I’m a minimalist by nature, which is why it’s so unfortunate that I share office space with the Booksquare lady. I live in fear that a long overdue earthquake will hit Southern California, triggering a catastrophic bookshelf collapse. When that happens, I will almost certainly be crushed to death by Kassia’s “to be read” shelves.
Nothing would make me happier than replacing every book in my life with a single digital device capable of accessing every book ever published through a high speed wireless connection. If anyone wants to see ebooks succeed, it’s me. And yet, I am deeply skeptical about Amazon’s new ebook reader.
On a superficial level, the Kindle looks almost perfect. Amazon has obviously spent a fair amount of time engineering an electronic device that affords readers something approximating an analogue reading experience, while seamlessly connecting with Amazon for book purchases on-demand (a dangerous feature that really should be accompanied by the sound of a ringing cash register).
Unfortunately, there are more than a few problems with Amazon’s initial product offering. Those problems will almost certainly limit the appeal of Kindle, making it a niche product for early adopters and gadget freaks.
- It isn’t as ugly as everyone expected. The early product photos made the Kindle look like something you might have purchased from Radio Shack in the early 80’s. In reality, the Kindle is much smaller and a bit more modern looking than many of us thought it would be. That’s not to say that it’s a beautiful device. It just doesn’t have the mullet that we were all expecting it would.
- The e-Ink Display. Kindle uses the same display technology as the Sony eBook reader. These displays are more like reading print on a paper than reading from a computer monitor. As a result, the display works equally well indoors, or outdoors in bright sunlight.
- “Free” EVDO Wireless. The Kindle connects to the Internet through a high speed EVDO wireless connection. While the Kindle is not built for web surfing, the wireless connection can be used to access the internet with a web browser that Amazon has described as “experimental”. Amazon has made it clear that the Kindle is for reading books, not surfing the web. At this point, it appears that the main purpose of the Kindle’s wireless connectivity is to allow readers to buy content directly from Amazon. The problem is, the EVDO isn’t exactly free. Users end up paying to access content that they are used to getting for free (more on that in a second).
- Wireless access to Wikipedia. Fortunately, Amazon isn’t charging for access to the Wikipedia. If the device were a few hundred dollars cheaper, it might be worth buying for this feature alone. The Kindle could pay for itself in beer as you win every bar bet imaginable.
So, that’s the good news about Kindle. If it were all good news I would be sitting here waiting for my Kindle to arrive instead of writing this post. There are a few areas where the Amazon misses the mark in a big way.
- The price. At $399 the Kindle will likely appeal to only the most voracious readers. And even then, only the ones who travel extensively and have the need to carry small libraries with them on the road. Given the fact that the Kindle cost $100 more than the Sony Reader, it’s hard not to think that some of the cost is offsetting the “free” EVDO.
- Proprietary DRM. I’m sure there are quite a few publishing industry executives who absolutely would not allow Amazon to sell their titles without protecting them with DRM. It’s as if the publishing industry hasn’t learned a thing from the mistakes of the music industry.
Kindle uses a new Amazon file format that appears to be a new type of DRM for ebooks. While the Kindle can read books in the Mobipocket format, it can’t read DRM protected Mobipocket files. That’s odd considering that Amazon owns Mobipocket, but not so odd when you consider how Microsoft created the new Zune DRM format while largely abandoning its own PlaysForSure DRM system.
These competing and incompatible DRM standards will undoubtedly raise a red flag for early adopters who purchased the Rocket eBook reader a decade ago. The Rocket is no longer manufactured, and consumers who purchased ebooks in Rocket’s proprietary format have learned an important lesson about the life span of DRM encoded media products.
One problem for Amazon is that there is currently a limited market of consumers willing to shell out $399 for an ebook reader. It’s safe to say that a few of those are the same people who wasted $300 on the Rocket eBook 10 years ago. Something tells me those consumers aren’t going to be so quick to jump on the Kindle bandwagon.
- Limited support for file formats. I’ve already mentioned that the Kindle can’t read a DRM protected Mobipocket file. Worse yet, the Kindle doesn’t read PDF files. While PDF is far from a perfect, there is a huge amount of existing content available in that format.
Not surprisingly, the Kindle also lacks support for the recent .epub standard — a standard that was designed to, among other things, prevent one company from controlling the ebook market.
If you think the iPod/iTunes universe is a closed system, Kindle is locked down even tighter.
- Amazon charges for blog subscriptions. For $399 you might expect that an Internet connected device would at least have a built-in RSS reader. Apparently not. Instead, Amazon is selling blog subscriptions starting at 99 cents per month (although some “premium” blogs are selling for $1.99 per month). Suddenly Kindle’s EVDO isn’t looking so “free”.
- No WiFi. EVDO is fine for downloading content from Amazon, but some consumers might want to access content on their home networks. Also, I’d be willing to sacrifice the EVDO connectivity for WiFi if it meant that I could download blog subscriptions at no cost.
The lack of WiFi seems to be more proof that the Kindle isn’t really an internet connected device. It’s actually more of an Amazon connected device. Big difference. A difference that should be reflected in the price of the device.
The more I look at the Kindle the less appealing it seems. It looks like I won’t be getting rid of my bookshelves anytime soon.