Friday, March 20, 2009

Laying low with my Kindle

A 10 oz. white rectangle lays low on my coffee table. It's small and thin - I suppose it resembles a certain ubiquitous device made by a certain ubiquitous computer company (that has become all too ubiquitous recently, in my humble opinion), though it has a somewhat primitive-looking keyboard, no backlit display, and doesn't fit into the palm of your hand.

If that doesn't really sound very impressive, then you shouldn't be surprised. The Amazon Kindle is not an iPod or a iPhone, though it does have aspects of both devices. And although the Kindle may be belittled for failing in all the aspects where those devices succeed, it is really its own animal and deserves to be taken on its own merits. Because what the Kindle does well, it does really REALLY well.

I'll begin this with an admission: the iPhone is pretty much incredible. It is a phone, a web-browser, a portable e-mail inbox, an internet television, a jukebox and chock full of bizarre little games to pass the time. It does all that with an interesting and intuitive user interface and somehow manages to fit into your front pants pocket. In my opinion, this thing begs to be used constantly. With all those features, don't most other activities seem kind of bland?
In the backpacker's guide to civilized life in America, the iPhone is like the Swiss army knife of the tech-savvy (portable, effective, multi-featured) and the Kindle is a like a really good hunting knife (which means its really good at one thing, i.e. cutting shit). So, although it might sound stupid and contrarian of me to say so, if the Kindle actually were more impressive, it would be a failure.

Reading is a passionate activity for many people, but people don't want it to demand their attention. So, while I will mention some of the number of secondary features of the Kindle, some of which don't succeed very well, and others which succeed exceedingly well, I'd like to spend more of my time on one aspect. In my opinion, this one basic principle is going to determine your need to immediately go out and get one of these suckers (and no, you don't need to physically go out - they're only available on Amazon).

It's all based on your answer to the question, "Do you like to read?" As stated by Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, the Kindle is designed for the consumer demographic of "heavy readers." Now, I suppose this designation is a tad ambiguous, given that a relative comparison to other Americans' reading habits could mean that anything more than one book a year is a "heavy reader" - if that's true, then I'm a candidate for World's Strongest Man). But whatever - I think that the basic concern is something like you have a general enjoyment of reading and, perhaps, you even have the desire to read more than you already do.

So, if that fits you, you've already fulfilled the most important criterion for whether this hip new technology is for you. The Kindle makes the activity of reading more portable and more accessible than it could ever be with traditional books. Now, I hesitate to add "more fun" to this list because I would be skeptical of anyone who said it was somehow "more fun" to read a digital book than a real one (I'd say it's about as fun or less so than reading a regular book, depending on the intensity of your devotion to experiencing each fiber of the paper or examining the weaving in the bind, etc. - which might be a legitimate concern to some of us (nerds). And I might be one of those people. But obviously, I love my Kindle, so there's still got to be a good reason for buying one. See below.)

We're talking about the ability to carry around upwards of 1500 books on your Kindle - and it's not going to get any heavier or bulkier. I think that's important especially because a big part of how I read (and I think this applies to many folks out there) was based on my ability to pick something up or carry it around with me. Why do you suppose I never got around to reading War and Peace? Or any novel by Tolstoy for that matter? When it comes to reading, size definitely matters. And my ability to pick up Anna Karenina at any point in time is going to substantially increase the chances of my reading it. Furthermore, the Kindle features an automatic bookmark that, if you switch books at any point, the Kindle saves the place where you stopped and returns you there when you reopen it.

The accessibility is also important in the thickness of a book is also very likely to influence my decision to start in on the project to begin with. There seems to be something disingenuous about picking up a copy of Crime and Punishment without the committed intention of eventually finishing it. But the Kindle is accessible in the sense that it makes it incredibly easy to begin something without making that kind of intense commitment, and it is just as simple to switch to something else if you don't find it to your liking. That kind of flexibility is important in reading because it makes the activity of reading easy to engage in, even though the texts you read may not be.

I'd like to make a note to my international friends that may read this. The Kindle's instant access to hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature is really only functional in America at this point - which is just the disappointment of being a 2nd generation piece of equipment created by a company that specializes in shopping, not designing consumer electronics. Disappointing, I know, but hopefully the Kindle's interface will become the standard for all ebook readers and it will spread relatively quickly around the industry.

Other interesting (but ultimately less successful) features of note include:

MP3 player: You can upload mp3 files to the Kindle and play them while you read books. However, there doesn't seem to be a feature for seeing a library of your music files, and as such they are always played in shuffle mode. That means you can't use the Kindle for digital audiobooks just yet, unless you would like to assemble each chapter from random order into a continuous narrative - you're so postmodern!

Web-browser: The Kindle has an experimental web browser. It's experimental in the sense that you can perform Google searches, check e-mail, or do any other general text-based internet functions. But you're not going to be able to download any files on it, unless they are Kindle books or ebooks in other select formats (MobiPocket [.mobi] is the other popular one that I know of). The point here is, the Kindle is ultimately not a very successful web-browser, though it could get you by in a pinch. And the free internet access is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Text-to-Speech: This is not your middle-school SimpleText program. It does a pretty accurate job of pronouncing each word, albeit with a slight Norwegian accent (props to David Pogue for nailing that clever and accurate comparison). It can be helpful if you need to give yourself a rest and just want to listen while following along in the text. But mostly, in my opinion, this feature is just a little embarrassing. I'm not exactly sure who thought this was a great idea at this point in the technology, but maybe it will provide a working basis for improving it later.

But, even these features aside, I still think the Kindle is absolutely fantastic. The e-Ink (electronic ink) display reads much easier and draws way less energy than the backlit iPhone - so for all you iPhone users who claim to be able to read e-books on the iPhone, stop deluding yourselves - that tiny display is never going to be better than the Kindle, much less any electronic reader with an e-Ink display. Obviously, the big sticking point is going to be the fact that the e-Ink only displays black and white and 16 shades of gray on the Kindle, but it still displays pretty good B&W photos and supposedly the technology for a color e-Ink display is currently being developed.

Another sticking point is going to be the price ($359 alone, +$29 for leather cover [you should probably get this just to mitigate the risk of cracking the display, +$65 2-year warranty), which is still pretty high in my opinion, especially given only these mediocre features in addition to its abilities for basic reading. Plus the ebooks from the Kindle store are generally around $10, delivered wirelessly to your Kindle in about a minute and backed up on for free. But, to get around this, I've discovered a great little website with 23,000 ebooks and growing that are all available for free - . This website offers, in Kindle-ready format, works of classic literature, philosophy, science, religion, etc. which are out of the public domain and therefore freely accessible and distributable via the web. So, not only can you search their database on your computer, download whatever you like (Joyce, Aristotle, Einstein, Shelley, et al.), and then upload them to the Kindle via USB - as if that weren't good enough - but they also have a mobile website that you can browse on your Kindle via the web-browser and download wirelessly for free as well! Now that's instant access to a world of knowledge if I've ever seen it. No more need to buy random Barnes & Noble copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra - it's accessible at any point where you find yourself in need of the existential advices of a fictional character.

So I think that pretty much covers the main points. I do want to take a moment to emphasize that we should not see the Kindle (or ebook readers, in general) as a replacement for books. There are certain physical qualities of a unique copy of a book that will never be reproduced in digital form, and, in that way, loving an ebook is much harder than loving a "aBook" (short for analog book and much less confusing than "book," "real book" or "book book," as I've toyed with using). But the point is that the Kindle is going to give you a much vaster library of literature to read and a very accessible format for doing it, and thus, a greater opportunity to read more and read more of what you want - not just what you have.

So while I would say the Kindle may be slightly less cool than an iPhone because it is much less versatile, I must say that it succeeds because of its simplicity. This is thing for reading. And when I want to read, I can't think of anything better than a device that focuses on that and doesn't try to interrupt with phone calls or emails or all the other distractions out there. The point is: the Kindle is not there to make a lot of noise; instead, it makes simple, beautiful music.

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