Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Reading Books: A Better Way?

For the last 11 days, Donna and I have been wending our way from New York to Albuquerque to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Kyoto to Shanghai. Soon we’ll be in Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul. A three-week trip, with lots of long airline (and bullet-train) trips that lend themselves to catching up on reading that pile of books that has been sitting for months on the bookstand shouting “read me.”

Trying to decide which two or three or four books to take is not easy. In fact, I’d like to cart along a couple of dozen, and then to read those that happen to strike my fancy at a given time. Or to have the freedom to quit one book whenever it loses its appeal and then to start another. But the prospect of adding the weight and bulk of 20 or so books and travel guides to our luggage, cameras, computers and gifts – that’s just not an appealing prospect.

It’s precisely this dilemma that seemed to make the Amazon Kindle so appealing to me. This recently introduced pocket-book-size electronic reader has the capacity to store over 200 books, and even more with an optional storage card. It offers some other intriguing features, including subscriptions to publications that are automatically downloaded. But my main interest, and I suspect that of most purchasers, is to read books on it.

Kindle 2

So three weeks before we left New York for the Far East, I went to amazon.com and tied to buy a Kindle. But it wasn’t immediately available. I added my name to the wait list, and waited. And waited. Two weeks later, still no Kindle.

Eager to take it on the Asia trip, I canceled the amazon.com order and bought one on eBay. The $399 Amazon list price had now escalated 50% to $600. But I received my Kindle in time and loaded it up with books. Instead of horsing 10 to 20 pounds of physical books and trying to find room for them in carry-on bags, I had the equivalent stored in my new 10-ounce Kindle.

How has it worked out? Well, here is my interim report:

The good news

Capacity
 – It’s great to have so many books available in such a light, compact device. I’ve already read a couple of books and sampled several others.

Choice – It’s always nice to have War and Peace on call, just in case you get the urge to re-read it for the first time since high school. But even if you don’t, you at least didn’t have to lug those 1,000 pages all that distance. Besides War and Peace, there are close to 100,000 other books available. That’s a lot of choice.

Cost – While the price of the Kindle reader gets your attention (especially if you buy it on eBay), the price per book is heavily discounted, with many of my purchases costing less that ten dollars, and well below their physical counterparts.

Ease and speed of purchasing – With an Amazon account, it’s fast and simple to search for and order a book. Once purchased, the book downloads seamlessly off the cellular network (no computer link is needed) in a minute or so and billing is automatically posted on your Amazon account.

Long battery life – The battery lasts for at least a couple of days’ worth of reading, and it recharges in a couple of hours.

And now for the bad news

Inadequate contrast
 – The black type is set on a gray background. And while the resolution is high, and the type is perfectly legible and adjustable to six different sizes), I just cannot get used to reading black on gray. And the more I read on the Kindle, the less I like it. I’m just spoiled by the vastly superior black-on-white contrast that one is so used to with physical books and even with computer screens.

Changing pages – When a page is changed, the screen flickers to black and then advances to the next page. It’s a one-second process, and is mildly annoying. One gets somewhat used to it, but then one also can also get used to a pebble in your shoe. You’d just rather not have that pebble there.

Accidental page changes – To change a page, either forward or back, there are thin vertical panels on either side of the Kindle that one depresses. But because of the poorly thought out way in which the reader is designed, accidental page changes are so frequent as to be unacceptable. It’s hard to find a comfortable position to hold the reader, and it’s hard not to trigger inadvertent page changes.

Industrial design – Amazon dearly needs to enroll in the Apple School of Industrial Design. Both functionally (see above) and aesthetically, the Kindle suffers by comparison. The operative word for the design: klutzy.

A few other shortcomings – Occasionally my page in the book would mysteriously get lost, and searching for it was cumbersome in the extreme… A number of the books I wanted to buy weren’t available, particularly some popular travel guides, forcing me to tote along six city and country paper guides… Maps in one book were almost illegible… Color renderings are not possible.

Final thoughts

Look, the Kindle is an incredible technical achievement. The idea that thousands of books can be easily ordered, stored and read on a 10-ounce device is no mean accomplishment.

But for a new product to be a major success, it has to be a
 lot better than the product it is trying to replace. Especially when that existing product functions pretty well at a reasonable price. So I’d rate the Kindle as an ambitious first try – perhaps a release 0.6 -- but not yet a solution.

In fact, the Kindle may actually be a solution looking for problem. In a way, it reminds me of the high-tech toilet we encoutered last week at the Tokyo Peninsula Hotel. That toilet was the Vegematic of bathroom fixtures. The lid and seat went up and down automatically, there were spray jets, there were air jets, the flushes were automatic, the seats were heated, and several other capabilities were listed on the control panel whose utility I have yet to divine. Did it solve a problem that anyone had? I doubt it.

There remains one final hill for the Kindle to climb. It has to compete with the aesthetic pleasure of holding a book, of flipping through its pages, of reading words that are black on pages that are white. For at least one reader, that’s hard to beat.

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