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.
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 barnesandnoble.com (Amazon.com 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 barnesandnoble.com 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 barnesandnoble.com 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
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