Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Kindle Experience

For a few weeks now I have been the proud owner of an Amazon Kindle 3 ebook reader, and I reckon the time has come for me to spill the beans about it, if only for the sole reason this device is looking to significantly change my reading habits. As in, the experience of these last few weeks is to be extrapolated, I am going to be reading fewer books but I am going to read more altogether. Allow me to explain…

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The first thing you notice about the Kindle 3 is its size and weight. Looking at photos, like the one here featuring a Kindle 3 next to the older Kindle 2 model (the 3 is the smaller of the two) makes you appreciate that the Kindle is roughly the size of a book. What the photos don’t let you appreciate is just how thin it is, which implies you’re holding much less real estate in your hands when you read the Kindle than when you read a book.
Weight is another thing you’ll notice, or rather the lack of it. The Kindle 3 is quite lighter than the 2, and both are very light; light enough for you to be able to read under all sorts of conditions in which you hold the Kindle in all sorts of previously unthinkable ways simply because your hands won’t tire. It’s funny because the Kindle is everything the iPad isn’t when it comes to a reading machine: the iPad is heavy enough to make you look for a place to hold it after just a few minutes of use, whereas the Kindle can be read for hours with no hassles (and let me add that these observations are made though personal experience). Lightness also implies you are more likely to take the Kindle with you, which means you are more likely to use it, which means you’ll find yourself reading more than before – hooray!
It’s not just the size and the weight that make the Kindle a better facility to read from than a book or an iPad: By being able to flick through pages with a click of a button you’re deprived of the task of handling physical paper. I’m sure you read the previous sentence and thought to yourself “what a spoiled brat”, but it’s true: because you don’t need to hold the book open on your page and because you don’t need to flick physical pages, the reading experience becomes much smoother and – again – you can read at all sorts of different positions you never thought of before. It’s actually funny because there are side effects to the process: I’ve become so used to reading the last two lines of a page while already flicking to the next page that I routinely find myself flicking to the next page on the Kindle before I actually got to finish reading it all.
That’s my point: the Kindle will make you look at reading under a different light, allowing you to questions things you took for granted. If you happen to read a lot, which I hope you do, then you will probably find – as I have – that reading a book on the Kindle is a much more pleasant experience than reading its paper equivalent.
Talking about light, I have tested the Kindle in broad daylight under the harsh Aussie sun (albeit winter sun) and found it is perfectly readable at times in which my iPhone’s screen, the rough equivalent of the iPad’s, was totally unreadable.

Most of what I have said so far about the virtues of my Kindle applies to virtually all ebook readers. There are, however, specific advantages to the Kindle that made it my ebook platform of choice.
Number one amongst these is the size of the book catalog available at Amazon.com. Perhaps this catalog is lesser than Borders’ when it comes to titles by Australian authors, but for me this is not a problem; I rarely read Australian books. When it comes to the absolute catalog of online books in English, Amazon rules on high.
Second is the ease with which you can get new books. I have to say it here: buying an electronic book from Amazon is actually easier than getting a pirate copy. No, this is not a joke! What we have on our hands here is probably a world first given the blood and tears one has to go through with music and especially with video purchases. It really is easy: you choose your book at the Amazon shop, you click to buy it, and the book is transferred wirelessly to your Kindle. To quote John Scalzi at the AussieCon4 conference, grandmothers out there are guaranteed to buy through Amazon given the ease of the process no matter what pirated options are available, simply because of the intolerable easiness of it all.
Third is the price. Ebooks are generally half the price of their paper versions, which is nice: A friend of mine recently bought Zero History by William Gibson for $35 at an Australian book store while I paid $12 for the same book on my Kindle. That said, it is clear the publishers and/or Amazon are abusing their customers: newly released ebooks sell for a lot more than older ones, even though you’re not paying for the hardcover version you’re getting when you’re buying a newly released hardcover. As I said before, I consider piracy the best remedy for such abuse.
Fourth, the Kindle does a good job of handling non Kindle format ebooks. It renders PDFs well, but PDFs are problematic: the only display option is to the Kindle to squeeze the entire PDF page on its relatively small page (PDFs are usually designed for A4 printing while the Kindle's screen is only 7" big), so you have to tackle small fonts and reading is inconvenienced. The solution is to acquire books in formats that would allow you control of the font size. For example, I opened RTF format books in Open Office, set the font size to 22 and exported the result into a PDF which was comfortable to read. An even better solution is to send your RTF file to your free Kindle email address (your Amazon user account @free.kindle.com), which would result in the RTF file getting converted to the proper Kindle format (AZW) which you can then upload to your Kindle using a USB cable. Note this is matter is not to be trifled with; most of the ebooks in my collection thus far are in non Kindle formats, acquired through the web freely and legally. The ability to deal with those on a friendly basis is very important to me.
A couple of features the Kindle offers which I can’t be bothered with are music playback and an “experimental” web browser. I’ll put it this way: Amazon should leave these to devices that are designed to do them rather than have the Kindle do them as an afterthought. In particular, web browsing is extremely slow and tedious; the Kindle is no competition to the iPad in this department.

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Needless to say, there is plenty of negative with the Kindle. Starting from the mundane, it’s hard to assess how big a reading task you have ahead of you when you start reading an ebook, because you can’t just count the pages (page numbers mean nothing when font sizes are variable), while your Kindle stays just as thick no matter how big the ebook you’re reading is. It’s not a lost cause, as the Kindle has its own sizing system that is even better than the page count we’re used to; it’s just that this system takes getting used to.
The more serious problems with the Kindle are to do with book availability and that vile concept that is commonly referred to as DRM. Both are a direct result of greed and the strong contempt big money has over common sense when it comes to adjusting to new business models.
The first manifestation of the problem is with the miserable ebook catalog available to Australian buyers at Amazon. No, I am not contradicting myself with my previous statement regarding the number of books available at Amazon; my point is that the number available to Aussies is a sad joke. Thus far I was able to address this issue by providing Amazon with a USA address I had bought over the web, but they still like to give me a hard time and often prevent me from accessing the books I want because they “sense” my books are actually downloaded in Australia. I suspect this is imposed on Amazon by the publishers, and I know it’s not really an issue because through proxies and VPNs one can easily make themselves appear American to the eyes of Amazon. It’s just that I fail to understand why people are so aggressively pushed to pirate when the books are plainly there to have. Yes, I’ll say it loud and clear: the reason piracy is rife is all to do with the stupidity of the publishers and their fellow content owners; and no, the common person out there was not born a serial killer that can only be sedated with a massive dose of copy protection, they're just looking for a fair affair.
Which brings me to the second problem of DRM. Books that you buy on the Kindle are not really bought the way a physical book is; they’re only licensed, and they’re protected by DRM. This means you can’t lend them to friends (without giving away the whole Kindle), and this also means that in a few years’ time, when no one remembers what the f*ck a Kindle is, you’ll have to buy (sorry, license) the same books again if you want to read them. That, my friends, is crap.
The result? The only books I will buy on my Kindle are books that I know I will not want to read more than once. Long term reference books or books that I particularly cherish (say, the next Richard Dawkins) will be acquired in print; I’d happily pay more in outright cost and in physical storage space for the knowledge the books I adore will always be with me.
One last negative, again the fault of the publishers: given the virtual nature of ebooks, I fail to understand why we don’t have vast back catalogs available for us to buy? Why can’t I get the rare vintage Nine Tomorrows by Asimov that I yearn for, or Piers Anthony's Cluster series I read as a child and have been looking forward to re-reading again? You have to admit the publishers have been shooting themselves in the leg again and again when I’m standing here with an open wallet.

Now for some good news: I just looked Amazon up and Piers Anothony’s Cluster series is there for me to buy. And buy it I will!
This new development is not a mere fluke. It is indication of the speed at which the wheels are changing due to the introduction of ebooks to the market. The ground is shaking beneath the feet of all readers, and – for now – I’m very happy to have a Kindle to spend my time with during the tremors.

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