The Kindle doesn’t suck, but it would be insane to pay $1,500 for one

Positive #8: Kindle’s
‘experimental’ browser
is so bad, it’s good.

I’ve had an Amazon Kindle for over a week. (Sidenote: I purchased it after they started saying it wouldn’t be available until after Christmas). There are some things I like about it — and some obvious and well-documented things about it that make it, frankly, inconceivably bad.

I was waiting until next week to review it, but when I read on TechCrunch that Kindles are going for $1,500 on eBay (geez, people, don’t be crazy), I thought I should go ahead an post what I’ve discovered after reading a couple of eBooks on a Kindle and messing around with most of the features. (Private message to Aaron Pressman re: eBay: You win.)

Here are some things I like about the Kindle:

1. I like the concept even more, now that I’ve tried it: I can read books on a little rectangular chunk of plastic and the print is very clear and paper-like. And I can carry around a dozen or so books (up to 200, in theory) in my briefcase. Bring on the flying car, and I’ve got everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

2. It has lots of the customer-friendly things I like about Amazon: Since I’ve been a heavy-duty customer of Amazon for a decade, the service already knows what books to recommend to me.

3. The books cost about $10: That’s for current best-sellers that cost $25 or so in hardbook. I’m buying books I’d never purchase in hardback (also, no way am I going to be seen in public reading a David Baldacci novel). I have no doubt (I learned this from the iTunes Store) that I will end up spending more on books in the long run. Frankly, there are lots of hardbacks I’d never purchase that I’ll download with no second thought. This is the true magic of the eBook concept and what will make the concept succeed — however, that’s a concept bigger than just the Kindle.

4. Think it, buy it, anywhere (if you’re not in Montana): The EVDO wireless connection is incredibly fast when it comes to downloading books. (However, there are some spots where it doesn’t work, I’ve read.) This aspect of the Kindle is truly phenomenal. Indeed, if anything about the device is radically disruptive, it’s the way in which cellular technology is being used in a device that is not a mobile phone.

5. I can read it even if I can’t find my glasses: I’m farsighted so I appreciate the way in which the type can be enlarged so that I can read easily.

6. The e-mail a document to Kindle feature: The way in which you can email documents to your Kindle (a way to get documents onto the device if you don’t have it hooked to your computer) is very creative. (You send the document as an email attachment for 10¢ a document.)

7. The Amazon Digital Libary: They get an A+ for this feature: When you purchase an eBook from Amazon, a record of the purchase is kept in your Amazon account’s digital library so that you can download it again. (Long-time readers of this blog may know why I’m a fan of Amazon’s approach in this department.)

8. The funky web browser is so bad, it’s good: The web browser is labeled “experimental,” but I find it entertaining to see websites striped of most graphics and advertising — reminds me of 1995. A text-heavy site like Wikipedia (or, say, actually “work” on the Kindle. Most traditional sites (except, perhaps, those that a optimized for mobile devices) lose lots in the translation.

Here are some things I don’t like about the Kindle:

1. The design of the hardware is off-the-charts bad: To be honest, I really wanted to be able to say that I thought Robert Scoble and others had gone over-board with their piling-on, kick-sand-in-the-face-of-the-dorky-kid observations of how crudely designed the usability aspects of the device are. But if anything, they’ve been nice. Every bad thing that’s been said about the buttons and the way one can carelessly click something and end up god-knows-where is absolutely true. There’s a button labeled “back,” for instance that I still am confused with after 10 days of using it. Using the Kindle has made me appreciate something I’ve never — and I mean never — appreciated before despite spending most of my adult life using computers all day, every day: The Cursor. The little blinking cursor — and I’m not talking about the arrow that shows up when you move a mouse around, but that blinking horizontal line that predates the mouse. That someone could design a digital device with a text display that has no cursor is bold, indeed. It’s also crazy.

2. Anything other than a book — as in a book that is primarily words on paper — displayed on the Kindle is awful: When they say you can purchase Time magazine on the Kindle, it’s the articles — the text only. This is a device that’s good for displaying text and illustrations that lack grays. I’m thinking Wall Street Journal before they went to color where every illustration was that pointalistic style — that might work on a Kindle. In other words, digimagazine fans, this is not your platform.

3. The book selection is puny: Wait, you say. I’m sure the Kindle may have access to more eBooks than any other source, but last Sunday, I was sitting with an author who has had a book on the New York Times Bestseller list that still sells thousands of copies each year as the title is used in college and high school courses. I was going to purchase the book to show the author how it’s done, except it wasn’t available. So we looked up other books by authors we know who have mid-list (back-list) books that continue to have book-club and assigned-reading sales, and, zilch, we came up empty. In other words, the title list for the Kindle is front-end loaded with books one will only find along the short-tail. I’m sure (?) this will rapidly change (a similar problem plagued the early iTunes Store) as publishers jump on the Kindle wagon — especially if the device is going to be marketed to college students. But for now, don’t expect to find those obscure titles you may think will be available.

4. Yet another proprietary format: I guess we’ll have to go through a decade or so of the whole DRM thing that has plagued the music industry. Lots of other folks have written about this, so I’ll just skip it for now and say, I can share print books with my kids or colleagues, but I can’t share Kindle books. Big conceptual flaw in the whole “future of books” thing.

Summary: Amazon is a great online retailer. Bezo’s desire to solve the eBook dilemma is valiant and the Kindle is a step in the right direction. But Kindle 1.0 should be purchased only by individuals who have a taste for 1970s Yugoslovian design and who will buy just about any gadget that comes along. I hope, however, that Amazon and others keep pushing the concept forward. I hope they actually listen to some of the bad reviews and bring in real designers to create the next generation of the device. I’m more convinced than ever, however, that if Apple were to offer an iPod Touch in a size similar to the display area of the Kindle — and, perhaps, support the Kindle format — it would revolutionize the eBook concept. As it is now, the Kindle won’t.