I just spent a Thanksgiving weekend with the Amazon Kindle, the online retailer's newest entry into the long-disappointing ebook market, and was pleasantly surprised at how well the system works.
Whether you like the Kindle will depend, as most of the early reviews have, on whether you focus on Kindle, the physical ebook reading device, or on Kindle, the complete ebook distribution system.
The later is the best thought-out, most thorough yet with by far the largest inventory of ebooks ever offered.
Amazon's expertise as the largest online publishing retailer shows. The integration of the online store, wireless ordering and delivery, display and indexing is seamless. The quickness and simplicity with which you can find and receive a publication in the inventory of 90,000 Amazon ebooks makes the Kindle a pleasure to use.
I purchased books, magazines, and newspapers and emailed Word documents to myself.
Kindle uses Sprint's cellular phone service for online browsing, and delivery. Response is snappy. Pages in the online store appear promptly, order processing is rapid, and an entire book can be delivered in seconds. You also get a receive-only email address, which allows you to email documents to your Kindle. Amazon converts the file behind the scenes, so they can be read, and searched on the Kindle. A large document in Word (.doc) format worked well. Unfortunately, Amazon lists PDF conversion as "experimental" and my one attempt failed miserably: The file showed up as a small, unreadable image, turned sideways -- with no error message indicating the conversion failed. (Continues below image.)
Caption: Amazon's Kindle can hold all these books and hundreds more.
Selection of Sprint rather then WiFi seemed strange to me at first. But in using the system I can see why: There is simply zero configuration, which would be unavoidable when moving between various WiFi networks. Unfortunately for travelers, this means you can't download documents when outside the U.S. You can transfer documents from your personal computer, using a USB cable.
Pricing and the perceived value v.s. print varies widely. Best selling books are often available for $10 or less. This represents the discount v.s. print that readers expect in return for lowered production costs, and lack of a physical book or document that can be shared. I ordered "Fair Game", by Valerie Wilson and "Kafka on the Shore", by Haruki Murakami, and "As You Like It", by Shakespeare. However, the Harry Potter series is, surprisingly, not available.
Older titles, such as the Shakespeare, are priced at $3-$6. You'll either find this inexpensive, compared to print, or if you are one of the few that uses ebooks already, you'll note that out-of-print titles are available elsewhere for free as PDFs or in other ebooks formats, such as those for the Palm.
Automatic delivery of magazine and newspaper subscriptions is almost-viscerally gratifying. You simply turn the machine on and, look there's today's New York Times and this month's new Atlantic Monthly!
But pricing for newspapers is oddly out of sync with that of books. Papers such as the 'Times and Wall St. Journal cost about the same as print editions. It is hard to justify $160-a-year for an electronic version of a newspaper, when you can read the paper free online. Also, almost all of the graphics are gone. E-ink screens can't display halftones; although the faux woodcut head shots in the WSJ are included in that product. Most of the newspapers and magazines don't bother to translate their images for the Kindle -- yet anyway.
By contrast, if you use the New Your Times "Reader" you can automatically download the entire daily paper, for free, including graphics to read on a Windows-based PC. This software (which runs on the Microsoft .NET 3.0 Framework, for the technically-inclined) re-flows the columns automatically to the size of the viewing window.
Amusingly, Salon, an e-zine that doesn't appear in print, is outselling Fortune, Forbes and Atlantic for the Kindle.
There are also blogs for subscription, although I can't bring myself to pay $24 or more a year to read a free blog on an ebook. While there are over 90,000 books in the Kindle store, there are only about eight magazines and a dozen newspapers, although that is likely to change, so clearly the emphasis is on books.
A dictionary is bundled on the reader, and the rudimentary browser can access Wikipedia, which is tremendously useful in this application.
There are only a few flaws in the store. Only a few product descriptions have formatting errors, common to converting documents from print to online. When a product description fits in one page, the "more" menu is displayed anyway, and provides no feedback when you click on the extraneous menu. It just sits there.
The hardware is not bad, but it is not exciting. (Continues below image)
Caption: Kindle's e-ink screen is easy to read. A Chicklet keyboard helps order online, search documents, or enter notes. Here you see books, newspapers, magazines and personal documents on the home screen.
Most important is the display: The screen uses so-called e-Ink, which provides higher contrast than a notebook display, and no flicker (This version does, annoyingly, flash to black on page changes, though). It appears similar to the Sony ebook screen, and is equally easy to read for lengthy periods.
Navigation is simple: There are large (perhaps too large) next- and previous-page buttons and a back button. The wedge-shaped, off-white slap is light, fits easily in the hand, and reportedly can stand heavy impact.
However, the screen lacks backlighting. Amazon's Jeff Bezos says this is an advantage, since the absence conserves battery power. The e-ink is more readable than a PC notebook's LCD screen in bright light. But the Gemstar ebook of about a decade ago offered to the option to turn backlighting on when you're in the dark, such as a crowded coach-seat in an aircraft. I doubt Bezos ever flies coach <g>.
Battery life appears excellent so far. I charged the device once upon receipt, and have used it for over ten hours, including about an hour-and-a-half with the cellular modem on to browse and order documents. The battery indicator has barely budged so far.
Character size can be adjusted, as with older ebooks. Free-text search is fast.
Otherwise, the Kindle ebook simply doesn't look or feel like a $399 device in 2007. The aesthetics are more Microsoft than Apple or Sony. It's just utilitarian and boring. The ergonomics don't quite work right. Simplicity of use was the primary goal, and the designers achieved that. But the large buttons are too big; it's hard to hold without inadvertently paging forward or back, which soon gets annoying.
There is no justification for the price based on utility. When you consider that you can buy the cheapest PC notebooks for about the same price, including a more expensive screen, a hard disk, a large power supply, a more expensive keyboard, it can't be justified on part's cost either.
You'd expect Amazon to employ the razors-and-blades approach to jump-start sales of documents, instead of insisting on a premium price for a new entrant in a dormant market, ebooks, that has never taken off. It feels as if Amazon is behaving like Microsoft and exploiting its early adopters.
Amazon's Kindle is a great device for 100K travelers, that want to save every ounce in their carry-on's. (I've agonized many times about whether to pack a book or not; a Kindle can hold literally hundreds at less weight than a single paperback.)
I suspect there will be vertical markets that will also find the Kindle useful for holding thousands of pages of reference materials, such as aircraft maintenance documentation, or legal briefs.
Given that the Kindle ebook reader costs $399, and shows only minor evolution over the Gemstar ebook of a decade ago is disappointing. But my advice is that if the price isn't out of your range, and you can't get beyond that and focus on the excellent system Amazon has assembled, wait 6-months or so and I project that it will be priced at a more reasonable $150.
For years, I've been a fan of the ebook concept. I've tried dedicated readers, from the Gemstar to Sony's, and purchased ebooks to read on PCs and cellular devices. But Amazon's Kindle promises to be the first to succeed, because of its large, initial inventory, the excellent store-to-delivery system, as well as Amazon's sheer visibility in this area. If the physical device doesn't excite you, don't worry, we'll likely see improvements there as well.