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Book 'Em!

Reading books, newspapers, a magazine and a blog on Amazon's Kindle brought more annoyances than I'd expected, as I outline in today's column. Ultimately, I only found one way in which this clearly trumps a printed book--the fact that you don't need an opposable thumb to turn the page.

Allow me to explain: If you're doing some boring but unavoidable task that has your fingers occupied--like flossing your teeth--you can place the Kindle on the nearest surface to read, then turn the page by pressing a knuckle of your hand or even your elbow into one of its big "Next Page" buttons.

I will miss that part of reading things on the Kindle. Everything else, not so much. The Kindle's hardware and software create some non-trivial usability problems, and the selection and pricing of titles for it further undercut its value.

I'm not quite breaking new ground in that statement. Prior e-book reviewers have come to the same conclusion; see, for instance, Mike Musgrove's test of the Sony Reader from last summer and the late, great op-ed writer Marjorie Williams' take on the NuvoMedia Rocket eBook from 2000 (a copy of Musgrove's 1999 review of the Rocket eBook, which I couldn't find online, follows after the jump).

Future upgrades to the Kindle or other e-book readers could address some of my concerns. I'm certainly sure that the contrast, resolution and refresh rate of E Ink screens like the Kindle's can only improve over time, and a rework of the Kindle's layout of buttons could also make it easier to live with.

But the publishing industry is also going to have to live up to its end of the bargain. Instead, publishing houses seem compelled to repeat every mistake made by the movie and music industries over the past decade :

* Offering only a small subset of available material? Check.
* Providing only a minimal discount--or no discount at all--that ignores the vastly lower costs of electronic distribution? Check.
* Locking down purchases with "digital rights management" usage limits that don't stop commercial pirates but do trample on the rights of law-abiding customers? Check.

That last bit is particularly annoying, considering that Amazon's other recent venture into electronic media is a DRM-free music store.

You essentially have to treat Kindle purchases as a disposable commodity--books that you don't value enough to keep on the shelf.

In other words, the Kindle might be a perfect solution for school textbooks. If I could have spent $400--of Mom and Dad's money--my freshman year on a 10-oz. device to store electronic copies of textbooks that came at even a slight discount from list price, didn't require spending an hour on line at the campus bookstore to buy, didn't weigh a pound or two each in my backpack, didn't occupy precious space in my dorm room and could be easily searched and annotated, you bet I would have taken that deal.

(Of course, the Web would also have had to have existed then, and in the fall of 1989 it was just a research proposal at a laboratory in Switzerland.)

Now you can tell me: What would get you to buy an electronic book?


Published on: Friday, 3/19/1999, Fast Forward section,
edition, zone, N74

The Medium Is the Monica

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer

The neatest thing about reading on a Rocket eBook is that nobody around you at the Metro station or the cafe knows what you're doing. People see you gazing intently at a small, glowing slate, occasionally depressing a button with your thumb. People stare -- they think you're a busy guy, perhaps, or deep in thought. What nobody suspects is that you're actually reading Monica's Story, trashy bestseller and the first simultaneous release of a name-brand work in "eBook" and hardcover form.

The Rocket eBook is a piece of hardware built exclusively for reading books. Its memory contains enough storage space to hold 10 novels (or about 4,000 pages). To answer everybody's first question, yes, the screen is sharp enough -- you can stare at it for the same amount of time you'd stare at any other book. You can underline, insert bookmarks and stick notes in by tapping the keys on a tiny onscreen keyboard. The battery is durable enough and made it through 75 percent of Monica's tale of lust in the Oval Office before needing a recharge.

NuvoMedia's slogan for the eBook is the rather Microsoft-ish "Where will you take it?" -- but the more relevant question is "Where will you leave it?" You can take the eBook anywhere you'd take an ordinary book, but, unlike a regular book, this is not the type of thing you'll want to leave lying on your car seat if you have to park anywhere near the 9:30 club. It's a handsome enough piece of hardware, but with its stylish leather case I felt like I was carrying a purse around (alert Jerry Falwell!).

Here's how the eBook shopping experience goes: Head to ( does not offer Rocket-compatible books) and browse through the titles the site has available in "electronic format." When you find one you like, enter your credit card numbers, go through the usual checkout process and a few minutes later an e-mail from brings the Web address from which you can download your book. (Monica's Story was about 400 kilobytes.) Park your eBook in its cradle, which connects this hardware to your computer via a com port, and your new "book" is ready for your perusal moments later.

Comparing this to the more popular online book-buying option, you're paying nothing for delivery and you're getting the book almost right away. For a paperback or hardcover book at the same online bookseller, you'd pay $3.95 in shipping and handling for one book (standard UPS) and have it delivered to you in three to six business days. If you're going to buy 125 books or so, one at a time, you'd be spending enough in shipping and handling to eventually justify the eBook's cost -- but only if your tastes match what's available. A visit to on Tuesday turned up only 362 eBook titles.

If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books -- books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don't particularly want taking up space in your bookcase -- books like Monica's Story, in other words. Alas, you don't get to gape at the pictures that the hardcover version comes with.

Bookstores have a lot to worry about these days, certainly, but it doesn't take much insight to conclude that the Rocket eBook isn't one of them just yet. Me, I'm going to save my money and buy another bookcase instead.

$499, Win 95

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 6, 2007; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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I would buy one only as an investment. The largest problems with paper books is their cost and the physical space they consume. So for me to consider one, an electronic reader would have to be able to pay for itself in savings over buying paper books within 2 years or so. Even if the reading experience wasn't perfect, I wouldn't mind that much if the price was right. The problem is, in a productive year I might get around to reading only 10 books so that would put a maximum price on one of these , things at around $200 for me, depending on discounts.

That, and I would demand the ability to loan a title I purchased to a friend to read--these days, it seems like personal recommendations are the only way to discover interesting fiction titles beyond the bestseller list.

Posted by: BR | December 6, 2007 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Rob on the use of these items for college textbooks. It probably could save a lot of money, unless publishing companies will still demand $100-$150 dollars just to download their textbooks, which I could easily see them doing. Otherwise I do not see the purpose of one of these devices. They do not seem to take advantage of known technology very well and cost way too much. I would not pay 400 dollars for a grayscale screen. I could buy a cheap laptop for that and just pull the book up on that screen. Amazon and others are not doing themselves any favors by trying to market inferior products for too much money.

Posted by: That Guy | December 6, 2007 12:40 PM | Report abuse

To me, Kindle e-books are a solution in search of a nonexistent problem.

BTW, the value of e-books is made even worse, by the fact that (unlike traditional books) they can't be loaned to a friend, or resold, or turned into a book exchange for a credit.

Posted by: JohnJ | December 6, 2007 3:21 PM | Report abuse

When I saw the Kindle, I thought, hey neat! Useful for traveling, and for voracious readers who always need a book handy.

However, voracious readers tend to look for ways of saving money on books, and my family is no exception. If you read three books a week, buying them new adds up really quickly. So instead we get books from the library (free) and from from thrift stores ($1-$2 a pop).

So there's the rub, for me. After the $400 cost for the unit itself, the price of the reading is vastly more expensive than what we are currently paying to keep ourselves in books. The advantages of portability aren't enough to outweigh that.

Posted by: Tony | December 6, 2007 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Anytime a new gadget comes out, be it a new laptop, a new iPod, or a new cell phone, I want it. Reading the Newsweek article (significantly more positive than this post) turned me on to this one ...

But I've been following Rob for a long time and I value his advice. The biggest problem for me right now is the price (I'm just a poor high school student), and the device would be much improved by offering a non-WiFi version for about a quarter of the price. I'd be far more likely to take a collection of well-loved books on a week-long vacation than purchase a new set, so the option of transferring four or five from a computer instead of packing them into an already-stuffed luggage bag would suit me just fine. No Kindlenet access required.

I'm going to wait for Amazon to pull a Jobs and drop $200 off the price after Christmas. Then I'll grab it for my college textbooks next year!

Posted by: Doc | December 6, 2007 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Kindle is an electric etch-a-sketch!

Posted by: Steve Ballmer | December 7, 2007 2:17 AM | Report abuse

I've been reading books on my Palm for years that I purchase from eReader has a gazillion titles, many for $7 or less and some for free. Titles must be downloaded to my computer first, but that isn't much of a bother.
I like having my titles on a small device, operable with one hand. My spouse isn't disturbed when I read in bed and I don't have stacks of old paperbacks laying about the house. The only downside is that I can't share a good book with a friend.
There is no way that I would shell out $400 for the Kindle device. How many books could one buy for that kind of money?

Posted by: David | December 7, 2007 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I have been using a couple of ebooks over the past five years. I started with the Rocket/RCA/eBookwise eBook and the Palm. I have seen the Sony and the Kindle. The best to-date is Palm and its ebook reader. The Palm's reader program is available for both the Palm device and Mac and Windows computers. Even though the Palm screen is small, the resolution is excellent and their reader program is an excellent design. Between the two, I have approximately 250 books in electronic format. A rather nice little library which I can carry with me wherever I go. Each of my devices can carry up to eighty or more books. I am sixty-four and have no problem reading either of these devices. Also, downloading the books to the device is simple, but, does require a computer to interface to the book store. My complaint with all these devices is that the cost of the books (this is a publisher problem) doesn't reflect the absence of paper, binding, distribution and other costs associated with hard copy publishing. Usually new books are discounted about 10% to 15% which is far less than the amount the publisher is saving from not providing the book in hard copy. My hope is that the iPhone will have an ebook reader program soon as the iPhone's display is perfect (as is the human interface built into the device) for eBook reading. Personally I do not like audiobooks and, as such, will not buy them. The greatest benefits to eBooks are no paper (saves trees for other needs, like clean air), portability (kids could carry all their schoolbooks in one 14 oz reader instead of a 30 pound deforming backpack), multi-media product, and instant information on demand. I am an avid reader and feel that the ebook is the future of all disposable publishing, including entertainment reading, research material, newspapers and magazines.

Posted by: John | December 7, 2007 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I would mostly use this for reading PDFs of journal articles. A lower price point ($200?) might tempt me.

The other thing is to have a DRM system which is compatible with public libraries. E.g., the Maryland Public Libraries have the "OverDrive" DRM which is a Microsoft DRM:

Now, I'm not too crazy about using Microsoft's DRM per se, but I can load audio books on my MP3 player and listen to them for three weeks [for free] until they expire.

If I could do something similar with high-quality DRMed books on a Kindle-like device, that would be attractive. It would be much more attractive if I could somehow retain my notes&highlighting from these DRM ed books, so I could consider re-borrowing them and/or buying them at a future date.

Posted by: Jonathan Epstein | December 7, 2007 12:33 PM | Report abuse

"To me, Kindle e-books are a solution in search of a nonexistent problem."

Funny, that's how I feel about the iPhone. And most other electronics, for that matter.

Posted by: Jim Treacher | December 7, 2007 3:36 PM | Report abuse

I have 209 ebooks on my aging Clie' (PalmOS5, Mobibook reader for the most part) and LOVE reading on it. 480x320 landscape with backlight is a terrific way to read.

Doesn't disturb my wife the way the bedside light does, can easily hold it in one hand (and i love propping it up while brushing my teeth -- excellent visual, Rob), I can finish one and immediately start another, I can pull it out when in line somewhere, read a bit, put it away and off I go..


* Mobi is somewhat HTML-based and flipping a page can oft result in several pages going at a time; you get used to it.

* Eventually, I need to plug into a wall.. but that's about 10 hours of reading later.

* Point someone else made: can't hand the article (I save online reading for later, oft) to my wife or friend and say, "read this!"

* Price for new releases is SILLY high, oft-times as high as hardcover book. That's as evil as CD prices never having fallen.

* can't feel snooty, walking around with Umberto Eco's latest proudly in the crook of your arm.

I mean, really, that's about it.

But I dislike the Kindle for its size and lack of backlight. I can pop the clie' in my pocket and I can read it in the dark (and on the train and in the rain and..).

I love books, paper or electronic. But when packing for a week(end) away, it's far easier to toss my clie' in a bag than sufficient reading material for 2 5 hours flights and how many evenings.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | December 7, 2007 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I tried reading ebooks on Palm devices (TX & Treo) and found the screen way too small for comfortable reading. They only displayed a few paragraphs at a time.

Now, I'm a new owner of a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet and am a convert.

The screen is nicely backlit and 800x400. Using the free FBReader program I have access to any non-DRMed content. And some DRM is trivial to bypass, converting locked content to a open format (Not that I'm advocating piracy...)

This tablet can be had for a bit more than $200 and has many more uses than ebook reading.

Posted by: Jeff Elkins | December 8, 2007 12:26 PM | Report abuse

The Palm TX is a vastly underrated device. It's a very good ebook reader. It trumps the Kindle with a color screen, it's nice to be able to view color illustrations and maps within the text. You can annotate and highlight text with Ereader or Mobipocket. You can use a third party dictionary, or buy one from Mobipocket that you open from within the reader. The Palm TX can be had for $260.

Ereaders are inevitable-paper books are wasteful and space consuming. Most people do not have easy access to a site that can recycle them. A trip to the library uses time and gasoline. The best service the Kindle did was bring attention to electronic books.

Posted by: skshrews | December 8, 2007 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Believe it or not, I really liked Microsoft's eReader when it first came out. I used it on my PocketPC/Phone and it was like reading a paperback book -- only I could carry many books on the device that also had my contacts, calendar and was a phone to boot. Although the screen was basically the size of a paperback book, it held "hardcover" first-run titles as well. I bought several titles and looked forward to the convenience of reading ANYWHERE whenever I had a few extra minutes. Just like a real book, it allowed you to mark passages. Unlike a real book it also allowed you to search for those marks or any other text that you wanted to find.

Alas, Microsoft and the publishers had to ruin a good thing. Part way through my first book, Microsoft "updated" the software and changed the DRM. Suddenly, the books that I had paid for were no longer readable -- and I could not roll back the software update.

That's when I promised NEVER to buy into the eBook -- no matter what brand -- again.

Posted by: Bruce | December 10, 2007 4:01 PM | Report abuse

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