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.


dallas.may said...

I think you nailed the Kindle's true fault here:

"...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."

One of the top selling points for the iPod was that you had "10,000 Songs in your Pocket". Though, I don't know that the classic print media needs to decline, they just need to get on board. Or, maybe they don't want to. Books currently have an excellent DRM system built right in.