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The Future of the Kindle


Kevin Drum has a post musing on the differences between reading books printed on paper and reading books that have been loaded onto his Kindle. His conclusion isn't kind to the e-reader:

[W]hat's struck me the most in my back and forth between Kindle and paper is that the Kindle is really unsatisfactory for books that have a lot of charts and tables. The resolution is poor; columns don't line up right; captions break up halfway through; and both charts and tables can sometimes be pages and pages away from the text they're connected to.

More generally: the Kindle is bad for any book in which the actual layout of the text is important. That's pretty obvious for something like a coffee table picture book, but it turns out to be true for nonfiction with lots of illustrations too.

This isn't very surprising: The publishing industry has put quite a lot of effort into perfecting the display of text on a piece of paper. To put it slightly differently, books are pretty good at being books. They have a lot of practice at it.

But the Kindle is young yet. And as I argued in my assessment of the gizmo for the Columbia Journalism Review, its true potential isn't in displaying printed text in an alien, electronic medium. It's in hastening the transition to digital text that will be displayed in its native context. A book that has paid particular attention to formatting is a book that has been optimized for the printed page. The Kindle will be poor at displaying such a book. But the question is what happens when someone finally writes a book that has been intelligently optimized for the Kindle? A book with hyperlinks, and maybe embedded video. A nonfiction book that allows you to download the full studies it mentions and lets you click on a quote to read the full transcript of that interview.

I didn't much like the Kindle when I tried it. But that wasn't really the Kindle's fault. I wouldn't have much liked the early years of the television, either. Back then, the magic box was showing radio programs that were sexed up with moving images. But over time, it began showing programs that were written for television first, not second. Eventually, the Kindle will undergo the same transition. And it will be a lot better at displaying books written to take advantage of the Kindle than it is at displaying books written to take advantage of wood pulp.

Photo credit: Getty Images Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 21, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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"Back then, the magic box [TV] was showing radio programs that were sexed up with moving images."

This observation, however, still describes about 75% of scripted television programming. I'll leave it to someone else to decide whether that's a prediction about ebook readers.

Posted by: JEinATL | July 21, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

That's not really the future of the Kindle, that's the future of mobile computing devices in general. And between the iPhone, the Kindle, netbooks, etc., we're obviously in the technological infancy of the net-enabled portable device industry.

Whether one likes the Kindle or not right now has an awful lot to do with the kind of reading one enjoys. Ezra plainly wants to have a fully functional net-enabled browser rather than an e-book, which is what the future will bring undoubtedly, but it won't necessarily be called a Kindle.

Posted by: woofer123 | July 21, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Actually, baby-tv content was often very very good -- and included stuff you couldn't get on radio -- so you would have loved it, Ezra. (Hermosa Beach, California, 1948)

I'm thinking of Broadway plays performed live, Superman (short films), Space Patrol (15-minute live performances to die for if you were 7 like I was when Dad bought our first tv), Mr. Peepers (live and wonderful), the Beanie Show (puppets live) and even Spade Cooley's variety show (also live and authentic in a Nashville way).

My family was, of course, naive about production values (read loud noises and graphics) but not about content.

Please find another analogy, Ezra.

Posted by: tallfl | July 21, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the problem that Kevin describes is that the Kindle is a different medium than a book, and thus requires different visual design. It's that the Kindle is poorly engineered: it simply cannot display a properly-formatted table.

Tim O'Reilly describes the problems that his company has had with the Kindle here:

The upshot: Amazon, in an effort to make more money, invented a proprietary file format for the Kindle, and that file format is inadequate for technical books.

Posted by: dcamsam | July 21, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

dcamsam is pretty much right. PDFs solved the display problem years ago. It's the "market" imperative to avoid an actual market that led Amazon to create a proprietary file format, which happens to be lame. It didn't have to be lame. Has anyone out there tried other ebook readers? I haven't so can't compare. I believe that the Sony Reader will display PDFs in their native form, so I expect that it works better for material that depends on a specific display formatting.

The strange thing is the parallels yet differences with iTunes. Apple managed to corner the market even though it was selling a non-proprietary file format, the mp3. Amazon is cornering the market in part through its use of the .azw proprietary file format. It's curious that both strategies have worked--so far--fairly equivalently.

Posted by: JonathanTE | July 21, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

This is a good seat-of-the-pants analysis, but it lacks depth. See Christine Rosen's fuller article "People of the Screen" at

In short, there is a significant amount of culture embedded in technology and media to which most of us are relatively insensitive. Rosen argues that reading from a book and reading from an e-reader (or any electronic screen, especially one that's web enabled) are fundamentally different behaviors. The differences are more appreciable when comparing, say, reading the newspaper to watching a TV news broadcast. The implications for both content and cognition are many and are often not very salutary.

Posted by: Brvtvs | July 21, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

"But the question is what happens when someone finally writes a book that has been intelligently optimized for the Kindle? A book with hyperlinks, and maybe embedded video. A nonfiction book that allows you to download the full studies it mentions and lets you click on a quote to read the full transcript of that interview.

It's called the internet. And the better Kindle is just a computer. When we all have cheap tablets that run whatever -- web browsers, book readers, music, movies -- we'll wonder why anyone thought a crappy computer that only does one thing was a good idea. Reading a PDF on a tablet computer is far better than anything Amazon is likely to ever put out, until they put out something that is, essentially, a semi-crippled computer. But why give them the $400?

Posted by: Ulium | July 21, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Some sort of wirelessly networked handheld reader device with a large enough screen to be comfortable strikes me as inevitable: it's just so handy for newspapers, magazines, blogs, journal articles, and the collisions, confusions, and combinations among those categories. I claim no notion whether the most popular such devices will most closely resemble (or be a descendant of) phones, netbooks, a thin tablet like the Kindle, or notebooks, I don't know how successfully the book market will be integrated, and I certainly have no notion whether Amazon will be involved in any important way - but the logic of a lightweight terminal with a screen at least the size of a paperback that gives you good readability and has good battery life seems compelling.

Posted by: WarrenTerra | July 21, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

"But the question is what happens when someone finally writes a book that has been intelligently optimized for the Kindle?"

That's a done deal, and it's got a name: the mass market paperback.

Rather than thinking about how to optimize a book for Kindle, I'd view it as far more useful to think about what books Kindle is optimized for... and I'd say that the answer here is fairly clear, once one considers Kindle's abilities and limitations.

Kindle does a pretty good job at displaying minimally formatted text, and it does an adequate job at going from one page to the next. And that's about it.

Kindle does not deal well with complicated formats, doesn't display graphics worth a darn, and is ghastly if you try to jump around from one location to another with any frequency---it's simply too slow and clumsy.

So, what does that say about what does and doesn't work on Kindle? Well, if you take your typical mass-market paperback, you start reading on page 1 and proceed linearly---page after page in succession---through to the end. Mass market paperbacks are generally all text, with little additional structure beyond chapters and paragraphs. For this, Kindle is great.

As a counterpoint, my favorite example is any of my math textbooks. My reading there is often very nonlinear, as I'm constantly jumping back and forth as I look up this or that somewhere else in the text. I tried one such book on Kindle; it can't even come close to the speed with which I can flip physical pages. In this case, I want the physical book (though I've done OK with some textbooks on my PC in PDF form).

This pretty much defines what I use my Kindle for---anything that is (or can reasonably be condensed to) a mass-market paperback. Even things like history tomes work pretty well, as long as one is willing to write off any illustrations or maps the book may include. As this sort of book constitutes a significant chunk of my reading, Kindle winds up being a huge win for me---not only are the books cheaper (even free, sometimes), but I don't have to deal with the annoyances of maintaining all that bulk.

So, that's the takeaway here. Kindle is not a replacement for all physical books---but if you stick to using it for what it's best at, it really is very good indeed.

Posted by: GreenH | July 22, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

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