I Was Wrong About The Kindle

It’s been a year since Apple first released the iPad. Back then, I declared the Kindle dead, and argued that the iPad was going to be the reading device of the future.

I was wrong, of course.

The lesson I learnt here is that one technology very rarely replaces another – or, as David Pogue calls it: “things don’t replace things, they just splinter”. Even if cannibalization happens, it takes years before you see no more of one technology: television didn’t kill radio, and mp3s didn’t kill CDs (or at least, not yet) – and so the iPad won’t kill the Kindle.

But I was wrong about another thing: the iPad is a different device altogether. See, for instance, this Kindle ad:

The value proposition is clear: the Kindle is cheap, readable under sunlight, and light enough to hold in one hand. None of which describes the iPad.

Now, I’m not saying that people won’t read on the iPad. I spent my last holiday reading five books and two web fiction serials on one, taking notes on the reading experience as I went along. The iPad is great on a sofa – and is even better when you’re using it to read what you would otherwise read on a computer screen. But it’s no paperback – and you can’t use it on trains or in parks or on beaches the same way you would a Kindle.

Yipeng's Kindle

Yipeng, one of the co-founders at Pandamian, is known to call his Kindle ‘shitty’. (He’s in charge of .mobi conversion, if you’re wondering, because he owns one: see above). And yet he’s read a ton of books on it, and downloads still more to load onto the device. The reason? The Kindle is meant for reading, and reading alone. No distractions. No web surfing. No addictive pig-killing games.

With speculation of a free Kindle to be released later this year, it’s now rather clear as to why the Kindle is built the way it is – cheap and plasticky, with a user interface that kind-of sucks. It doesn’t need to be amazing. It just needs to be good enough for book nerds – like me – who’re sick of lugging heavy paperbacks around.

(Incidentally, I find it interesting as to what the Kindle gets right – typography on the Kindle screen is gorgeous, and the fact that it’s got battery life of close to a month helps when you’re bringing it with you on a long-haul flight. Plus – and this is obvious – the Kindle store has all the might of Amazon behind it).

I’m not sure what the future of ebook reading is, but – seeing as Apple appears to be relatively disinterested in eBooks – I’m fairly confident that the Kindle, the Nook (and other devices like them, no matter how horrendously constructed) would be a big part of it.

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Category: Publishing
  • Bryan Alexander

    I think you’re spot on, especially about the book nerd part. The iPad is, like the iPod, a general audience device; the Kindle is aimed at readers.

  • Clare K. R. Miller

    I agree with your assessment of the different uses of the Kindle and the iPad, but I’m curious why you say the user interface of the Kindle sucks? I have a Kindle and I find it very easy and convenient to use. It doesn’t feel any more cheap and plasticky than my MacBook, either (no one I know has an iPad so I can’t compare, though I suppose if it’s the same metallic as my iPod Touch I can see how the Kindle is more plasticky). My mom has a Nook and we both agree that the Kindle is easier to use (and I won’t even get into the difference in customer service). You probably know more about these things than I do, so I really am curious as to what the comparison is here.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    I’m waiting breathlessly for Pandamian to perfect the ebook converter :) then we can take over the Kindle, the Nook , or whoever else is out there.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    Well, it’s a number of things. The first is that the affordances aren’t very clear – when you’re first using a Kindle, it isn’t immediately obvious how to open a menu item, or how to return to a menu item.

    The buttons to go next and previous aren’t immediately obvious, as well.

    In the iPad, the controls (aka the chrome) are there for a second, before fading inconspicuously into the edges. The affordances are fairly clear, you tap once to call up any sort of controls, and this is true for all the interfaces (be it iBooks or iTunes, etc).

    So when I say that the user interface sucks, I mean it in comparison to the iPad (which is unfair, I know).

    There’s also the thing with the buttons, but I won’t go there – it’s fairly well known that the Kindle’s button placement can be better (in fact, go Google it, there’s this fairly famous, funny video of Phillipe Stark making fun of the Kindle’s design, on Youtube!)

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    Well, it’s a number of things. The first is that the affordances aren’t very clear – when you’re first using a Kindle, it isn’t immediately obvious how to open a menu item, or how to return to a menu item.

    The buttons to go next and previous aren’t immediately obvious, as well.

    In the iPad, the controls (aka the chrome) are there for a second, before fading inconspicuously into the edges. The affordances are fairly clear, you tap once to call up any sort of controls, and this is true for all the interfaces (be it iBooks or iTunes, etc).

    So when I say that the user interface sucks, I mean it in comparison to the iPad (which is unfair, I know).

    There’s also the thing with the buttons, but I won’t go there – it’s fairly well known that the Kindle’s button placement can be better (in fact, go Google it, there’s this fairly famous, funny video of Phillipe Stark making fun of the Kindle’s design, on Youtube!)

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    =) I should probably get Ray Chuan to go write a blog post about it, sometime. It’s … hard. Not hard as in its technically hard to put in place, but hard as in hard to get it beautiful, and right.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    =) I should probably get Ray Chuan to go write a blog post about it, sometime. It’s … hard. Not hard as in its technically hard to put in place, but hard as in hard to get it beautiful, and right.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    I just found this fairly enlightening interview on Bezos’s approach w/r/t the Kindle:

    I would say something though like we’re trying to get out of the way. We’re not trying to create an experience. We want the author to create the experience. You know, if you’re going to read Nabokov or Hemmingway or we want us creating the experience for. That’s not our job. Our job is to provide the convenience. That you can get books in 60 seconds, that you can carry your whole library with you so that you don’t get hand strain, so the device doesn’t get hot in your hands, so that it doesn’t cause eye strain, so that the battery life lasts a month, so you never get battery anxiety.

    Oh yes – this man knows what he’s doing, alright.

  • Clare K. R. Miller

    Huh, I guess I just disagree–I thought the four-way controller and button in the middle, as well as the back/forward page buttons, were immediately obvious. (That includes clicking on a menu item–just click down, click the button. It was obvious to me.) On the other hand, “tap the screen” sounds like something it would take me a long time to get used to. That might just be because I hardly ever use touchscreens, but not everybody uses touchscreens.

    There are some keyboard buttons that are confusing and unmemorable, though. I’ll have to look for that video.

  • Clare K. R. Miller

    I will note that the Kindle’s on/off slidey thing is tricky and a pain to get used to. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to use a button that could easily get pressed accidentally, but you’d think there’d be a better way.

  • Rod Griff

    If you have an iPad, would you buy a Kindle as well? If you had a Kindle, would you buy an iPad as well? For me as an iPad user, I suspect that the only reason to get a Kindle would be if I was going on a long trip where I was unsure about being able to recharge the battery.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    I read enough books to justify getting both, actually. You have to remember that the Kindle’s price is so, so low, and still dropping, so as to take pricing as an issue off the table.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    Well it’s tap the screen to call up controls, swipe the screen to turn the page, pinch to zoom, etc etc. It’s tactile, and intuitive because it’s tactile, and that’s why I say it’s unfair to compare both.

  • Dary

    I don’t know a single person with a kindle, ipad or anything similar. These things are still way too expensive :/ Current cost of a basic Kindle = at least two months food supplies!

  • http://twitter.com/foxxtrot Jeff Craig

    This is EXACTLY why I love my original Nook, and why I wouldn’t trade it for an iPad (my wife does have a Nook Color, which she really loves too, but despite it’s Android roots, Nook Color doesn’t have the CPU for most apps). Main reason I went with the NOOK over the Kindle was ePub vs. Mobi, but I am the kind of person who makes purchasing decisions based on native file formats.

    I love that I can read my Nook one handed while walking across campus, and I read a LOT more than I did before I bought it. Best purchase I’d made in years.

  • Anonymous

    I have just spent a month in Jamaica, and read my iPad on the beach, under the umbrella, all the time. I love the ability to research anything that tickles my curiosity while reading. I would love to know what the debate is about the extortionate prices charged for Kindle books on Amazon.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    Which debate is this? You mean the one about publishers using the Agency model on Amazon?

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    I totally get your decision to choose the Nook for ePub over mobi, and I’m annoyed by Amazon’s exclusion of ePub for the Kindle.

  • http://www.christiebailey.com Christie Bailey

    Free Kindles! Yes, that makes sense.

    Of course, down the road, it looks like ereaders and tablets might merge together into super cheap, super durable, flexible, touch-sensitive color e-ink devices like this… http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-top-ten-e-paper-devices-coming-in-the-next-20-years

    I wonder–how can we take advantage of this technology as writers? When large numbers of readers (and potential readers) have access to cheap ereading devices with intuitive touch interfaces that have color, animation, and sound capabilities…how can we create a storytelling experience that utilizes these? I keep thinking: digital interactive fiction. Not a replacement for traditional prose, but its own medium, like graphic novels.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryannalexander Bryan Alexander

    The power of convenience. Potent stuff.

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