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Computing Thoughts
Kindle From Another Planet
by Bruce Eckel
March 26, 2011
Summary
Despite being part of the microcomputer revolution from the beginning, the Kindle is the first piece of technology I've seen that feels alien to me. And I mean that in a good way.

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It might be that it is so small, light and thin. It might be the e-ink screen that only uses power when it's changing pages. But I suspect that it's a combination of the design elements, and ultimately the insanely long battery life of approximately a month between recharges. The battery life of every other portable computing device has always been a factor in the back of my mind, so I have to plug in so that I don't think about it. With the Kindle, the battery life is so long that it's a non-issue, which means that the device seems to be powered by magic -- or alien technology.

I bought the Kindle as a test platform for digital book projects. Even though you're supposed to be able to create a universal format that works on all reader devices, I've learned that you never really know unless you test it on the target platforms.

I got the basic $139 version that connects to a wireless network (or you can use a USB cable directly to your computer). So far I haven't felt the need for either the 3G or the larger-format DX.

There is a lot to like about the Kindle. The e-ink screen works with the sun, rather than fighting it like your laptop must, so reading outdoors is quite workable. You can easily change the text size. You can carry lots of books on the device and it remembers the current page of each. There is a way to highlight passages (The first book I read already had some passages that were pre-highlighted, and I don't know how that happened). It has a text-to-voice reader, presumably for the blind (the text-size change is great for the visually impaired, although such persons might want to consider the larger-form DX).

There's an experimental feature that allows you to open a web browser. This is a bit awkward because of the keyboard and the mousing process, but it's workable. However, I found no way to bookmark a web page, which is rather important.

One of the greatest things about the kindle is the form factor. The size is such that you can fit your whole library into a good-sized jacket pocket, which is great, but I think my favorite aspect is that you don't have to hold a book open, or compensate for the curve of the gutter while you're reading. Everything is flat, and hands-free effortless reading is truly possible. The places where this has most plagued me is while eating and reading in bed, both of which are superior experiences on the Kindle.

I've only read one book on the Kindle so far -- a science-fiction book, so it was nothing but plain text -- but my experience with it was great. I want to read more books on the Kindle.

And there's the problem. In the past, every time I've noticed Kindle editions of books, they were always noticeably cheaper than the print versions. But apparently there was an attitude change among publishers right about now that they ought to be able to charge as much or more for the Kindle edition (probably all e-book editions) as the paper edition. I've had enough experience with publishers to know what happened: some MBA got the bright idea that they can raise ebook prices to what is paid for the print book, and get away with it (naturally, the author is usually getting the same royalty for the ebook as for the print version, so it's a big financial win for the publisher to screw both the authors and the readers). Here are a couple of examples. First, not a special case, but a book I happened to be interested in -- The Rational Optimist: Paperback, $8.84; Kindle, $12.99. Second, Seth Godin's Linchpin, just about to come out in paperback at $10.47, but available on Kindle at $18.99! So now, instead of being rewarded for shelling out the extra money for the device, I'm being punished.

My problem is that I don't like feeling cheated, and that's how this feels. I can try to look at the bigger picture: I don't destroy trees, the convenience, the fact that this is probably a temporary transitional situation (and that this is part of the death throes of big obnoxious publishers). But it grinds me to do things that support bad MBA-think. And I'm often paying more than full price for something that I can't use the way I can use a print book: I can't loan a Kindle book to someone the way I can loan a physical book. I know that, as ebook readers become ubiquitous, I will eventually have the satisfaction of seeing the big publishers that are pulling these shenanigans go out of business -- who will need them when you can just publish an ebook directly? -- but in the meantime I feel abused. Especially because Amazon also provides their attractive used-book marketplace (and some of those have started providing Amazon Prime shipping), it takes an obvious choice (buy the ebook) and makes it a question again.

One other problem I came across was the blog-publishing service provided by Amazon. There are lots of blogs you can read -- for 99 cents a month. Since most of those blogs are free elsewhere, and it appears that if the blogger charges for the Kindle service the cost becomes more than 99 cents a month, apparently the 99 cents is a baseline fee that Amazon charges. I'm sure 12$ per year sounds very reasonable to Amazon, but if you read more than a few blogs this rapidly becomes an annoying amount of money. I'd be fine paying 12$/year to read all blogs of my choice; that would be a no-brainer. But 12$/year for each blog is also a no-brainer (the answer is "no"). I'll save that money for an iPad. Note that it is possible to use Kindle's browser to read blogs, although I'm sure what you get with the paid service is more elegant and useful.

Summary: The technology is terrific. The economic model needs work. And there are still a fair number of questions I haven't answered, such as: Are there sources of free books, and where are the best ones? Can I get these from the local library? (I know there are issues currently being worked out, with the publishers trying to impose arbitrary short-sighted restrictions that -- not surprisingly -- only benefit the publishers).

Until they figure it out and return the prices to reasonableness, I won't be buying many Kindle books. If publishers are going to punish me for buying a Kindle, then I am inclined to punish back, by using the alternatives that produce less profit for them -- the print version, or even better, a used book.

Coincidentally, O'Reilly Radar published a piece discussing ebook prices here.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2011 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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