With growing Apple tablet excitement, misguided Kindle whining returns

imagesWe’re coming up fast on the 2nd anniversary of the introduction of  Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. Yet despite the many improvements and price cuts in KindleWorld, we’re still subject to the same weird, off-base complaints we first heard back before anyone even had even gotten their hands on one. Recently, my favorite Mac guru, John Gruber, and my favorite, favorite curator of interesting web matter, Jason Kottke, offered their own takes of the same-old, same-old. The usual quality of these fellows’ writing makes their anti-ereader rants all the more puzzling. Gruber’s most recent post was very short, though it’s hardly his first¹. Here’s Kottke at greater length:

But all these e-readers — the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, et al — are all focused on the wrong single use: books. (And in the case of at least the Nook and Kindle, the focus is on buying books from B&N and Amazon. The Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book.) The correct single use is reading. Your device should make it equally easy to read books, magazine articles, newspapers, web sites, RSS feeds, PDFs, etc. And keep in mind, all of these things have images that are integral to the reading experience. We want to read; help us do it.

His final point – no good rendering of images – is at least a fair criticism given the lack of color e-ink screens. But the rest is more than a bit off. Mind you, we don’t even really know what the user experience will be like on the Nook or Sony Daily Edition.

Even if you grant Kottke his weird premise that book reading shouldn’t be the primary focus of ereaders², he’s still missing the target, particularly for the Kindle. It’s incredibly easy and pleasing to read magazine articles, blogs, miscellaneous web postings, RSS feeds and PDFs on my Kindle DX. I subscribe to The New Yorker and love how it gets delivered Sunday nights with all the stories and tidbits and even the CARTOONS. I regularly use the included browser and FREE mobile 3G access to read RSS feeds on the mobile version of Google Reader. There’s also the much-loved Kindlefeeder service, though I don’t use it personally.

And have I somehow not raved enough about how incredibly useful Instapaper‘s “Send to Kindle” feature is? Well, some but clearly not enough. Super short version: Find a long article or posting on the web you want to read later on your Kindle. Hit your “Read later” bookmarklet. Turn on your Kindle. That’s it. Brilliant. B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T. And p.s. Instapaper (and Tumblr) developer Marco Arment, in his own post shooting down Kottke, mentions that he’s about to unveil a “much better version” real soon now.

So I guess the question is why are they so off? Sure, there’s been a lot of hype around the new Nook and Sony’s revamped ereader line-up and hype naturally draws a backlash. But I think the deeper answer is the rumored, imminent Apple tablet which some people think will slay Kindle and Nook and all their single-focused brethren. It seems like some usually bright commentators have been fixating on how great the tablet will be that they have already decided that it’s is a “Kindle Killer.” And since the tablet is still vaporware, with exact pricing and features unknown, that precognition is seeping out into general dissing of the current crop of ereaders. Too bad, because taken on their own terms, ereaders are a great product. And they’re best suited for avid readers who buy a lot of books and sometimes read on the go. That’s likely not as many people as own iPods or cell phones, but its multiple tens of millions of people.

Prior coverage:

Apple still isn’t going to kill Amazon’s Kindle, or any other ereader (9/12/2009)

Instapaper’s instantly useful for sending articles to Kindles (3/17/2009)

The Kindle is for readers, the Kindle is for readers (6/20/2008)


¹Gruber’s been wrong about the Kindle since Day One: “After chewing it over all day, I’ve concluded that Amazon’s Kindle is going to flop.” He also pointedly disagreed with my more optimistic view that day.

²I’m not a big fan of the “what about my needs” school of product criticism.

Kindle DX: Even better electronic book reader

kindxNo secret that I’m a huge fan of Amazon’s Kindle electronic book reader. I’ve had one since Day 1 and read dozens of books and hundreds of shorter articles on it. Its crystal clear e-ink screen works even in bright sunlight. The battery life is phenomenal. And the free wireless connection makes it a breeze to buy new books from almost anywhere in the United States, surf text-heavy and mobile-formatted web sites and stay up-to-date with favorite magazines and blogs on the fly. Amazon’s Kindle store has, by far, the best selection of ebooks you’d actually want to read and at the lowest prices in nearly every case.

In fact, I’ve been so satisfied that I skipped the Kindle2 upgrade opportunity. The improvements sounded fine, but not enough to justify re-upping when my Kindle1 still worked brilliantly.

The larger screen and enhanced PDF capability of the Kindle DX grabbed my attention, however. I have to read a lot of PDF files for work and the DX’s native ability to display even complicated files in Adobe’s popular format appealed greatly. I pre-ordered ASAP and so have been using the DX since it arrived in June. In two months plus since, I’ve found it to be much like the original only better. The price tag is undeniably high at $489, so I’ll leave it to each reader to determine whether a DX purchase is justified based on their personal economic situation.

The DX is considerably larger and heavier than my original Kindle, obviously. But I’ve found that if I hold the DX just so, with one hand gripping towards the middle of the device, the weight balances nicely and it doesn’t feel heavy. Displaying far more text on the 9.7″ screen means less pressing of buttons and changing pages, which has noticeably sped up my reading. The bigger screen is also great for reading magazine articles and offline blog posts, which I’ve been more likely to sign up for since getting the DX.

kindx-2The DX also shares all the cool new improvements from the Kindle2. Pay attention to the improved abilities of the font-changing button, for example. The little key carrying a picture of a bold capital letter A next to a small A does more than just change font sizes now. It can also change the screen orientation 90, 180 or 270 degrees (or lock in a particular orientation to prevent the DX’s hair-trigger sensor from doing it for you). It can also change the width of the margins, a handy feature to accelerate reading (narrow columns are easier to speed read). And it’s the place to go to activate the new read-aloud feature (which I don’t really ever use and is often disabled by greedy publishers).

The improved PDF feature works as advertised. Using drag & drop or email, you can throw PDFs onto your Kindle and open them immediately — no translation required. There’s not much you can do to alter a file’s appearance, though if you switch from portrait to landscape mode, you effectively zoom in maybe 33% or so. Pictures and charts show up fine unless they include tiny, intricate details. There’s no color but the Kindle’s 16 shades of grey simulate as best they can.

kindx-4While I mostly approve of the design changes from the original, two sort of rankle. The new keyboard is harder to use with its smaller, roundish buttons than my old Kindle’s keyboard. And the five-way rocker switch — or whatever they’re calling it — is useful, but it’s much, much slower to move around on a page than the old rolly button with its silver sentinel. In the unaddressed previous flaws category, there’s still no good way to organize your ebooks on the Kindle and book sorting options remain limited. And still no real page numbers, either.

We seem to be entering a golden age of electronic book readers. Since Amazon introduced the DX, Sony has debuted three new readers, including FINALLY one with wireless service, Barnes & Noble has announced all kinds of partners and a host of smaller players have hit the scene. Maybe someday soon Apple’s rumored tablet device will arrive, as well. And through it all, the Kindle DX remains a great device for reading and obtaining books and magazines. It will serve me well as I wait to see what new delights await in the future.

Amazon really blowing it with Kindle DRM

The other day, I posted about some of the idiotic and inadequately disclosed limitations built into almost every electronic book sold by Amazon in their Kindle store. These limits, enforced by so-called Digital Rights Management, or DRM, software, can dramatically effect the way consumers view Kindle ebooks. And they make complete hash of the argument from publishers that ebook prices should be higher.

Today comes news of another deeply troubling Kindle “feature.” Apparently, a publisher agreed to sell Kindle versions of two George Orwell classics, 1984 and Animal Farm, but later decided to withdraw the ebooks. Amazon then went back into the Kindles of every customers who had purchased either of the volumes and DELETED THEM, while also refunding the purchase price and issuing a cryptic explanation. “We recently discovered a problem with a Kindle book that you have purchased,” Amazon told customers (Tip o’ the cap to New York Times tech columnist David Pogue for the link).

It’s one of the most egregious violations of consumer rights yet in the content industry’s DRM world. Even Apple, which used to lock up all the music in the iTunes store with DRM, never tried deleting music in a customer’s library after it was withdrawn by the record label from the store.

Not good! Bad! And now Amazon gets a hail of bad publicity and complaints, like these from David Pogue, Harry McCracken, Engadget and likely legions of others.

And of all books, 1984? It’s almost like an April Fool’s joke. We only wish.

p.s. the image above is for a different and slightly more expensive version of 1984 still available (at least of right now!) in the Kindle store.

UPDATE 7/18/09:

Now the Kindle deletion story has made the New York Times, where we learn that the “publisher” didn’t have the legal right to post the books and, more importantly, that Amazon’s Kindle terms of service do not allow Amazon to delete a book already purchased! Apparently, Amazon is promising not to do it again but I suspect they’ve done tremendous damage to their brand and created an opening for competitors to exploit.

Insanely great Kindle on iPhone needs one big improvement

kindleiconjpg(Updated 3/5) Wow – just wow. Pretty much ever since Amazon announced its nifty Kindle e-book reader in November 2007, people have been predicting that Apple would jump into the e-book game and blow Amazon away. Today, Amazon decided it wasn’t going to wait around and introduced an e-book reader program for the iPhone and iPod Touch that likely blows anything Apple might do away. The new program uses the same book format as the Kindle. In other words, you can now read every Kindle book you ever purchased on your iPhone or iPod.

The look and feel of Amazon’s program is much like other e-book readers available for the iPhone/iPod touch platform. It opens onto your library of books. Click on a book and start reading. Swipe across the screen to turn the page. You have the same multiple-size font choices as on the Kindle. You can mark a page with a bookmark just like on the regular Kindle. It doesn’t appear that you can save clippings or add notes yet, however.

img_0002The coolest thing of all is the automatic synchronizing of books you’re reading between your Kindle and your iPhone. Taking in that new Danielle Steel best-seller before bedtime? Say you’ve read a couple of chapters before you stash the Kindle on the bedside table and get some shut-eye. The next day, you find yourself waiting endlessly at Midas Muffler for your car to be ready. Simply whip out your iPhone, bring up Danielle’s book in the Kindle app and, automagically, you’re exactly where you left off the night before. I’ve tried it both ways and it works. Read a few pages on the iPhone  and switch to the Kindle – it’s up to date right where you left off. Read a few pages on the Kindle and switch to the iPhone – same deal.

Of course, this 1.0 version isn’t perfect. The most important flaw — and it’s a pretty annoying one — is that you can’t buy books or search for new books or really access the Kindle book store at all from within the program. You can, as I said, download any book you ever purchased from the Kindle store, wherever you may have it now, onto your iPhone. But to buy new books, you have to use a web browser. You can do that on the iPhone’s web browser but it should be more integrated.

img_0003I’d also ding the Kindle for iPhone for not including automatic access to your own documents that you may have uploaded or emailed to your Kindle. And there’s no access yet to magazines, newspapers or blogs subscriptions. I also noticed a glitch with some cover art not displaying properly.

Still, even with those caveats, the Kindle iPhone reader certainly blows away the other iPhone readers (like Stanza) in terms of book selection and book pricing. As I’ve explained before, no other book store has anywhere near the selection as Amazon’s 240,000 (and growing) Kindle store. And no other book store has Kindle’s low prices. The vast majority of Kindle books, more than two-thirds, are priced at less that $10. Even in the over-hyped, well-publicized cases where Amazon is selling books for more than $10, the price is less than the price of buying a comparable hardcover in almost every instance.

I’d also say that the Kindle iPhone reader is at least as good or better than most of the other reader program in terms of its user interface and ease of use. It’s behind Stanza in font and color choices, but Stanza’s 1.0 version lacked many features at the start, too. For ease of eye strain, zillion-times better battery life and a few other reasons, I will always prefer reading on my Kindle to the iPhone, but it’s great to have this added capability when on-the-go and traveling light. The only thing that needs fixing is the buying experience, so let’s get on it Amazon.

UPDATE: Wow, even Walter Mossberg likes it, pointing out you can now get access to Amazon’s Kindle store without having to buy the $359 Kindle:

If you’re an iPhone or iPod Touch owner who has yearned for a Kindle but balked at its $359 price, or a Kindle owner with an iPhone or Touch already, this new Kindle app is a good bet, even if it is bare-bones.

David Rothman, on the Teleread blog, has a good rundown of the implications of Kindle on iPhone for the Digital Rights Management (DRM) formatting wars that continue to harass e-book customers:

Short term at least, this should do exactly what Amazon says: expand interest in e-books. I just hope Amazon in time will offer ePub capabilities in hardware and software and also be less fixated on DRM. Significantly, Mobipocket softwatre can at least import nonDRMed ePub. Can the new Kindle software for the iPhone and iPod Touch?

p.s. I think this development means I “win” my sort-of bet with publisher and blogger Rex Hammock about whether Apple would get into the e-book selling business. And we’re now, I think, both on the same side hoping that Apple introduces a larger version of the iPod Touch, an eBook Touch or some such.

UPDATE2: Rex Hammock, who I often describe as an Internet smarty for his thoughts on the future of publishing and journalism, agrees I win the bet and also find the new app quite compelling:

I think I’d use the App even if I didn’t have a Kindle. I’d probably not purchase dense novels, but it’s perfect for short-stories or something like a David Sedaris collection of humorous essays — things you’d read while stuck in a line. If you already own a Kindle and an iPhone, download the app immediately. If you don’t own a Kindle, I’m still not ready to declare it a must-have gadget unless you haul around lots of books or don’t have anymore room on your bookshelves.

Prior coverage:

Exciting e-book progress from Amazon and Google (2/6/2009)

Amazon: Follow Apple’s lead and don’t blow Kindle opportunity (1/27/2009)

Fictionwise improving its e-reader and web site for iPhones and iPods (8/27/2008)

Apple will not slay Amazon’s Kindle, not even close (8/20/2008)

Fictionwise e-reader for iPhone equals new Kindle competitor (7/10/2008)

Amazon: Follow Apple’s lead and don’t blow Kindle opportunity

kindle-1I think it’s fair to say I’ve been of the earliest, strongest and most prolific fans of Amazon’s fabulous electronic book reader, the Kindle, since the day they unveiled it, just about 14 months ago. I’ve defended the Kindle against reviews from people who’d never actually had one, iPhone fans who like to read their books in 3-inch chunks and the inevitable whiny mainstream newspaper reviewers. I’ve defended the thing so much that blogger and publisher Rex Hammock even once said — jokingly — that he was “outsourcing” his opinions of ebook readers to me.

But today, I come not to praise Amazon but to critique, to complain and to whine. For a few weeks now, I’ve had a thought creeping up from the back of my mind that Amazon was fumbling its leading position in ebooks. First, Sony came out with a much improved version of its reader in time for the holidays and Amazon offered…nothing. Worse than nothing even, they ran out of Kindles for the second year in a row, losing out on countless sales from people who weren’t willing to wait until February or March to receive a Christmas gift.

Next, I started thinking about all the little, niggling software flaws that I assumed would have been long-ago rectified by firmware upgrades. What could be simpler than adding a few features, fixing a few flubs and generating a lot of positive buzz by automatically upgrading everybody’s Kindle software over the built-in wireless connection?

Sure, there was one incredibly minor firmware upgrade last winter and news recently of a second one, dubbed 1.2.0 (link may require Yahoo ID sign-in). But neither of these upgrades has added much of anything or generated any buzz at all. I don’t think the gadget-news-happy folks at sites like Engadget have even noticed the 1.2.0 upgrade yet, it’s so minor.

Take the organization of reading material. You’ve had your Kindle for a year, you’ve bought lots of books, downloaded others for free, maybe subscribed to magazines or blogs, maybe sent yourself a whole pile of documents. The only display and organizing option is to see everything in one huge long list that requires endless paging to sort through. When Kindle first came out, this was a minor concern — and it’s still hardly a game breaker — but IT’S SO EASILY FIXABLE. What exactly is preventing Amazon from adding some folder-like feature so we can keep things where we want them?

I first wrote about the Kindle for my day job, where I predicted it would be a financial winner for Amazon on par with the boost Apple got from the iPod. I still believe that. But Amazon needs to pay much closer attention to the Apple playbook. The iPod and iTunes store ecosystem have seen constant improvement, added features and new types of material along with some really major new benefits like downloadable rental movies. Apple has even been willing to discontinue the best-selling model at a particular time to replace it with an even better model, beating competitors to the punch. And the attention to detail is impressive. After I complained about the lack of the iTunes plus grey plus sign symbol showing up on the new Genius recommendation lists in iTunes 8.0, it was fixed weeks later in the 8.01 upgrade.

By contrast, Amazon has sat listlessly by, doing absolutely nothing to add features, improve the hardware or extend the ecosystem. How about some business model innovation? Rentable books or all-you-can-eat book plans or something, anything? Nope. Nada. Amazon needs to get back on the ball or the Kindle is in danger of becoming, in one of Steve Jobs’ most derisive monikers, just “a hobby.”

UPDATE: Of course, within minutes of posting this thought, comes news of a February 9 press conference where Amazon may unveil the upgraded Kindle. Brad Stone on the New York Times Bits blog has an excellent wrap-up on news and rumors of the Kindle Mark II.

(As an aside, I’d been thinking about writing this post for a few days when I saw that publishing exec Joe Wikert was bored with running his Kindleville blog and was looking to hand it off to a new author.)

Previous coverage:

Ignore the static: Kindle is great for reading (11/24/07)

Ignore that Cranky Mossberg and his Kindle whine (11/29/07)

The Kindle is for readers, the Kindle is for readers (6/20/08)

Apple will not slay Amazon’s Kindle, not even close (8/20/08)