Brief Review of The Kindle 2

As part of my research (the part that delves into usability and design of formats that will likely replace print journalism forms), I recently acquired a Kindle 2.

I fear this is going to sound like a laundry list of complaints. It’s not. There are some great executions represented in the Kindle 2. If you check out the official Amazon page (linked above), I think most of this content is more than just promotional hype.

But I think most potential consumers need to think through their media uses and expectations to determine if this device is suited for them.

Early thoughts:

  • The screen is truly remarkable. In an age of rising concerns about sustainability, Amazon has produced a zero power (or low power) screen. And though it is black and white, I think the contrast and clarity do well to replace books and printed materials.
  • The physical interface is interesting. After almost a year on the iPhone 3G (I didn’t spring for the original, so this was my first experience with Apple’s interface), the Kindle’s interface seems quaint. Using a small stick to move around is reminiscent of my old Palm Treo, but it more remind me of a joystick interface on the travel Sega and Coleco games from the mid-1980s.
  • The physical “next page” buttons work extremely well. Though I still struggle a bit with the left-hand buttons. Even when I read with one hand, my affordance for the left “next” button is that it will turn “back.” The “back” button is right above it, but because the two “next” buttons are on the same latitude of the device, I continually hit the left-hand “next” button when I want to go “back.” Maybe this will be the new convention, but it is certainly not an intuitive affordance.
  • The software interface is a bit clunky. There’s a sound logic to it, but it is not intuitive to those familiar with Apple’s hand-held philosophy. But after a few minutes, it starts to make sense.
  • Not a fan of the menu structure from the Home screen. My newspapers and magazines get segregated into their own category (which mean they are not included in the main “Library” (Kindle doesn’t use this metaphor, probably because Apple uses it in its iTunes interface, but I think they should have). BUT, I can’t seem to organize my books by genre or even Dewey-decimal boundaries. Jane Austen is right in there with Thomas More and Lawrence Lessig. Sure, I can choose to arrange by Author or Title (and by the way, the software doesn’t skip over the initial articles such as “A” or “The” the way most library systems do. I foresee future integration problems). This makes browsing the thousands of titles my device can potentially hold an irritating endeavor. At least, for academic like me, who need to switch books regularly. For those settling in for a long read, I don’t think this is an issue.
  • The “page numbering” system will take some getting used to. Because users are able to determine variable font display sizes, traditional page numbers don’t translate to the machine. The Kindle does not scroll. You turn “pages.” So, a seemingly arbitrary numbering system (called “locations,” the default screen size brings you a range of about seven locations per screen. The largest text setting seems to include two locations per screen and the smallest text size appears to contain 10 locations per screen). Newspapers and magazines (and blogs) don’t seem to have locations. As an academic, I don’t know how useful it will be to bookmark (or footnote) “locations,” since the majority of my colleagues will need a page number translation. Maybe this is room for a future app?
  • The Subscriptions feature is nice, though has some problems. Magazine content seems well-suited for this environment (minus the color). Long-form reading is this device’s specialty, and I find reading magazine content easier to consume on the Kindle than in print form (I’m that guy who get irritable as a magazine crinkles and smudges, detracting from the content experience). The newspaper model needs some work. Most important problems for newspapers: the distribution model. Though I can test the format of a magazine by downloading a single issue ($.50 for most), I have to subscribe to at least a month’s subscription to view newspaper content. I subscribed to the Denver Post ($5.99). I was hesitant to subscribe to the New York Times ($13.99), because I already have the NYTimes iPhone app.
  • This brings up the problems with Whispernet, Amazon’s 3G network service. Unlike the iPhone, which can switch back and forth between its 3G data network and Wifi, the Kindle is in an exclusive marriage with its 3G network. What does this mean for me? Living in the mountains, where 3G is simply not possible, but Wifi spots are available, I can’t update my subscriptions until I am back in a major metropolitan area. Sure, I can drive to a Wifi spot, refresh my Archived Items on my laptop, download new books (still haven’t figured out how to do this for newspapers or magazines) and manually transfer the content to my Kindle via USB. This effectively means that my iPhone Kindle app has more access than my Kindle, since the iPhone can run on Edge, which is available wherever cell service is available. This issue falls prey to the digital divide in the worst way: only users who live in large metropolitan areas (where most of the 3G networks are present) will be able to capitalize on the network convenience factor. And, as an aside, Whispernet seems inferior to Apple’s 3G interface. Even with three or four bars in Boulder, Whispernet seems twice as likely to drop signal when I request a sync than the iPhone.
  • By far the biggest problem with the Kindle is the content management component. I don’t mean the ability to acquire new content. Amazon is actually really impressive at that part. But I have literally spent tens of thousands of dollars on books with Amazon over the years. And I have no way to acquire that content for the Kindle without spending tens of thousands of more dollars. Even in the early days of the iPod, I could import CDs into my library. This, I think, will be the Achilles heel of the Kindle business model. It actually needs the print industry to decline for the selection of offerings to look more attractive than amassing a print library. Of course, I could express concern about the lack of scholarly books in Kindle mode (I click the “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” button (which sends a notification to the book's publisher) about four times each day. But I expected that. The Kindle, like the iPod before it, will have to focus on short-tail best-sellers first and slowly build its library of niche publications. But I can’t believe it would be too difficult for Amazon (which maintains a record of everything I’ve ever purchased thorough their site) to allow me to download for free those books for which I’ve already paid the higher print price.

Again, I know most of these points will seem like I find more at fault than good with the Kindle. Not so. I know I’m not really the target of this device. I read a lot, but most of what I read isn’t available for this device. And I am multimedia-centric (it’s quite obvious that this device was designed to constrain the noise normally associated with digital content to maintain reading integrity).

My primary interest is how to design new content for the intended audience of this device. This may offer insights into the future of print interfaces, at least those removed from the multimedia convergence model preferred on the Web.

I’ll likely expand the various points raised above in future posts, as I grapple with nuanced understandings of the issues and hopefully begin to come up with suggestions to either overcome short-comings or improve user expectations about why such shortcomings actually improve the text experience.

Facebook clarifications

Wow. I keep forgetting what a diverse audience I have for my Facebook status (this is why I cut so far back on my Twittering, I think all of this should be two-way communication, and I usually don't have the time to responsibly hold up my end of the bargain).

Yesterday I mentioned on my status that I was "'Kindling' interest in electronic journalism." This was, of course, a reference to my playing around with the Kindle 2 I received on Friday. I'm getting ready to do another round of design usability analyses on different communication platforms and thought that it would be good to start thinking about the design issues related to getting content onto the Kindle.

I immediately received two responses from Facebook (and real-life) friends of mine. One asserted that the Kindle could not save journalism which was too far dead to revive. The other dissed the Kindle itself.

So, in communicating with those friends, I was reminded that I should clarify my terminology with regularity.

I rarely mean "industry" when I talk about the future of journalism. Journalism predated the current corporations that provide America's news commodity by a couple of millennia. If and when those companies and corporations fall, journalism will simply look different.

Most journalism I consume is a mixture of the corporate commodity and the emerging models that have nothing to do with the corporate sphere. So, since my Kindle now allows me to subscribe (and pay for) blogs as well as newspapers, magazines and books, one of my interests in is how these sources outside the dominant corporate sphere can generate subscription revenue.

For example,
  • Now that I can pay a couple of bucks to get Gizmodo on my Kindle, how does that content need to be tailored for that environment?
  • How much will that cost in terms of time and effort? Is the market for the Kindle a likely crossover for Gizmodo?
  • If so, what's the cost benefit analysis of designing content versus shoveling blogbloat into the interface?
  • If not, are their other platforms that can take advantage of this distribution channel?
  • Will the combined platforms distributing this format down the long tail offset the cost in time and resources to redesign content for this medium?

I'm not interested in saving the industry we have. My research has always been about what comes next. The industry can either join in or not, as far as I'm concerned (I'm pretty jaded on this point since I've been arguing adaptation for more than 10 years now at conferences and meetings with little serious engagement).

On the platform side, I can offer about a dozen critiques of the Kindle after only 12 hours, most centering on the network architecture. BUT, I don't investigate tech for the "ultimate gizmo." That's why I have an 2nd generation iPhone, an iPod Touch, an iPod video nano, a traditional iPod nano, I recently gave up my Treo, I recently cannibalized my last "dumb phone" to make a 1st Generation iPhone work, etc.

My view of diffusion is that high-end users like me are actually a small percentage of our culture. And we are trying to think about how to communicate with the WHOLE culture, not just the techno-elites.

The Kindle has sold a LOT of units. There are people who love books and hate video, and this is a device designed to capitalize on them. So, how should content be designed to reach them? Once someone buys a Kindle, how do we reach them? What will their expectations and tolerances of multimedia be?

Because my suspicion (and I have done not a shred of research on this yet) is that Kindle owners will not crossover as much with iPhone and iPod users as is conventionally thought. I can already see how could hack the "Text-To-Speech" function to include an audio file. Like an interview supplement to a newspaper story. But would anyone want that? Isn't the point of the Kindle to disengage the dynamic universe of multimedia content and approach content from a more static and simplified way? That some people will want static content that does not encourage interactivity but simple consumption?

(In my first few hours, I suddenly realized this was a device for the cultural elite and older generation. It seems to built around some older expectations of interface design. I think by comparison, Apple and the Blackberry are going after a completely different crowd).

So, I'll trying to make sure I understand the design and usability constraints (as well as the target market of users) for different distribution methods. Because though I am a VERY concerned about the digital divide, I am even more concerned about the platform divides that will come after more of our content is digitally distributed.

I don't think in 10 years much content will be consumed on a desktop computer. Which means we've got to think about how to design content in redundant language forms to ensure that someone doesn't miss a key part of the story because the Kindle has different capabilities that the iPhone.

Maybe it's important to also point out that all of these devices are transient. We barely have the infrastructure available to support mobile phones, much less the capability of distributing most of the multimedia forms we're capable of producing to most people.

My head is always in a particular place, and I forget how poorly my words convey what I'm thinking about, particularly when I'm so clumsy with the language.

Yikes, Re: CUI

Ok, those who write for student media are prone to make mistakes.

Student media are meant to be learning opportunities and as such, those who work don't have the greatest amount of experience.

I'm on the CUI publications board, so I've been reading their posts more frequently (I've also been interviewed a couple of times by them, which always draws my attention).

I saw this (unfortunate) gem yesterday:
"Lowest unemployment rate in a quarter century requires creative job-seeking startegies"

Ugh. The spelling error in the headline not withstanding (my spell check registers the mistake, so I wonder how this happened?), I think the reporter and editors must have been confused about how the unemployment rate works.

"Lowest in a quarter century"? I thought it was a joke or an ironic, Onion-esque reference. But no, as our unemployment rate creeps towards the HIGHEST point in quite some time, students are becoming nervous about getting a job, the point of the story.

And the error only appears in the headline.

What a tragedy. Some student's hard work derailed by a poor headline.

I wonder what their re-post/corrections policy is for errors?

Facebook Asks For User Input interview

One of the many interviews I gave to students last week resulted in an article:

The reported seems to have recorded and presented my words accurately, but there are some contextual errors in this story.

Key passages (with my commentary, following):

Rick Stevens, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism, said he thinks Facebook’s attempted terms of use were “pretty awful.”

“The new terms of agreement kind of reflect what Facebook often tries to do, which is control [its users],” Stevens said. “What Facebook was trying to do, yes, was reprehensible but many corporations have done the same thing.”

I didn't say Facebook tries to control its users. I said Facebook tries to maintain control of the content posted on its site. Important distinction, but not a critical error.

Stevens said the Facebook community is the best place to stop offensive changes to Facebook.

“The community could be powerful when it gets focused and when it understands the issue at hand,” Stevens said.

Ok, the direct quote is correct, but I did not say the "best place" to stop said changes would be within Facebook. I personally think if someone is concerned enough with the changes, they should file a lawsuit for improper notification of changes to a binding agreement (which is the real problem, still not addressed).

Stevens said at the end of the day, Facebook’s main job is to cater to its users, making them the most powerful influence on changes to the social networking site.

“The content that is being produced on their site is the attractor, the item that brings people to that site to begin with,” Stevens said. “If people were to lose interest in Facebook and move to another platform, Facebook would lose its goldmine and it knows that, so [Facebook officials] are trying to find ways to hang onto that content.”

Oy! The direct quote is, one again, correct. But the summary lead-in is just flat wrong. I didn't say that, I don't think that.

I think I understand what happened here. The quotes, dispersed in small blocks, required the reporter/editor to add a transition. And when she/he did, the result was a summary of what he/she THOUGHT I meant, supported by the direct quote. But I didn't say that, and if he/she thought I meant to say that, he/she misunderstood more about my views than I originally thought. The lead-in adds context that misrepresents my words.

Rush's Constitution

LOVE Rush Limbaugh.

Seriously, as the conservative movement has run aground, Limbaugh has become the unofficial (or official, if ideologues like Ann Coulter are to be believed) voice of "conservative America."

And apparently the voice of conservative America is riddled with truthiness instead of truth.

Current example. Yesterday, Limbaugh spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Among the statements he made is the following:

"We believe that the preamble of the Constitution contains an inarguable truth, that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, freedom -- and the pursuit of happiness."

Like I said, LOVE Limbaugh.

First of all, the Constitution doesn't HAVE any such language, preamble or otherwise. Second, this language appears exclusively in the Declaration of Independence (the document justifying the right to breach one social contract to form another). Third, he mangled even the quote. Jefferson's three inalienable rights (and they were certainly arguable, then and now, which is not the same as inalienable) were the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (derived from John Locke's inviolable three rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of property). Freedom does not appear among the assumed rights of either Jefferson nor Locke, and it certainly doesn't appear in the Declaration of Independence (much less the Constitution).

Because "freedom" would be a sub-set of the "liberty" Jefferson argued for, though I doubt Jefferson would recognize the use of the word "freedom" Limbaugh seems to be implying.

I wonder if his audience even noticed? Somehow, I doubt it.