…but to Kindle Minds

by bobbigmac

Last month after a few years of waiting for an international version to become available, I became the proud owner of an Amazon Kindle.

I’ve had some past experience with broad-format digital text readers (Usually as a secondary function of personal organisers), going way back to my first Palm around ’94. Back then, they were an incredibly poor substitute for the real thing. I read a lot of books on the more recent incarnations of the XDAs in Microsoft’s .lit format, and even for a while on the Stanza app for iPhone (Which is as awesome as it’s possible to get for reading on a phone).

Despite the shortfalls of previous devices… I’ve been hopeful. Every time I’ve needed to spend even a single night away from home, to carry enough books to cover the train/plane, transfers and hotel; I’ve given thought to the day which seemed ever so distant, that I could take just one piece of tech to store them all. OK, to be honest, my dream was either for an eBook reader OR Mary Poppins’ infinity-bottomed bag :) but I think we’ve all a while to wait for that one.

Now I’m very happy to have the best ever ‘approximation’ of a real book, capable of taking most of my library with me, weighing and sized little more than a light hardback. However…

Still an approximation

The device is bulkier than the typical paperback, and though not much heavier, it has some significant design flaws.

The large margin for one seems completely unnecessary, the keys are small and difficult to press, making it unwieldy to use annotations and other advanced tools. The lack of a previous-page button on the right-hand side means two handed reading if you’re skipping back and forth.

The user-interface needs some work, it’s clearly well put together, and is responsive providing your battery is kept well charged (between 20%-80% is the butter-zone), though it was kind of strange to discover that turning off the wireless makes the screen-refresh faster and produces less artifacts. Weird, but useful to know.

I’ve had a few friends pick it up for a quick look, and the first thing I’ve had to say to each of them as they’ve tried to interact with the user-interface is: “Nooooo, it’s not touch-screen”, which of course gets a sigh and a look that asks “Why not?”. I’ve seen some of the newer Sony readers have touch-screens, and even though the Kindle is over $100 less expensive than these, I’d certainly like to see it in the next generation.

The most critical design flaw for me is the lack of a built-in reading light. The currently available goose-neck light accessories are merely typical lights for traditional books, with no consideration in their design for the shape or ergonomics of the kindle itself. A simple embedded LED array would be more than sufficient (anyone who’s ever taken apart an LCD mobile phone will know what I mean here).

Even with those flaws, it’s core functionality is flawless… to read books. Select a book, proceed through it, and have it save your place, I cannot fault it for that.

Extra Goodies

The Kindle even has some useful features I didn’t think I’d use, but I do.

The MP3 player is painfully simple (you can skip forward but can’t skip back a track), though I’ve loaded on some Johann Johannson, which with the warm timbre of the built-in stereo speakers, makes sitting and reading anything a delight.

The web-browser although a little glitchy (and currently somewhat gimped for users outside of the US) is very handy for checking Wikipedia for the background of a subject I’ve been reading about.

I’ve recently been trying to learn to speak French, and as my girlfriend will testify, I’m not very good at it. However, with the help of Merriam-webster’s french-english dictionary set as my default dictionary: I can (although slowly) work my way through french literature, with a start in the original works of Jules Verne, downloaded from the wonderful Project Gutenberg for free. I can’t wait to see this improve further in future updates.

Amazonian Service History

Not so long ago, I was paid fairly well by my corporate overlords, and working long hours, travelling around the UK 3-4 days a week left me plenty of time to read. Subsequently I ‘suffered’ from Amazon-Addiction: £300+ a month spent on books, mainly from the recommendations list on many topics branching out from my main interests.

In all that time I’ve never had cause to doubt the quality of Amazon’s service, that’s probably why they became one of the world’s top retailers.

In some ways, the experience of getting their Kindle was both the best, and the worst I’ve ever had when dealing with Amazon. Everything was perfect as per usual, especially unusual given the scale of operations they must be facing for such a big launch (that of the internationalised device).

But it IS the first time they’ve made me (as a non-US citizen) ‘feel’ less important than our colonial counterparts (how’s that for flame-bait? ;)). Why?

Well, I’ll tell you why.

The wireless connection was one of the main reasons I’ve wanted this particular device for so long, and have been patient simply because we all knew it was the network operators causing the delay. I was happy to wait, safe in the knowledge that it would get sorted out eventually, and we’d all have a basic free-wireless internet (albeit even just for plain text).

That the wireless connection has been crippled for users outside the US to only wikipedia has been a gut-punch for us all. I can understand why, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I’m hoping once they’ve proved the revenue model to the network operators throughout the rest of the world, they’ll be able to open up the lines a little and make more sources available (Wikipedia does NOT know all… yet).

This sums up my feeling that the international launch was just a little too early, and too poorly considered, as evidenced by the fact the price was reduced just 2 weeks after launch. Though it was pretty awesome of Amazon to refund us all the $20 difference, I’d like to see Sony do that for the Playstation for example… exactly, fat chance :)

Pub. Lic. Do. Main.

One thing I’d have very much liked to see in the Kindle store is something which has done really well on the iPhone app-store. Simply put it’s Free-ness.

When I first booted the Kindle, I had 2 books: the user-manual, and a quick-start guide. No books at all. That’s a scalextric without cars, or meccano without screws… So I ask here:

Please please please Amazon, give us some free books. With digital delivery costing mere cents, stick a copy of something from the Gutenberg archive, or get involved with Feedbooks, or do something to get us free texts.

Yes sometimes I’ll want to buy Sun Tzu from you (I think I already did a couple of years ago), but honestly, I’m not going to pay $15 for a digital version only, no way. For those prices I want the paper in my hands, hey, sell me the paper version and transfer a digital copy to my kindle so I have both. Since it costs you guys almost nothing to distribute public domain works, please give them to me for free if I buy a ‘real’ copy.

Don’t try and charge me full price for something I can get from Gutenberg for nothing more than the effort of plugging in a USB plug. :)

On a related note, it would be really nice if I could download digital copies of the books I’ve bought from you in the past, I’d be happy to pay a little for the privilege of being able to read anything on my home-bookshelf when I’m hundreds of miles away.

A Flawed Masterpiece

I’ve used the Kindle to read several novels now, and despite the flaws, perhaps even because of them, I’m as enamoured with the device as I was the day it arrived.

It’s broader purpose is perfectly realised; and the small things it does, it does them well.

It’s not a toy, it’s clearly a tool… for learning, for inspiration, for growth and experience. There aren’t many devices in my box of gadgets that I can say that about. If you enjoy reading it’s simple, go buy one.

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