't have a keyboard - was way overkill. It was heavy, got very hot, and the buttons weren't suited very well for page flipping. I also felt that using a $3,000 laptop for reading a book was... well, just wrong.
I thought about getting a Sony Reader, but felt that it was overpriced and underpowered, even for an electronic book reader. I guess my earlier experience with the Rocket eBook has made me more discerning. In addition, thanks to my Apple-powered technological renaissance, I have a new-found appreciation for style in addition to function, and I found the Sony product lacking. It simply didn't feel like reading a book to me, and it also looks kind of tacky.
The Kindle is supposed to be the first device that lets you buy and read books electronically - without the need for any computer to connect it to. It was featured on the cover of Newsweek. Its debut made the nightly news the day it came out. It was sneak-peeked and revewed by numerous technology writers and blogs. And I still don't have one.
Here's why I don't have one, and what I'm waiting for before I buy an electronic book reader:
5. It's Too Expensive. A book reader is, or at least should be, a single function product: You use it to read books. It's not a computer, it's not a web browser, it's not an MP3 player. It's a device to read books. And using the time-honored analogy of the razor and razor blades, the reader itself simply should not cost very much money. My Rocket eBook was $199.00. My Palm Tungsten was $179.000. An iPod is $149.00. A Blu-Ray player is $299.00. An Nintendo Wii is $249.00. And Amazon wants to charge me $399.00 for a device to read books? I don't think so. An electronic book reader should cost no more than $150.00 maximum, and should preferably be under $100.00.
4. The Books are Copy-Protected. DRM (Digital Rights Management) rears its ugly head yet again. I am especially disappointed to see Amazon taking this tact, since they have done such a nice job with their MP3 store. I've spent over $100.00 at Amazon's MP3 store since they started, and I'm going to be spending a lot more over the coming year now that they have 3 of the 4 record labels supplying them with content.
Books for the Kindle are in a proprietary, copy-protected format. It's such a closed format, in fact, that there is no way to simply copy your own material to the device - you have to email a document to Amazon, pay a fee, and then have them send the converted document back to you. A collection of books, just like a collection of music, is something I like to keep forever. Purchasing a book in some transitory, proprietary format that I cannot even back up is of no interest to me. An electronic book reader should use an open format and should not use any form of DRM or copy protection. Ideally, it should also read multiple formats, with PDF at the top of the list.
3. The Screen is Too Small. The Kindle uses exactly the same screen as the Sony Reader. The good news here is that the screen quality is excellent: it actually looks as good as a printed page. The high contrast black and white screen with very high resolution print is just the breakthrough that has been needed in order to make an electronic book reader a viable product. But after playing with a Sony Reader for a while, and after comparing it to a paperback book, a trade paperback, and a normal-size hardcover, it was clear that the 6" screen is just plain too small.
Here's my simple rule of thumb: Get a physical paperback edition and an electronic edition of the same book. Turn to a page. They should be identical. With the 6" screen the Kindle uses, that is not the case: there is always less text on the Kindle's screen. This means that a 300 page printed book ends up as a 400 page Kindle book, for example (I'm approximating, since I do not have a Kindle to do the actual comparison with). And the small size just doesn't feel like a book. Pick up a trade paperback or a hardcover book; an electronic book reader should have the same screen size as the printed page on any of those, including page headers and footers. Assuming the same screen technology used by the Kindle and the Sony Reader, an electronic book reader should have a screen that is at least 8" tall and 5" wide (9.5" diagonal), and should be able to support page-for-page matching between the printed version and the electronic version of the same book.
2. The Books are Too Expensive. I place this one a lot higher than the device costs, because if all the other issues were dealt with, I'd probably be willing to pay more for the device itself. However, an electronic book must always be cheaper than the paperback version of a book. And right now this is not the case.
Amazon is trying to get away with comparing the hardcover price with the Kindle version price, in order to justify their price range of $9.95 to $7.95 for electronic books. Sorry, folks, but that's not the comparison. Let's take The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini as an example. The paperback version of this book is $8.99. The Kindle version of this book is $8.99 - the same price. But - I can give the paperback book to someone else. I can keep it forever. I can make copies of it if I need to. I can re-bind the book in 20 years. I can re-read it 10 years from now just by pulling it off the shelf. I can't do any of these things with the Kindle version - and yet it's exactly the same price. Why would I ever bother with the electronic version? Books for an electronic reader should be priced well below the price of the paperback version of the same book - at least $2.00 cheaper, in my opinion, since there are no physical costs associated with it. And that's assuming that all of my other points have been addressed. If the book is copy-protectecd, it should be at least $4.00 less than the paperback!
1. The Kindle is Butt Ugly. This is the 21st century. We expected our devices to look like it. Look at an Apple iPhone, a Toyota Prius, a Panasonic plasma TV, a Samsung laser printer, an iPod Nano, even a single cup coffee maker. I expect smooth lines, smart design. I expect gadgets that are as beautiful to look at and as pleasing to the touch as the best of these. Asking me to pay $400 for something that looks like it was designed by a Soviet planning committee is not going to cut it. I mean, look at this thing! It's all sharp edges and angles. It's the same bland off-white color as generic PC's from the 1990s. The keyboard (and why the hell does a book reader even need a keyboard, anyway?) looks like it belongs on a Fisher-Price toy.
The whole look of the device is just wrong. It looks cheap and flimsy - even though it is neither. In an age of shiny piano black surfaces, aluminum finishes, aerodynamic shapes and streamlined edges, the Amazon Kindle is an orphan. I get the impression someone designed the shape and layout about 20 years ago, and has just been waiting for the technology to finally allow it to be built. Amazon should have hired a high-end industrial designer and made this product a beauty, something to show off, instead of something to keep hidden under a cover so that no one could see it. An electronic book reader should be attractive, sleek, and well designed.
So, Amazon, no sale to me. I thought for sure the Kindle would flop big time, and yet when I checked Amazon for information while writing this entry, I see that they are currently sold out. Obviously, quite a lot of customers don't have the misgivings that I do. I'll just keep waiting. My guess is it will take another 5 years or so until an electronic book reader appears that follows all 5 of my suggestions. I look forward to writing a glowing review of that product at such time as I can get one.
Sadly, however, the Amazon Kindle is not that device.