Kindle: First Impressions

kindle-blogs.JPGEveryone at Amazon’s Kindle press conference (which I liveblogged earlier today) received one of the electronic book readers. I played around with mine while I was waiting to interview Jeff Bezos. My initial impressions:

It is not as clunky as the FCC picture made it out to be, but it still has an odd retro feel. A mod, over-sized, calculator from the 1970s comes to mind. It is much lighter than a book and comfortable to hold. The large, gray panel on the back covering the battery and SD-card memory slot is rubberized and engraved with letters and symbols from different alphabets throughout the ages, a subtle reference to the tablets that held the first written words.

Everything else (other than the text on the screen) is white, which is supposed to help make the device “disappear” so that the reader does not get distracted by anything other than the words on the screen, but it seems like a nod to the original white iPod. The Kindle is essentially an iPod for books, with Amazon’s online book store taking on the role of iTunes.

The Kindle does take some getting used to. I cannot tell if it is supposed to appeal to technophiles or bibliophiles. I think it is the latter (see Bezos’ comments in previous post). Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the device is more concerned with improving the experience of reading a book than it is with porting over many of the things online readers already take for granted. And that may be its downfall. You can make your own comments on a book or highlight parts of it, but it is not terribly easy to share those notations with others. And forget ever loaning an electronic book to anyone who does not share your Amazon account. The digital rights management [DRM] on the device does not allow it to be transfered.

The screen is amazingly readable, as long as you have a light source (just like with a regular book). It does not have a regular computer display, but a black-and-white E-Ink screen. The scroll wheel controls a digital bar that moves up and down the right side of the screen. At first, I thought it would work like the right-hand navigation scroll bar in a browser, but it does not actually let you scroll through a page. To do that you have to hit the “Next Page or “Previous Page” buttons, which I find slightly annoying (and slower than just scrolling would have been). Also, the device has two of those “Next Page” buttons, one on the left and one on the right, which seems redundant. And you cannot reprogram them like soft keys on a cell phone of other device.

The keyboard does not feel fast enough for me in terms of responding to my fingers. (CrunchGear’s Peter Ha agrees). You have to wait too long to see the letters you type appear on the screen. Too long here being milliseconds, but the lag time is still noticeable. As far as I am concerned, I shouldn’t be able to type faster than any device can register my keystrokes. Although this is primarily a reading device, you can surf the Web and write notes or comments, so you will be typing at times.

What the device does well is provide a seamless purchasing and electronic reading experience. You can shop for Amazon books, or electronic newspaper, magazine, and blog subscriptions, right from the device, which comes with a built-in Sprint EVDO card. (There is no WiFi). Amazon bought EVDO data access wholesale from Sprint and is re-marketing it with the Kindle as Whispernet. The high-speed wireless data access comes free with the device. So everything you buy or subscribe to just gets downloaded seamlessly. This part really works well.

But Amazon must be taking a big hit up front on this. My Sprint EVDO data plan costs $60 a month. That is a consumer price. Obviously, Amazon was able to negotiate a much lower price. Even at $10 a month per Kindle, Amazon would need to sell a dozen books just to recoup its wireless network costs. Maybe it got a better deal than that, since the device is designed more for a download-and-read experience than an always-on experience. So the Kindles may not end up using a lot of bandwidth. It is not like most people are going to be downloading a new book everyday. If Amazon was able to negotiate the rate down closer to $1 a month, that would make more sense, because that would only require one or two book downloads per customer to pay for a year’s worth of wireless access. Amazon would not comment on how much it is paying for the wireless network. If it is paying Sprint on a per-device basis, it won’t really matter unless the Kindle takes off in sales.

In addition to being a book reader, the Kindle has some experimental features. One is a limited Web browser customized for the device with some preselected bookmarks including (in case you want to buy a digital camera instead of a book, which you can do just fine from the main Kindle shopping page), Wikipedia, Google, BBC News, Yahoo Finance, Weather Underground, and the Yellow Pages.

You can also enter any URL, including Bloglines (but not Google Reader, which requires Javascript and which the Kindle browser does not support). So here is a Kindle hack: you can check out your RSS feeds for the New York Times or the full feed of blogs like TechCrunch for free using the browser, rather than choose to pay a subscription to get them downloaded to the Kindle. I don’t have high hopes for the Kindle’s ability to bring back subscription revenues for publishers of any kind.

The fact that it has a functioning Web browser, though, means that you can follow links in the feeds you subscribe to. More importantly, it opens up the world of linking to book authors. Now books can have links, and not just for citations. Authors who take advantage of the electronic book format will start to include hyperlinks for curious readers to follow, and books could become more tightly interwoven with the culture of the Web in general. Reading a book will no longer need to end with the final chapter. Rather, it could literally open up a whole world of information on the Web, just as blog posts or online news article do today.

The other cool experimental feature is called “Ask Kindle NowNow.” You can ask any question you like and you get a response from a human researcher. This is done through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. I asked “Who was the first person to ever write about the Kindle?” And I git a response in a few minutes pointing me to an “early” September 11, 2007 post on Engadget. While that post does come up high in a Google search on Kindle, the New York Times had this story on September 5 (and that might not have even been the first mention of it). So NowNow was close, but did not give the best answer. Still, what do you want for free research? [Update: Scratch that. NowNow was right, after all. The Engadget article was in 2006, which I totally missed as I was hurrying to get this post up. Apologies to all].

The Kindle is definitely a step forward in the e-book category. But don’t expect it to fly off the shelves this Christmas. This is a long-term bet for Amazon. Anything it can do to move away from shipping physical goods and selling digital ones is gravy for its margins. This is not about the device. It is about delivering digital books through the ether. You can be sure that there will be more Kindles to come, and this first attempt will soon look as quaint as the first, bulky iPod.