On Tuesday last week, to much fanfare and extreme skepticism, Amazon launched their Kindle book reader. If you went solely by invective and blog traffic, a casual observer might surmise that Amazon had been handed a monopoly on reading and thus any failure of the device was somehow a personal attack on the intelligentsia, rather than the release of a small niche-market consumer electronics device. Within hours there were hundreds of reviews on Amazon for the device, most extremely critical, yet by definition there were no devices in consumer's hands. Even a week later, the love-hate relationship seems far more fired up with invective than could possibly be justified based on what the device is, and more importantly isn't. Noted tech-wonk Robert Scoble went so far as to switch from baseline praise to mind-wrenching red-faced diatribe calling for unemployment lines at Amazon. Notable author Neil Gaiman managed to get into a well-mannered disagreement about it with large-funny-person Penn Jillette.
All this over a gizmo?
The Kindle is really a dull and simple device designed to do exactly two things: Get stuff you can read, and then make it easy to read it. And yet, all of the discussion seems to be about its digital rights management, and its industrial design.
This DRM debate is endless and in my mind somewhat pointless. The exchange between Penn Jillette and Neil Gaiman on Neil's blog is typical: Penn argues for the pointlessness of DRM and the irrelevance of the product in the face of the joys of a physical paper, Neil points out that the whole DRM thing is a red herring and that the device has substantial benefits over paper. (At the end of the day, Amazon's DRM applies only to books you actually buy - everything else works natively or with minimal hassle.)
So which is it? Sliced bread or failed better mousetrap. Rather than engage in the kind of feature dissection we technophiles live on, I thought I'd just record how this thing has actually fit into the life of my family in the last 7 days.
Day 1: Ooooh, Shiny! And small!
Jess and I take turns poking around on it, trying to figure out what it does in the corners. We get used to holding it. Our first impressions are favorable. It's incredibly light and geek-lust thin. The navigation, through a little scroll-wheel and click, is completely intuitive. The screen essentially is paper, which even in the age of Rock Band seems somehow magical. We download a handful of books and subscribe to a bunch of magazines. We take turns fondling it.
Day 2: I haven't seen it in a day, because Jess downloaded a new release in a hardcover series to which she is addicted. It's 800 pages in print form, about twice that in digital clicks.
"So how do you like it?" I ask.
"It's good. Not as good as the last one, but it made me cry about half way through. They killed off one of the main characters, so I just had to finish it and see how they ..."
"No I mean the Kindle."
She looks puzzled.
"Oh. It's fine I guess," she says, shrugging. "I didn't really think about it. It's nice you can read it with one hand instead of lifting weights with a hardcover."
Day 3 (Thanksgiving): Now that Jess has finished vampire romance novel number 324, I spend some quality time goofing around with the Kindle. It's surprisingly easy to get non-Amazon material on it. I just plug it in to the USB cable which perpetually hangs off the back of my laptop, and it shows up as a hard drive. I drop .txt and .mobi files into the "Book" folder and they show up. I convert a handful of PDFs to .mobi files using Mobi Creator and they work perfect, Tables of Contents and all. Sweet.
Like a set of prayer beads, I take it with me to Thanksgiving dinner, and spend some time reading "The Secret Garden" to my daughter. I quickly see what Jess was talking about. After a few pages I forget I'm just reading a book. Yes, the page "flashes" briefly on page turns (a function of e-ink, not the Kindle per se). But after a few minutes, it ceases to be distracting. The only ongoing perception I have of the device itself is how nice it is not to have to hold it. Sitting curled up on the couch with my daughter, the kindle just rests on my lap, and I tap the "next page" button now and then. When I shift positions, I can just hold it lightly with my left hand by the spine of the cover, and nudge the page button with my thumb.
Day 4: I grab the kindle from my wife's nightstand. Yes, she's still dominating it. I'd bought a few books I'd been meaning to get and she's now decided they're at the top of her reading pile too. Curse Amazon and the "buy it now, get it now" book thing. I can tell it's going to be a constant battle who has Kindle rights.
I head downstairs for morning coffee. The previous night I had subscribed to a bunch of blogs, newspapers and magazines. I try browsing some blogs, and give up. While the idea of reading blogs on the Kindle is a good one, the problem is that most of the blogs I read are as much about linking to web content as they are content in their own right.
The Kindle will load the web pages most of my blogs link to. There's a rudimentary web browser. But it's less than ideal, and absolutely no substitute for a laptop, or even an iPhone. The web functionality is more an emergency backup than a true feature. This doesn't disturb me in the least - it's not supposed to be a portable browser, it's supposed to be a book.
My subscription to "Slate" and "Salon," more traditional internet magazines, is much more rewarding, and I spend an hour reading over coffee and a bagel. Again, the fact that I don't have to hold it is wonderful. It just lies flat in front of me, out of range of Bagel crumbs. Since I have it at some distance, I increase the typeface a notch, and it's comfortable to read at a distance of about 3 feet - way further away than I can read a paper, and while it shows poorly in photographs (like everythign about the Kindle) the text is, in short, gorgeous.
Day 5 AM: The Gym Test. My mom picks me up. Yes, my mom is my gym partner. Instead of my usual random magazine, I put the Kindle on the treadmill rack. Again, I'm delighted to be able to read a book without holding it. It's pretty much impossible for me to hold open a book on the treadmill normally. I'm just not coordinated enough. But lying flat in front of me, I can sweat like crazy and just tap the page once in a while.
Inspired, I crank the typeface all the way up and try actually running. Oh Joy oh Rapture Unforeseen! Yes, I can actually read a book at a full out run. I lose 20 minutes to Larry Niven's new tale of known space with my heart rate over 150. Simply impossible with a paperback, and it fills me with delight.
Day 5 PM: I spend some more time poking at the deeper features. I confirm that you can indeed listen to audio books on it just fine, and it's a miserable, but I suppose functional MP3 player. It's not going to replace your iPod, but for a little Brian Eno background music, it fits the bill. I play around with the Dictionary and the Wikipedia lookup features and they work - nothing fancy, just functional. I spend half an hour poking around the store and, like a jaded lover, discover the first big wart.
Book selection. Just as many early-adopter music services suffered from critical holes in the back catalog, so too the Amazon Kindle. I've been dying to read Into the Wild. It's not available. Thinking this might be a gaffe purely on Amazon's part, I poke around the web and discover it's not available in any eBook format, for the Sony Reader or the Kindle. Another hour shows me holes all over the library, again, not limited to Amazon, but rather limited to the whole idea of eBooks. And while Amazon accurately shows that 100 of the 112 current best-sellers are available, if you're after book 101, you're still heading to the bookstore.
That evening I just read. The Kindle disappears, and I realize how important the design of the book is, and how strongly I disagree with so many web comments about it's supposedly horrendous un-holdability. The instructions for the thing say that it's designed to be used with the cover on (even though all of the marketing shows it with the cover off). Being a weak pawn, I tend to follow directions, and I can confirm that wiith the cover on, it's extremely difficult to accidentally hit any buttons while reading, and the left hand spine becomes a natural handle. The super-matte surfaces of both the screen and the frame make it readable and un-distracting at any angle, in any light. The next page buttons on both sides make it usable in more positions than a normal book, and in no case does it ever require two hands to use.
It is, in short, the most invisible piece of technology I can recall owning. This makes it supremely unsexy, and exactly right.
Day 6: Once again, I wake up early and grab the Kindle from my Jessica's nightstand. The Kindle falls out of the cover and bounces off the floor of the bathroom. Thankfully no damage, and looking at the drop-test video on the Amazon website, I have some hope that my good fortune isn't accidental, but it highlights another wart. The kindle isn't a book, it's a device. It can break. It can out of batteries. It can drown. While a drop into the tub hurts any book, I imagine it ruins an expensive kindle exceptionally well.
No harm done, I descend to the temple of my morning ritual. It's Sunday. So I buy the Sunday New York Times for 75 cents (a bargain for a non-subscriber). While I miss the crossword puzzle and the smell of newsprint, I still get sucked into the Magazine's discussion of Rock Band and a dozen other articles of note. It's completely satisfying.
That's my week with the Kindle.
It's been at least what I expected. Yes, it's expensive, but with Jessica chewing through dozens of hardcover books a year, my payback on $400 will be less than a year. While this cost-justification was part of my purchase-justification, I find it's the subtleties that make me really pleased with it. Short of reading in the tub, the Kindle is easier to read in more places, positions, and situations than a physical book. The simple ability to lie flat or be held comfortably with one hand means I can read for longer, more frequently and with more comfort. And grabbing a book or a newspaper on demand is enough to make any word-geek giddy.
But it's far from perfect. It is expensive. The cover, which I find completely necessary, is in desperate need of more secure attachment (Velcro works great). The book selection is less-than-perfect, although I imagine this will improve with every passing day.
And Amazon needs marketing help. The Kindle's launch reeked of "get it out fast." The big-picture marketing efforts (like video demonstrations and blurb's from authors) we're great, but simple things like communicating how freakin' easy it is to get non-Amazon content on to the device, for free, remain horribly misunderstood.
But in the final analysis, the point of the thing is to be a better book. It does this very well. Everything else is just icing on the cake, which is, in this case, not a lie.