Another E-Book Flop, This Time From Amazon

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to predict that Amazon’s new Kindle electronic book reader will be a flop. This device looks like something that Sony or Apple circa 1994 would cook up. It’s getting a lot of press attention (such as the cover of the current Newsweek), but this is only because it’s Amazon promoting it, and because the tech press is obsessed with gadgets.

A closer examination, though, reveals that Kindle doesn’t solve the problems that caused prior e-book efforts to fail. It’s not better than a book in any way, and yet it costs more than a laptop PC and is nearly as complicated.

Let’s look at the key features.

600 x 800 pixel, 6″ diagonal grayscale display: This is probably the best part of the device. Those dimensions yield a 160 DPI resolution, which is quite sharp (compare to CRTs and LCD displays which typically have a resolution in the 72-96dpi range). I suspect that the display probably has outstanding contrast and sharpness, and that anyone attempting to objectively evaluate the device will be too busy drooling over the display to think about anything else.

“Simple to use: no computer, no cables, no syncing.” Well, why does it come with two cables, then? Oh, by no cables, you mean that there are two cables. Power cable, sure, because it’s more convenient than a book that way.

But what’s the USB cable for? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a letter on the Amazon home page today that says “there is no software to install and no syncing required.” That’s true, as long as you don’t use the Audiobooks feature. If you do, well, then you need the second cable. (In that case it’s less convenient than an iPod because an iPod is smaller and cheaper, and has a color display. But an iPod won’t let you read books as clearly on a 6″ screen. So the Kindle is better than an iPod at that, I guess.)

“A copy of every book you purchase is backed up online in Your Media Library in case you ever need to download it again.” So, there’s no syncing, except for syncing with the server where the books are. And also there’s an SD card slot so you can keep track of what downloads are on which card already, and maybe accidentally keep multiple copies on multiple cards. So it’s not really syncing, it’s downloading. That’s completely different from what a Zune or an iPod does. (Except in the case of Audiobooks, when it’s exactly what an iPod or Zune does.)

You can email non-Kindle documents to your Kindle. That costs $0.10 each, and let’s hope you only need one version of that document, or else you’ll have to pay an additional $0.10 each time. Any Word documents will need to be converted automatically for you, which means that some percentage of formatting will be mangled in the process. So, there’s no syncing, which means that you have to be on top of making sure that the documents you wanted to have on your Kindle are manually re-emailed (at $0.10 per email) to your device each time they change. That’s much easier than syncing, yes?

Let’s make that absolutely clear: there are no cables whatsoever, other than two cables. There is no syncing, except for three different kinds of syncing.

“Navigation on both sides means both “lefties” and “righties” can easily use Kindle with one hand.” There are large next/previous page buttons on the left side, but only a next page button on the right, together with a back button. Shall we presume that the Back button and the Prev Page button do the same thing? Or do they mean that lefties and righties can go to the next page, but only lefties can go to the previous page?

It seems that as far as the controls, they have looked at what Apple has done with the iPod’s ultra minimalist design, and done the opposite. There’s a QWERTY keyboard, but it has “chiclet” keys, the space bar is in the wrong place, there’s a gap in the middle, a bunch of unused space around each key for no apparent reason, and an almost comical angling of the keys. There’s a weird LCD scroll bar on the right side of the main display, which is as tall as the main display, but is apparently physically separate. And there’s a big vertical scroll wheel.

Of course, the screen is a touchscreen and you can use your fingers or a stylus to select text. Wait. No? Oh, you can’t select text that way. It’s not a touchscreen at all. You just use the arrow keys… um. there are no arrow keys; there’s just backspace. Based on the photos on Amazon’s site, it looks like you hit Alt and then a number key in order to edit text, which you shouldn’t really be doing, because this is a book. Except, you also can use it to search, or annotate, or shop. So it’s sort of like a pen, or a black and white catalog, or a library. You might say it’s kind of like a laptop, but not really, because it’s supposed to be a super evolved book. But it has audio features, so it’s sort of an iPod, but not really, because it’s much too large to fit in your pocket.

Okay, so let’s assume that people in vast numbers will overlook ergonomic problems and aesthetic issues and the usual headaches of syncing, in order to get something substantially less functional than a laptop PC, which can be had for about the same price. (Let’s also assume that they don’t know that Sony makes a “Digital Book” reader that costs $100 less than Kindle.) There’s no reason to assume any of this, but let’s just pretend.

There’s still the property problem caused by DRM. Amazon’s Kindle page says that Fair Game by Valerie Plame Wilson has a list price of $26, but I actually clicked a couple of times to check this out. I can order it online, from, for $12.25 plus shipping. Then I can lend it to my wife, my friends, and then sell it to a bookstore or at a yard sale, or donate it to the library. I can get far more use out of a book at $12.25 plus shipping than I can for a $9.99 Kindle limited use license to read that same text on a $400 device.

(If I can be a little bit patient and wait for the paperback version, or for a lot more copies to be bought and then offered for sale used, I can get well under $9.99. I just bought a hardcover statistics textbook for $7.79 including shipping, just to avoid the wrath of Zed Shaw). List price? $123.53.)

Of course, the reason Fair Game is available for $12.25 in the first place is because it’s possible for someone to sell me a used book. I bet I could go to one of a half dozen local used bookstores and find the same book for a similar price. Or, I could just go to my local public library, and get one of the ten copies they currently have, for free. Again I could photocopy it, or let my wife read it before I return it. They own the physical books, so they get to do this.

(By the way, the library will also let me download time-limited PDFs for free onto my computer or brand new sub-$400 laptop. Yeah, they’re DRM encumbered, but they’re also free, and don’t require that I buy a special e-book reader.)

Clearly, buying physical books has some advantages. So what are the advantages are of electronic books? It’s definitely not financial. Here’s where the fun math applies: real physical books cost money to print, ship, store, and destroy. Electronic books don’t. Some large percentage of the cost of each physical book or magazine you buy goes to print, ship, store, and destroy the copies of that same book which no one ever buys. The printing and distribution costs of books are nothing to sneeze at; ask anyone who works at a bookstore. Electronic books, then, cost far less to distribute to customers. Why should we pay the same price for a license that costs less to make and sell, and gives us less in return, than a real book? That’s not even counting the very expensive reader device, which obviously will not last as long as a book will, and thus will need to be replaced in a few years just so you can keep reading the same book.

And that’s the biggest problem with e-books: Amazon is promising that when you “buy” a Kindle book, you will always be able to read it. This is not implied, it’s explicit: “Amazon is storing your personal library, which can always be re-downloaded wirelessly.” “…in case you ever need to download it again.” (emphasis mine) That means that they are promising you that someone will always sell you a reader device compatible with their format, and that you will always be able to put your “bought” books on that device. So, the file format and DRM and back-end service always will need to be there, and will always need to be available to you for free, or else the deal isn’t what they are telling you it is.

Would they pull the rug out like that? According to one early adopter’s comment on Amazon’s own side, they already did that with e-books once before. Google did the same thing with their video store. When a service can only survive if a massive end to end infrastructure is maintained, which pretty much defines all internet-based DRM efforts, the risk to the buyer of license revocation with no refund is very high.

Now, take a look at the film, television, music, and book publishing industry’s combined downward spiral and listen to their cries of despair. These are the people who are launching DRM-heavy services tied to closed devices. Are you going to entrust your entire personal library to what might well be a service that is cancelled in a year? What will you do with your $400 single-purpose closed hardware device then?

In short, Kindle is junk. It’s worse than a book in every way, and has no advantages whatsoever. I predict that no one you know will buy one, and that it’ll be discontinued in less than a year.

2 thoughts on “Another E-Book Flop, This Time From Amazon”

  1. I don’t think they’re trying to rip us off; that implies malice. I think it’s just a weak offering.

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