Tag Archives: Kindle

The Kindle evolves again

Image from Amazon.com

Update: Here’s an overview video of the new Kindle.

Amazon today unveiled the third generation of its Kindle ebook readers. The new devices, which will ship beginning August 27, will be smaller (21% reduction in size, while keeping the same size screen) and lighter (8.7 ounces) than the current generation of Kindles, with double the storage capacity, improved contrast and fonts, and built-in WiFi. Most importantly is the price point: $189, with a $139 WiFi-only model also being offered.

When Amazon first sold the Kindle, I roundly criticized it (here, here, and here; and then here for the second generation Kindles) as a good idea but lacking several deal-breaking features that should have been obvious, and would have been inexpensive, to include. I also thought the price point — which at the time was in the $359 range! — was way too high. I don’t think Jeff Bezos has been reading this blog, but I must applaud Amazon for addressing most of the issues I’ve brought up.

It took them long enough, but clearly the rapidly-expanding competition in the ebook reader market — not least of which is the iPad — has forced Amazon to make a better mousetrap. We now have native PDF support; WiFi in addition to WhisperNet; a better user interface and sturdier physical design; integration of social networking tools; and a reasonable price tag. The only thing they haven’t done that I first wished they had is made the screen touch-sensitive and in color, but after using the Kindle app on my iPhone and other ebook readers, I’m inclined to think that this isn’t such a big deal after all.

Additionally, Amazon has employed a pretty smart marketing strategy, which is to focus on the content rather than the hardware. If I own a Kindle, buy a bunch of books with it, and then decide I don’t like the Kindle any more or if the Kindle breaks, I’m not screwed — just use the iPhone or Mac Kindle app. For that matter, I don’t have to own a Kindle device at all to read Kindle books. That gives readers more freedom (which is good) and it’s also probably what allows them to drop the price on their hardware so much — more people are buying Kindle books without the Kindle reader, so the demand for the device is lower.

The one thing that seems curious in this announcement is that I would have expected Amazon to go full-throttle into the academic textbook market. Colleges and universities are beginning to adopt the iPad as the hardware platform of choice, and the lower price of the Kindle, availability of prominent textbooks (like Stewart’s Calculus) as Kindle editions, and the generally lower price of Kindle books over their print editions would seem to be big selling points. But there was no big announcement aimed at students and educational institutions to accompany the Kindle announcement itself. And the August 27 ship date is just a little too late for students entering the Fall semester. I wonder if Amazon believes they have a shot in that market; I happen to think they do, but they’ll have to get a move on if they want to compete with the iPad.

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Still not Kindled

kindle2So Amazon.com has released the Kindle 2, to mostly positive reviews. But I think Amazon missed several opportunities to make the Kindle 2 a must-have device for people who work with text content. I outlined these opportunities back in November 2007 in this blog post. Let’s check them off: 

  • Native PDF support: No. By “native support” I mean that if I have a document that I want to put on my Kindle and view, I ought to be able to do so easily and free of charge, and it ought to look on my Kindle as it would if I had printed it. But this is not the case for the Kindle 2. To get a PDF or other kind of document onto your Kindle, you have to email it as an attachment and have Amazon do it — for a price of $0.10 per document. And even then, according to Amazon’s specs, you may get a PDF whose formatting is completely out of whack if the PDF is “complex”, which for mathematical documents it probably is. (Although I would like to hear from Kindle 2 owners who successfully get a typical mathematics article to display on their devices, properly formatted.) I can understand that PDF’s are difficult to work with display-wise and perhaps Adobe is the right group to complain to about this. But my main objection is the cost involved. I shouldn’t have to pay any amount, no matter how small, to take a document that I created or possess and put it onto a device that I own
  • Touch screen and/or handwriting recognition: No. I just can’t figure out why they can’t put a touch screen on this thing. Does it screw up the display resolution? It can’t be because touch screens are expensive; as I pointed out in the earlier article, Palm Pilots had touch screens back in the late 90’s and it didn’t jack their prices up inaccessibly. 
  • Improvements to UI and buttons: It looks like yes. It certainly doesn’t look cheap, as the Kindle 1 did. So sexiness is one thing Amazon did right here. 
  • Free access to any RSS feed: No. You still can only subscribe to the RSS feeds that Amazon provides (although there are a lot more of these now than there used to be), and it still costs money. Slashdot, for example, is $2 per month. That’s not much, but why should I have to be paying for this when I can get RSS feeds for free on a computer or an iPhone? And if I want to subscribe to 100 RSS feeds, as I do, then am I going to be ponying up $100/month for these? That’s too much. 
  • WiFi as a paid option: No. Here’s another one I don’t get. I can appreciate the flexibility of 3G connectivity (especially after owning an iPod touch for a few months and striking out on wifi coverage in various places). But why not make a “Kindle Deluxe” for $100 more that includes WiFi connectivity in addition to 3G? People would buy this. Why not make it? 
  • Price drop: Forget about it. The Kindle 2 retails for $359. That’s about the price I paid for my iPod touch. Even if you agree that $359 is a fair price for the Kindle 2 — and this is a highly debatable point — the fact is that this is only the beginning of the expense of owning and using it. You have to pay to have your own documents put on it; you have to pay to access RSS feeds and then only the ones Amazon provides; and of course there’s the cost of the books themselves. Kindle books are, to be sure, significantly discounted over their print versions. But how many books would I need to purchase in order to recoup the loss of purchasing the Kindle in the first place, paying to transport my own documents, and paying to access my RSS feeds? I could do the math, but it’s probably more than I’d want to pay. 

Devices like the Kindle really show a lot of promise, especially in education. It’s exciting to think that something like the Kindle could be used to provide students with cheaper textbooks which they could carry, annotate, and share with others. And I like the idea of being able to carry around PDF’s of articles and books, sharing and annotating as well. So it’s disappointing that Amazon gets us this close to having a killer text content managing device, but stops right at the doorway. 

Still, if Amazon or someone wanted to send me one of these as a gift, I’d take it.

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The Amazon Kindle and anti-freedom technology

After writing my two recent posts about the Amazon Kindle, I began to notice that I was not only unimpressed but bothered, even angered, at certain elements of the Amazon Kindle. I don’t usually get ticked off at an electronic gadget I don’t own, so I had to think about what my problem was. After a while, I pinpointed the cause: It’s the way Kindle handle blog subscriptions. You can get blog content sent straight to the Kindle, but only the blogs that Amazon chooses to offer you, and only after paying a fee.  Most blog “subscriptions” on the kindle are $0.99/month. Cheap, negligible even, but still not free. And this strikes me as being simply wrong.

The power of technology consists in its capacity to be a liberating force in our lives. This goes all the way back to foundational technologies such as electricity, indoor plumbing, the automobile, and so on. The reason we include technology in our lives — the reason we keep buying new technologies — is not so that we can own a device. We own the device because in some kind of sum-total way the technology makes us more free.

Take the iPod for instance. It does cost you something to own an iPod, apart from the cost of the device, namely that if you get your music from iTunes you had better be ready to own only iPods for the rest of your music-loving days, thanks to Apple’s DRM. But that opportunity cost is offset in numerous ways. The iPod and iTunes make me free to buy only the songs I want rather than the whole album, to try new music at low cost, to arrange music and play back music the way I want, to carry literally 20 years’ worth of collected music with me in a small, sleek, and incredibly well-designed package.

Or closer to home, consider computer algebra systems like Maple or Matlab. Of course it’s cool that these programs can do symbolic integration or calculate π  to the 100,000th decimal place. But what makes them powerful and not just cool is the way that they free mathematics students and researchers to concentrate on learning concepts and big ideas, or making observations and reasoned conjectures, rather than having to worry about whether our calculations are right all the time.

And so here comes the Kindle, and from the get-go it starts locking me down in all these  different ways without giving me any truly freeing technological advantage in return. You can buy books straight from the device; but all the books you already own have to be re-bought and sent to the device. You can send your own text or Word documents for viewing on the Kindle, but only through email and only after paying a fee to do so. That’s your own content being put on your own device, and you’re being charged for it. And don’t get me started again on the lack of PDF support.

In this situation, the overwhelming message being sent is that Amazon is not interested in making a product that will revolutionize the way I conceive and consume books, but rather a product that will make them lots of money, to be made in turn on expenses both big and small and not all of them necessary or even warranted. This just isn’t the kind of technology that the world needs today.

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Nine ways to fix the Amazon Kindle

I panned the Amazon Kindle yesterday, so it’s only fair that I give some constructive ideas in return. Amazon, Jeff Bezos, whoever is reading this, if you want your Kindle to sell like iPods among college students and faculty, do the following:

  • Include native support for reading, annotating, and syncing PDF documents with our computers. Imagine the ability to download a PDF of a homework assignment,  PowerPoint slides, research article, or whatever, from the internet or a course management system; move it to the Kindle; then read and annotate the PDF; then sync your annotations back onto the computer for archiving, later viewing, or presenting. The ability to do this in a lightweight, high-storage capacity device would make it very compelling — possibly irresistible — to faculty and students, those of us who traffic in electronic documents.
  • Make the screen touch sensitive and include some kind of handwriting recognition. This isn’t hard or expensive. Palm has been doing a pretty good job of this for years on relatively inexpensive devices and you can, too.
  • Listen to Scobleizer’s comments about the user interface, particularly button locations and sizes.
  • Did I mention native PDF support?
  • RSS. First of all, learn what RSS really does; unlike what you say on the Kindle main page, RSS provides a lot more than “just headlines”. Kindle can deliver full blog content — but it’s only for select blogs, and for a price. Baloney. Include an RSS reader with the device, and then let users subscribe to whatever RSS feed they want, and as many feeds as they want. What’s it costing you to allow that option?
  • Give the option to have WiFi. The world doesn’t need “Whispernet” or any other new-fangled proprietary system. If you want to charge an extra $100 for WiFi capabilities, fine. But give the option.
  • Make the buttons a little less cheap.
  • Before I forget: Native PDF support.
  • Drop the price — big time. $400 is way too much, particularly when you consider that that’s only the beginning of the expense of owning the thing. You have to pay for subscriptions to blogs, for the ebooks you can read on the thing, even for the privilege of moving a file you created from your computer to the device! With all the above improvements made, I’d consider paying as much as $199 for it — the same price as an 8 GB iPod nano, because I would be equally attracted to both devices. (And let me tell you, that iPod nano is really calling out to me these days.)

You’re welcome, in advance. Email me for where to sent the royalties.

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Un-Kindled

kindle.jpgThe Kindle — Amazon.com’s e-book reader and fledgling entry into the consumer electronics market — seems like a good concept. It certainly looks good, and there appears to be some interesting technology under the hood. But there are some puzzling choices being made by Amazon here as well. I’m not buying one, and I think I’m not alone.

What I could see myself — and by extension, other academics and college students — using a device like this for would be to read and annotate documents on the go without the physical burden (and relatively poor battery life) of my Macbook. And when I say “documents”, I mean PDF’s. The PDF is the hydrogen atom of the electronic document world — the most commonly occurring element and appearing in all different platforms. I have mountains of e-documents I have to read and take notes on in all areas of my profession, and they are almost all PDF’s. If I had an electronic device that was light, small, didn’t get hot when I used it (like the Macbook still does), has a nice display, allows me to read and annotate PDF’s easily, and was priced around $150, I’d snap it up in a minute.

The Kindle gets all of these right except the last two, and these are deal-breakers for the academic market. A $400 price tag for a “document reader” that won’t let me read the format which 90% of my documents are in? It makes me wonder if Amazon truly understands the concept of the “electronic document” if they think the Kindle is marketable to all but the have-everything early adopters in its current state. (And yes, I’m aware that there are third-party workarounds for the PDF issue, but really, this is like saying that it’s OK if a car only runs on kerosene and not gasoline because there are third-party solutions to convert one to the other.)

Update: Scobleizer unloads on the Kindle. There’s video. I think he makes too much of the lack of social networking capabilities, but his UI criticisms are hard to deny.

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