Kindle: First Impressions

The Amazon Kindle is not the ultimate eBook reader, but it is a giant step in the right direction. After using one heavily over the last 24 hours, I have found much that I like, things I don’t like, and a clearer vision for what the next eBook device should include.

kindle sitting on top of a traditional newspaper

Interestingly, most of the people complaining about the Kindle have not even tried it. It is almost as if the mere existence of the device—and it’s possible impact on traditional books—affects them in some strange, primal way.At any rate, I have now read almost an entire book on the Kindle. Appropriately enough, I started with Print Is Dead by Jeff Gomez. (I hope to review the book in a subsequent post.) I have also downloaded The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, because I also want to experience a novel on the Kindle. I will report back once I have finished both books.

It’s important to state at the outset that the Kindle is not so much an eBook as it is a portable bookstore. By itself, it’s not that unique. It is certainly not a major advance over, say, the Sony Reader. But the device is only half the equation. The fact that it is connected wirelessly to Amazon’s bookstore is what gives the Kindle its edge and makes it different from everything that has gone before.

Several people have written dogmatically that this device will never catch on. They may be right; only time will tell. But Amazon sold out their complete inventory on the first day. They are not saying how many units they sold, but suffice it to say there is more demand for this than either they or the naysayers thought.

What I Like About Kindle

Here are the features I like in no particular order:

  • Packaging. Not much has been made of the packaging, but Amazon clearly took a page out of Apple’s playbook. The Kindle comes in an elegant white box. Each component is neatly wrapped in a thin translucent paper. My excitement only grew is I unbundled it. (You can watch Robert Scoble unbox his here.)
  • Pre-Configured. Once I got the unit unpacked, I flipped it on, ignoring the advice to charge it first. To my surprise, it was already fully charged. It was also pre-configured. The first thing I saw was a personalized letter from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, to me. The device was attached to my Amazon account and one-click ordering was enabled. Getting started was completely hassle-free.
  • Display. The display really is great. It has the look and feel of paper. Photographs of the device don’t do it justice. It is only black and white, but for now that will do. Most of the books I read are not in color any way, so this is not a big deal. It does render line drawings and photographs in four levels of grayscale. When you put the Kindle in sleep mode, it displays one of several random pen-and-ink screen-savers, all of them harkening back to some author or an artifact of publishing. This is a very nice touch.
  • Look-and-Feel. The Kindle weighs just 10.2 oz. I like the way it feels in my hand. It is about the weight and size of a paperback book. Several times, I curled up in a chair or sofa and read with it. Jeff Bezos says that, like a book, Amazon’s design goal was for the device to disappear from your consciousness so that you could interact directly with the content. Based on my experience so far, they have achieved their objective. I quickly forgot that I was reading on an eBook reader and simply got lost in the content.
  • Connectivity. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the EVDO connectivity is the killer feature. Amazon advertises that downloads take less than a minute. In my experience, they took about 20-30 seconds. Literally, from the time I clicked the “buy” button to the time I got back to the home screen, the book was there. This takes impulse purchases to a whole new level. (Maybe this isn’t such a good idea!)

    The fact that you can sample the book first (something I have now tried with several books) makes the browsing and buying experience similar to what you might experience in-store—sans the social aspect. And, of course, connectivity is free. There are no additional charges.

  • Carrying Case. Some have said they don’t like this, but I disagree. It resembles my Moleskine journal, which I carry everywhere I go. It even has the elastic, wrap-around band to keep it closed during transport. It feels very familiar and “bookish.” My only complaint is that the case depress the keys if you don’t put the Kindle in sleep mode first.
  • Other Documents. You can put your own documents on Kindle. And, contrary to many reports on the net, I was able to add PDF documents with no trouble. You simply email the documents as attachments to your Kindle.com email address. Amazon converts the document to their proprietary format and sends it to your Kindle. They charge 10 cents for each document. Alternatively, Amazon will return it to the email you address you sent the document from and you can load it on the Kindle yourself via the USB connection. (I haven’t tried this.)
  • Experimental Browser. Amazon provides an experimental browser that I found quite adequate for most Web browsing. It will not replace Safari on my laptop, simply because it doesn’t display pages in color, and it’s a little slower than true broadband. However, it is sufficient for quick lookups and for following in-text links.
  • Kindle NowNow. One of the most surprising features that has received very little coverage is “NowNow.” You essentially email a question—any question—to Amazon and in less than 5 minutes real humans respond with an answer. For example, I asked, “What are the top-ranked journalism schools in the U.S.?” Within about two minutes, I received two messages, each with Web links for further information. I then asked, “How do you brine a turkey?” (Don’t ask me what that means; my daughter asked the question.) Again, within a few minutes they sent me step-by-step instructions. I suppose I could do this myself via Google, but this was still impressive.

What I Don’t Like About Kindle

Overall, I like the Kindle. I can honestly see myself reading most of my books on this device. This is the first time I have been willing to say that. Time will tell. However, there is still room for improvement.

  • The Overall Design. Anyone who creates a device like this is going to be compared to Apple. Steve Jobs and his crew have set the bar high for consumer electronics. Consequently, anyone venturing into this field should take as their motto “WWSD”—“what would Steve do?”

    One of the things that has made the iPod so successful is its form factor. As much as it is a music player, it is a fashion accessory. People like being seen with these devices. I don’t think the Kindle rises to that level. It almost has a retro feel to it. It reminds me of an old HP calculator. It’s not embarrassing, but it didn’t illicit from my family members the kinds of “oohs” and “aahs” that almost every Apple product does.

  • Page Formatting. The Kindle is great for reading straight text, but it is not so good for heavily-formatted books. For starters, because you can change the font size of the text on the fly, you can’t guarantee where things will be positioned on the virtual page. For me, this is an acceptable trade-off, because I love the ability to change the text size.

    Also, the Kindle “block justifies” everything. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make use of hyphenation, so this creates some weird spacing issues, especially when the font is large. It’s not a big deal, but it is the kind of detail that Apple would not have missed.

  • User-Interface. The iPhone has spoiled me. It has raised the bar for how I interact with machines. It is so intuitive and natural. Contrary to this, the Kindle is a bit of a throw-back. The scroll wheel is okay, but you can’t scroll horizontally. As a result, you must highlight an entire line. If you want to lookup a word, you have to lookup all the words on a given line. It takes a bit of getting used to.

    There is also a noticeable lag when typing. And, of course, unlike the iPhone, the keyboard is always there, not just when you need it. The Previous Page and Next Page buttons are also so big that it is easily to press them accidently and unintentionally advance the page. I am getting used to it, but there must be a better way to make this work.

  • Book Selection. The Kindle bookstore boasts almost 90,000 books available for download. However, there are some surprising omissions. Some of my favorite business books are not yet available. This is probably the fault of short-sighted publishers, or perhaps agents and authors, but it is a little frustrating. Hopefully, now that they see the potential they will jump on-board and thousands more will soon be available. I hope so.

Conclusion

As much as I would love for Apple to build the ultimate device, I don’t think it will happen. Why? Because even if they did, they would only have one half of the equation—the device. To really make it successful, they would need access to the content. And, this takes relationships with publishers, something Amazon has and Apple doesn’t.

This is also why Amazon has taken three years to get this product to market. It has taken that long to get the Luddite-minded publishers on-board. (I say this as one of them.) Apple has not been talking to us at Thomas Nelson, and we are one of the largest publishers in the country. So I have to assume they aren’t talking to anyone else either.

Some have suggested that Apple could just partner with Google and offer the thousands of books that Google has scanned from major libraries. You can be sure that won’t happen. Authors and agents already have a major lawsuit against Google. If Google—or Apple—tried to use this material without compensating authors and publishers, they would be buried in thousands of lawsuits.

So for now, Amazon is the best hope for really creating a break-through device. I hope they can make it work. The possibilities are very exciting. But regardless, I believe they have moved the ball forward in a major way. We are closer than ever to a digital replacement for the book.

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