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KINDLEing an Interest in Reading March 27, 2008

Posted by cmvlibrarian in Mobile Devices, Reading.
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Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader has been more popular than expected. There’s been a lot of both hype and criticism concerning the newest digital reader but after reading 8 books with it I’ve come to realize that while the Kindle is far from perfect (it’s a version 1.0 after all) most of the lack luster reviews were overly harsh.

The Kindle has a number of strengths that make it a worthwhile investment:

  • Wireless Delivery. I’ve had mine for a month now and I’ve already downloaded 8 books and two issues of Fortune. The Kindle store is easy to search from the Kindle and the books downloaded in less than a minute.
  • Free Samples. Users can download sample chapters of books or up to two issues of a magazine for free to decide if they really want to buy it.
  • Cost Savings. While most the digital books cost anywhere from $5-$10 less than their print counterparts the true cost saving power of the Kindle is its digital storage capacity. Not many non-librarians realize this, but even if someone gives you a physical book for free, the book still costs you money because it takes up space. Think about it, most people have a finite amount of space to use for book storage and each book you own takes up some of that space. When you run out of space you either buy (purchase more bookshelves) or lease (renting a storage unit) storage space. If you actually get rid of the book then you have 100% depreciation. But with the Kindle you can virtually store up to 200 books or delete a book with the option of redownloading it again for free.
  • Ergonomic design (mostly). I found holding the Kindle comfortable in a number of settings (a reclining chair, a bed, my chair at work, the restroom, and Five Guys while eating a burger) as natural if not more so than a regular book. The only exception to this was turning the Kindle on and off, since the power buttons are on the back of the device there’s no way to turn it on or off without removing it from its carrying case.
  • Screen. The electronic ink display screen is much easier on the eyes that the traditional computer, television, or cell phone screens. With its ability to increase or decrease font size at your will one could say it’s easier on the eyes than traditional print.
  • Interactive Features. The Kindle includes a dictionary that allows you to look up any word you run across while reading without leaving whatever e-book you’re on. Those of us too lazy or engrossed in our reading to put our books down and pick up a dictionary finally discovered what “sunder” means (it means to split apart and originates from Old English’s sundrian in case you were wondering). There’s also a search feature that allows users to search for a word or a phrase in the built in dictionary or any of your e-books. This feature comes in handy when trying to pin point plot clues in hindsight or for keeping track of when characters or other objects are mentioned in a novel. Information Professionals who have some reference material stored on their Kindle will love this feature. For example I have Business and Competitive Analysis: Effective Application of New and Classic Methods stored on my Kindle so if I ever need a reminder of what a “strategic decision” is, then all I have to do is hit the search button type the term and select the result coming from my reference text and I’ll see all instances of that term in the text including the one where it’s defined.

The most frequent criticisms I’ve heard so far are:

  • Too expensive. To be sure the $399 price tag isn’t anything to sneeze at but first take into account most e-books are a little cheaper than their print cousins. Then factor in the cost savings from not having to physically store books. Finally take into account the fact that the Kindle uses cellular network technology to allow you to search the Kindle store and download books as well as search Wikipedia. Most cell phone plans charge an additional $40-50 a month for that kind of access yet Amazon doesn’t charge. So after 10 months of using the Kindle to download books or surf Wikipedia you have a 100% return on investment (that’s not taking into account any of the other cost savings I mentioned earlier either).
  • It’s Ugly. When I first saw pictures of the Kindle online I thought it looked ugly too. But after seeing it in person it’s actually attractive. The color of the Kindle is white and not the sullen grey from the pictures and the navigation buttons give it a book like sensation. The packaging it comes in is amazing . . . I couldn’t help but feel like a kid on Christmas when it finally came. The carrying case that comes with the Kindle is attractive as well and the Kindle again resembles a book when housed in its case.

But if Amazon’s really looking to revolutionize the way people read then it has some important improvements to make:

  • Formatting. Most novels and other fictional works show up beautifully. But there are some formatting display issues for non-fiction texts like text books or introductory books that make use of margin definitions or text boxes that have a different narrative than the main text. The Kindle doesn’t differentiate between this “extra” text and the main text so the flow of reading can get confusing. Also PDF documents are not supported by the Kindle. MobiPocket Book Creator allows users to convert PDF files into a format that the Kindle can display but again it’s still a roll of the dice. I read some short PDF converted magazine articles without a problem but longer technical documents became a headache before page two. However this is purely a firmware issue and Amazon has said that devices’ firmware will be updated continuously via the Kindle’s cellular network. So one day seemingly by magic my stress management workbook will suddenly become less stressful to read.
  • Total dependence on Cellular Network. Although the Kindle comes with a USB cord to connect to your computer, when you buy a Kindle book from Amazon there’s no way to download the book to your computer’s hard drive and then manually install the book on the Kindle. Users have to use the Kindle’s cellular network to load books onto the Kindle, but Sprint (the Kindle’s provider) doesn’t cover all of the country. This means that in certain areas of the country (all of Montana, Alaska, and huge areas of the states west of the Mississippi River) the Kindle is effectively non-functional. Amazon should allow users to also download books to their computer’s hard drive and then transfer to the Kindle to increase their customer base.
  • Limited E-book Selection. Although over 100,000 e-books available sounds good and is better than Amazon’s competition there were still a lot of books I was interested in reading that weren’t available as Kindle books. Even a recently published book like The Wall Street Journal. Complete Personal Finance Guidebook wasn’t available. The magazine and newspaper selection is abysmal. While technically the decision to make such material available on the Kindle is up to the publishers Amazon should really push harder to get an even wider selection. It’s a shame to spend money on a great product like the Kindle but still resort to print since a Kindle edition isn’t available. However Amazon is taking recommendations from their customers as to what they would like to see “Kindelized” and forwarding them to authors and publishers.
  • Inventory Issues. At first I thought this was a marketing strategy to artificially drive up demand for the Kindle, but after speaking to a source in Amazon realize they were just like everyone else and completely caught off guard by the Kindle’s popularity. Combine that with some celebrities brining their Kindle on TV (like when Whoopi Goldberg brought her Kindle on The View) and you have the makings for a severe shortage. Last week Amazon actually had an apology for the 6 week wait for the Kindle and said that their goal in production was to be able to have their customers order a Kindle and to be able to ship the Kindle that same day. However I think the apology was a little overdue given the Kindle sold out in December 2007 and there’s still a 6 week delay in receiving it. But at least Amazon is taking the issue seriously and is attempting to increase supply.

Lesson learned: If you don’t mind the lengthy waiting list and not being able to buy every book you want as an e-book the Kindle is a great deal. Even as a 1.0 device it functions amazingly well and perhaps marks a new paradigm in reading.

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Blogged with the Flock Browser

Web Surfers of a Feather Can Flock Together March 26, 2008

Posted by cmvlibrarian in Information Sharing, Social networking, Web 2.0, Web applications, Web browsers, Web productivity.
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Let’s face it, Web 2.0 created a new kind of internet junkie, one no longer willing to remain a passive audience. With the rise of sites like YouTube, facebook, Flickr, and many others web aficionados are accustomed to organizing or creating content themselves. Now, there’s a new web browser to make content generation even easier.

Flock is a web browser targeted for Web 2.0 users. It’s actually based off of Mozilla technical architecture so it has a general Firefox feel to its interface and loads web pages quickly. But this browser adds features that Firefox only touched on as an after thought. Flock interfaces directly with Facebook, Piczo, Twitter, YouTube, Ma.gnolia, flickr, Picasa, photobucket, Gmail, Yahoo mail, tons of blogging applications, search engines galore, and del.icio.us for a seamless interactive experience.

Not daring to believe that an upstart could surpass Firefox in terms of user experience I downloaded Flock and in less than three days made it my default browser. The features really do change the way I surf the web and are useful for Information Professionals and internet junkies alike. The features that sold me on the browser are:

  • Social Networking Integration. I’m an avid facebook user and with their new privacy settings, I use it for both professional and social networking. Flock’s easy to follow instructions allowed me to integrate my facebook account into what it calls its “People” sidebar. From here I can view all my friends status’s, any messages, friend requests, pokes, and group or event requests without ever having to visit my profile. To make it even better Flock includes a MediaStream (its like RSS only for videos and pictures) which you can open in the browser to drag and drop media onto your friends’ in the People sidebar. I sent one of my friends a photo of a museum tour we took together and Flock flawlessly attached the photo to a facebook message automatically so I just had to hit the send key. This has great potential for professionals as well as personal use if future versions of Flock enable file sharing (like Google Docs).
  • Photo Uploading. I like to upload my pictures to Flickr so I have them backed up remotely but like to keep them pretty private. Flock’s photo uploader allowed me to add both batch and individual tags to my photos at the same time, set my privacy preferences and then upload them to my Flickr account. This interface was actually much easier to use that Flickr’s own uploader. Furthermore my Flickr account was also added to the People sidebar allowing me instant access to my photos via the MediaStream I mentioned above without ever having to visit Flickr. The photo I shared with my facebook friend was actually a Flickr photo I uploaded via Flock. The MediaStream also let me search for pictures on Flickr, although this search feature searches everyones photos and didn’t let me limit it to my own.
  • Search Engines. Here come the heavyweight features that Information Professionals are bound to love. Flock integrates a myriad of search engines right into your browser tool bar and allows you to set one as default. I’ve loaded Yahoo, eBay, PriceGrabber, Urban Dictionary, Technorati, Wink, and set Google as my default but there are plenty of others to add as well. Switching between your search engines in your tool bar takes two clicks and you can search by your default engine simply by highlighting text on the page and right clicking.
  • Email. I have a Gmail and Yahoo mail account, one for friends/family/shopping and one for professional use. I like to monitor them both pretty regularly and hated having to open a new window/tab just to check to see if I had new mail and then navigate to the actual message. By clicking the Email icon in the tool bar I could see if I had any new mail, what the subject was and who was the sender. To read it I just had to click on the message and Flock opened a new tab for me and took me directly to the message I clicked. This ended up being a huge time saver in navigation and new mail alerts.
  • Blogging. Internet Junkies and Information Professionals should be thrilled by this alike. Flock integrates with just about any major blogging application you can think of. By clicking the Blog icon on the Flock tool bar you open the “Blog Post Window”. This blog editor was at least as good as both Blogger and WordPress and allows users to compose a post complete with photos (can be inserted manually or via the MediaStream), links, and tags. After you complete your post you can choose which blogging application you want it posted to without having to visit the site and logging in. I actually completed this entire post via the Flock interface and was pleased by its usability.

Since its launch in November of 2007 Flock has demonstrated a number of promising success metrics. According to Flock CEO, Shawn Hardin in a Webware interview Flock had a 96% rating in user satisfaction and more than 71% of its current users have already made Flock their default web browser. Even more promising for Flock which makes money via a search based revenue model (where the number of active users is closely tied to profits) is that its active user base has increased by 50% a month since its launch.

There’s plenty of room for future growth by adding more features. The text RSS feed reader included in Flock is nothing special so I’d be interested in seeing if Flock tries to develop this feature the way it has some of its others. It’d also be interesting to see IM functionality similar to Meebo so users could integrate all their IM accounts within the browser. Another feature that would make Flock a surefire success is to allow users to download the Flock software and create user accounts that they can access via any computer with Flock installed. As it stands now, if I wanted to use Flock both at home and work I’d have to download Flock to both computers, sync my bookmarks from Firefox, and then configure my settings on each to get a seamless experience. But even in its version 1 status Flock has the potential to change how we both work and play on the web.


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Blogged with the Flock Browser