On Kindle, Apple, and Goring Oxen

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The iPhone Kindle Reader

Last night the App store debuted Amazon's new Kindle Reader application for iPhone. As a generation 1 Kindle owner, I immediately jumped all over this. This free application accesses your Amazon Kindle account and allows you to selectively download books you have purchased to your iPhone or iPod Touch. I've loaded seven books on my iPhone (a few of which are quite long) with no noticeable hit on available RAM.

k3 iphone.jpgIn between dealing with the onslaught of life, I've been reading Niel Stephensen's "Anathem." It is an excellent book, but I've not had much time lately for fiction. So the first time I loaded Anathem on my iPhone it started right where I left off on the Kindle. Amazon's Whispersync service works with the iPhone application. So I read the book off my phone for 20 minutes. The experience was not bad. You turn pages by flipping sideways which makes much more sense than scrolling up and down. This way you always pick up where you left off and this comports with an entire lifetime of turning pages in books. I then ran over to my Kindle. Sure enough, Kindle figured out what I'd read on the iPhone and sent me straight to the page I left off on the iPhone. Delicious.

All is not perfect however. I have several books, particularly reference and continuing educational materials, that I've converted to Kindle using Stanza for OS X. Sadly, I cannot get those materials into the iPhone Kindle Reader. Hopefully that will change. Also, while the reading experience is acceptable on the iPhone, I still think the form factor and digital ink on the Kindle is better.

So What Does this Mean?

With this move Amazon has taken a huge step toward e-book domination. I've always felt this market was Apple's for the taking. They were the only company with the existing infrastructure (iTunes) to make the e-book model work. That is no longer true. Amazon has a compelling model and all indications are that they are not so much interested in selling proprietary hardware as they are books. This is a good fit with Apple that (by most reports) makes its money on hardware. If Amazon has embraced the iPhone, can you imagine how nice it would be using WhisperSync service on the often rumored super-sized iPod Touch? Likewise, if Amazon is on the iPhone, don't you think an OS X version is already in the works? I can see Amazon looking at giving its customers as many ways possible to read their books. The Amazon experience is making it easy for readers to happily drop themselves into the Kindle ecosystem. Sound familiar?

The fact that Apple allowed this app on the iPhone would indicate Apple is okay with giving up the e-book. I think one assumption a lot of people have made (myself included) is that Apple ever had designs on the e-book market. In retrospect, this may have never been true. Steve Jobs said last year he had no interest in selling e-books. (Of course he also said at one point he had no interest in a video iPod.) Regardless, getting back to the idea that Apple makes its money on hardware, perhaps the Kindle and Amazon's strategy of readers everywhere is a good thing for Apple. Apple is in the unique position of making the only device that can combine your iTunes and Kindle libraries. The boys in Cupertino could sell a lot of hardware if they play this right.

The Goring of Oxen

So who are the losers if this trend continues. The obvious answer is other book reader formats. However I'm also thinking this can not make book publishers very happy. The nuts and bolts end of publishing (manufacturing and distributing) is supplanted by a successful Kindle store. If publishers are no longer getting authors into bookstores, how long will it be until authors find a way into the Kindle store without publishers? Like the record industry, it should be very interesting to see how this all develops. If at the end it means musicians and authors make more money and guys in suits make less, that will be a good thing.

When Kindle premiered I mocked it. Now that I've used one for a year, I'm thinking Amazon just might have "iTunesed" books.

Looking at the Kindle 2

Amazon rolled out the Kindle 2 today. I am a reformed Kindle user, which means initially I mocked it and now I love mine. I still have my doubts as to whether the Kindle business model will actually succeed. It seems to me people would prefer not to buy new hardware to read their books. However, since Amazon appears to be the only game in town, they just may pull it off. Maybe one way to get better market penetration would be for Amazon to bundle the Kindle for free or at a seriously reduced price in exchanged for pre-paid subscriptions.

Anyway, as much as I like my 1st generation Kindle, the form factor is just awkward. After a year, I've still yet to figure out a way to hold it comfortably while laying on the couch without accidently turning pages. Hopefully they sorted that out with the new design.

Weighing in on Electronic Book Readers


There is a lot of hubbub on the internet lately about these document reader devices. Sony has one and now Amazaon is pushing its "Kindle" which also is supposed to do the trick. The idea behind them is to replace your books with an electronic device that displays as well as the printed page. So you can be sitting on your couch or in a coffee shop and read newspapers, blogs, books, or anything else that strikes your fancy. In principle, I think this is a great idea. However, I don't think the existing products are there yet. Let me explain.

I like books. I like their heft. I like the texture of the paper under my fingers. I like rifling through a book with my thumb to find a particular passage. But when I read a book, I don't just "read" it. For me it is a more interactive process. I put checks in margins, underline passages, dog ear pages, draw lines and arrows in the margin, and tear pages out of magazines. I even sometimes argue with the author in the margin. This is usually with non-fiction reading but I've been known to rant with fictional characters as well. That is right, I am a librarian's worst nightmare.

When looking at these new readers I realized there are a few things that just have to be in place before it could be useful to me:

1. The display must be friendly to the eyes. Really!

Screen technology is improving every day. But if I am going to spend three hours reading a screen, it needs to be perfect. I saw the Sony reader in a store and it actually looked pretty nice. For 10 minutes. I don't know how it would feel after hours.

2. Universal Access - PDF

I added the letters "PDF" during the edit of this story. Because I can think of no other way to pull this off. Any system that requires me to wait on Amazon, Apple, Sony or any other corporate gang is not going to cut it. Whether I am reading a 1903 legal decision or an article on recent changes to Applescript, I want it in my electronic reader. Furthermore, I'm not sure I like the idea of everything having to be text. With the PDF format, you can have unique formatting, styles, and pretty pictures to boot.

Using PDF's would also help solve the problem of dicey book DRM. As it stands with Amazon's reader, you pay $400 for the device, then $10 for a book, then $15 for a newspaper subscription. It is in a format that can only be read on that machine. Who is to say there will be anything that can read that file five years. On the other hand, I am looking forward to passing on my copy of Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" to my daughter when she graduates high school. It is well worn, well annotated, and DRM free. Good luck with that one Amazon.

3. Annotation Must Be Supported

Without annotation, I think this would be nothing more than a toy for me. Fun for reading fiction but useless for "work". I am open to ideas on this annotation but doubt anything can beat my current analog system consisting of a few pencils. This technology exists on current tablet based computers but that is really not good enough. The pixelation is horrendous and clunky.

4. It Must Be User Friendly

I've promised myself I will no longer purchase consumer electronics that look like they were designed by a monkey. Call this my Apple bias but it is not. I just like things that work well and were designed with idea of accommodating me more than some manufacturing equipment in Taiwan. The Sony reader looks stylish enough but it falls apart when it comes to features. The Amazon Kindle just strikes me as ugly. It reminds me more of my old Atari 800 computer more than anything designed in the 21st century.

The things that I don't need in a reader are a bunch of internet bolt on applications. No email or productivity applications. Wifi would be nice for obtaining content but I am not even convinced I would need a browser. At least not a browser in the traditional sense. I would prefer a simple way to wirelessly sync content and annotation.

As the technology gets smaller and cheaper we may find that the idea of a reader is simply a passing fancy. The 2007 equivalent of the personal jet pack. If anyone gets tablet computing right it could easily include these features with a few more. The advantage of a reader would, hopefully, be a lower price but with the increasing use of flash ram and better electronics, we may just leap frog the digital reader entirely and use tablet.

So there you have it. Could a device like this exist in the near future? Sure. Does it exist? No. So it looks like I will just have to continue abusing books. For now.