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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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