Step 2 is the hard part.

Matt Ginzton writes here.

Love/hate for Amazon's Kindle

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The Kindle brings a really unique proposition, one you maybe have to try before you believe in it (I didn’t get it at first, but I have to admit, the same was true of the early iPods).  I’d summarize it as follows: screen that reads like a book, battery life so long you can ignore it, immediate networked access from anywhere.

Of course it’s not perfect, or wasn’t at first — the screen is monochrome only and slow to refresh, the interface somewhat clunky, battery life isn’t truly infinite, and network access worked only in the US — but they’ve improved this, to the point that the screen refresh is fast enough, the interface is good enough, and it works worldwide.  (The 3rd generation Kindle has really nailed what Amazon set out to do, being an affordable, ubiquitously useful e-reader.  The first generation nailed the feature set at a high price; the second generation brought down the price, improved the most important part (screen readability and refresh rate) and eventually added worldwide whispernet; the third generation further improved the screen readability and refresh rate, adds the option of a builtin light, and includes a nearly ok web browser.)

Let me elaborate on the good bits somewhat.

The screen really does look like a book; it’s fully legible, indoors or outdoors, even in direct sunlight.  At worst it’s slightly glossy and might reflect a small amount of glare into your eyes, but no worse than a glossy magazine.

The battery life is like no other electronic device I’ve ever used, mostly because the screen draws no power except when changing.  This means that (unlike your phone, laptop or iPad), it’s not using power while you read a page — only when you turn the page.  With the wireless radio off, it lasts me several books, or several weeks.  If I leave the radio off, I can pretty much pretend it doesn’t need charging.  Now some laptops now have 12+ hour batteries, smartphones have batteries that last for days on standby and 6-10 hours of actual use, and the iPad probably gets something like 12 hours on a charge in typical use… all of this is impressive, and beats the heck out of laptops from a few years ago, but still, none of this compares to the Kindle.

Worldwide free whispernet (network access over the cell network, automatically configured and paid by Amazon) is another one of these things that you have to try to really appreciate.  The promise is basically twofold: you can shop for new books at Amazon’s store (covering a wide range of options from impulse buying new books, re-downloading books you’ve purchased before, and automatically delivering subscriptions, but really these are all cases of connecting directly to Amazon to get stuff you pay extra for), and, somewhat more surprisingly, browsing the real web.  Prior to the Kindle 3, the bundled web browser was so bad it almost seemed like they didn’t want you to use it, but the WebKit-based browser in Kindle 3 gives this the lie.  And again, the fact this is free and requires no additional configuration, worldwide, is pretty amazing, especially if you travel internationally.  (If you travel internationally and want access to the internet while away from a Wi-Fi hotspot, your options are basically: activate a worldwide roaming plan on your home-country smartphone and pay through the nose for roaming, or buy a local SIM and pay for data; usually this is cheaper but it’s a hassle, especially if you don’t speak the local language.)  True, the browser still isn’t perfect, and double-true, a lot of web content doesn’t work very well on a small monochrome screen with a clumsy pointing device.  Still: I’ve been able to make productive use of Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo! Mail and Gmail, Google News, and various other sites, for free, from rural Turkey, without jumping through SIM card hoops… I don’t know any other device that offers this at all, and the Kindle has it pretty much as an afterthought.

While I’m mostly talking about the Kindle hardware here, or Amazon’s initial vision (hardware, software, and content seamlessly combined), I’ll also note that Amazon has a free Kindle app — basically a software version of the Kindle — for pretty much any platform that matters (smartphone or tablet running iOS or Android, computer running Windows or Mac OS), so if you want to bring your own device and connectivity, you can get at your Kindle content… you’re not locked into the Kindle devices, if you don’t like the hardware or just don’t want to buy another device.

So, what’s not to like?  Really 2 things: needing to rebuy all your books, and shoddily rendered content.

On needing to rebuy all your books: OK, so music as files has pretty much replaced music as shiny discs, especially for listening; the iPod did to CDs what the Kindle wants to do to books; but how did this happen?  Remember Apple’s “rip, mix, burn” ads?  The early iPods were, like the Kindle, expensive yet sleek jukeboxes that could carry an entire library, which you could buy (a few dollars at a time, but a substantial library would quickly exceed the cost of the device) — but Apple (and the non-Apple competition) had a trick up their sleeve — the “rip” part.  You didn’t need to rebuy your whole library; you could easily convert your existing library, stuff it on your iPod or other MP3 player, and bingo, instant digital library.  For new purchases, you could buy as online files for convenience, or CD for flexibility and quality, and continue converting these CDs to the digital library format.  Concerns about piracy aside, the value of the portable music- playing hardware was clear (to music thieves and music buyers alike), and now there are quite a few viable stores for music in download-only form. Meanwhile, back to the Kindle, the analogy is clear, and the same possibility does not exist: you can’t move your existing library of books onto the Kindle; anything you want you have to buy again.  Moreover, for new purchaes, you have to choose between paper and digital, you can’t have it both ways.  I think this is a real downer for the overall value proposition, and part of why e-readers won’t be as mainstream as music players.  (Yeah yeah, and more people listen to music than read; that’s surely another part.)

But if you can’t convert your own paper books to Kindle format, what of the books and publications (which I’ll refer by the dislikable but standard term, “content”) that you can buy from Amazon?  It’s convenient, not that expensive, so just suck it up, right?  Well, this is where my main real beef with the Kindle ecosystem comes in… the paid content is just not that high quality.  You wouldn’t mind if it was cheap, but once you have to pay for it (especially, if you have to pay again for something you already own in another format), it’s psychologically really annoying when it’s not perfect.  And it’s not.  Typos and small formatting errors (spurious or missing line breaks) abound.  Dashes between words — like this — are often not set off by spaces —like this— which not only looks bad, but confuses the hyphenation algorithm, leading to even more ugly white spaces.

What it boils down to is this: you’d think it would be the easiest thing in the world for Amazon to get pristine digital copies of whatever manuscripts they can license, in the most up-to-date edition available (more on this in a minute), convert it to their format, hey, maybe even pay someone to proofread it once more, and that’s what you get. But it looks to me like they’re manually scanning and OCR’ing paper books (just like you’d have to if you set up your own paper->ebook version of the “rip” from the music world), introducing additional errors, not proofreading them, selling you buggy content, and not fixing it up later, either.  This is really disappointing.

What’s really disappointing about this is that it misses out on one of the biggest promises of the format… the books are just data, and Amazon has the infrastructure in place to manage and distribute and redistribute this data. So, unlike a paper book which you try to get right the first time, but which can’t be changed after printing (short of reprinting the whole thing), an ebook could morph over time.  Think of how wikis, such as wikipedia, can improve over time, especially with moderation (so there’s no vandalism, and the only changes are for the better); this is what I see as the unfulfilled promise of Kindle content.  I’d be somewhat happy if I could just fix the errors myself on my own device so they wouldn’t be eyesores (the Kindle has always had features for annotating content, so why not let me edit it too?). I’d be even happier if my edits were reflected back to Amazon so they could fix the errors in the source version, and the next person to download the same book gets a better edition.  I’d be happiest if this was all automatic, and any typo would be fixed in the source the first time someone fixed it anywhere, and all downloaded versions would be updated automatically as soon as the source version changed — this is all within the realm of possibility. Crowdsource the editing — just as with the good webmail providers only a few people ever need to see a given spam message and mark it as spam and then nobody else at that provider ever sees that spam, only a few people ever need to see a given typo or formatting error in Kindle content and then it’s fixed for everyone.

(As an aside, in addition to stuff I’ve bought from Amazon, I also use my Kindle to read some books from Project Gutenberg, which I download and convert using Calibre.  This content is, as a rule, even worse, in terms of typos and ugly formatting.  Still, I have the ability to fix it, for myself or even contributing the changes back to Project Gutenberg for future editions.  The pipeline is clunky, both for initial download + conversion, and for changing and submitting changes back, but it’s possible; Amazon’s closed ecosystem could make this seamless.)

A special mention here for subscription content, which is even more expensive than books, and (in my limited sampling) even buggier — I continue to subscribe to a national magazine I like even though one Q&A section usually omits entire questions, making the next answer a complete non sequitur; I stopped subscribing to my local newspaper after noticing that most articles omit the byline which also should (and in the print and (free!) web edition, does) contain the place — this isn’t so bad for local news, but for regional news often rendered entire stories unreadable.  If I’m supposed to pay several dollars a month for something I can get free on the web, and the free version is to boot better formatted, this is not cool at all.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the keyboard.  Double (triple?) the size of the keyboard on a Blackberry or Treo, but the layout is nonintuitive, the keypress feel/feedback is mediocre, even after years of using it I still confuse the labels for delete and enter, and if I type faster than glacially it drops keystrokes.

While I continue to like the overall Kindle reading experience, and especially appreciate the ability to check Wikipedia, Facebook or my email for free from anywhere, I’m really frustrated about the buggy paid content — not fulfilling the cloud-managed crowdsourced-typo-fixing possibility is especially frustrating to my optimizing engineer personality.  Thus, love/hate.