The Amazon Kindle

It’s amazing how much I learned from the experiences that start out like: “So I bought my wife a……”

In this case the “….” is an Amazon Kindle. My wife is quite the Bibliophile. She not only works in a Library, she also binds books as a hobby, and in currently continuing her education for a masters degree in Library Science. It is the last endeavor that prompted me to investigate getting her a Kindle.

Many of her required textbooks are available from Amazon in a digital form. While the cost of this digital texts is still outrageously high, they are still less than the cost of the physical edition. I rationalized that the cost savings between the physical and digital edition would justify getting her a Kindle. Before handing the device of to my wife (which would assure me never seeing it again) I had an opportunity to play with it and evaluate it’s features.

There have been many comparison between the Kindle and the iPad, and after using both, I think these comparisons are unfair. While they are summarily shaped devices and there is some function overlap, the Kindle and the iPad occupy two distinct use cases. It’s not entirely out of the question that a person could own both and not feel that they are duplicating themselves.

The iPad is a full tablet computer, capable of video, audio, text, content creation, communication and gaming. The Kindle does one thing, display digital books, and it does that one thing exceptionally well. It is light in the hands, lighter in fact than most paperback books, and the positioning of the page turning buttons makes holding it with ether the right or left hand vey easy.

Best feature of the Kindle however is it’s screen. It’s difficult to describe the screen, and image of it online do not do it justice.

When I first opened the box that the Kindle was shipped in, and started to take the protective plastic wrapping off, I was puzzled for a few moments at how to remove what I thought was the protective “demo” screen protector. Having unboxed hundreds of new gadgets, it is quite common for me to have to remove plastic protective coverings from their screens. More often than not, manufactures will print dummy or demo screen shots on these protective coverings just to provide some flare when the user opens the box. All to often however the marketing departments get over zealous, and these protective covering screens look better than the real thing once it’s powered on. So when I saw the screen on the Kindle, it to me just looked like another case of this.

I was wrong. The eInk display was crisp to the point of fooling me. While the screen is indeed grayscale (i.e. black and white). The images and text that render on that screen are just as well defined as ink on paper. Because there is no backlight, touch screen layer, or LED fade, looking at the Kindle is oddly wonderful. The eInk technology also does not use power when it is not “transitioning”, so there is never a need to turn the device off, you simply set it down. There is a “screen saver” of sorts that will come on after a while, displaying images of famous authors, I this is purely for esthetics as there is no need to “save the screen” as with LEDs. Even after several days of having the unit around the house, I still get the odd impression that some has left an ink and paper drawing on top of the Kindle if I happen to see it laying on a table.

This amazing display has but a single draw back. It takes a noticeable fraction of a second to “redraw” the screen between page turns. However this time is considerably shorter than a physical page turn in a book, so the tradeoff is acceptable. This of course means that eInk, in it’s current form will never be a “video” display.

While I said that the Kindle is only an eBook reader, there is another feature of the Kindle that by itself would justify me buying one. The Kindle has one of the best “text-to-speech” options I have ever seen in a mobile device. This feature was the source of some controversy when the Kindle launched, with publishers claiming that “text-to-speech” somehow infringed on their “audiobook” rights/sales. However as someone who lives with a developmental reading disorder (dyslexia), I found this feature in the Kindle to be profoundly helpful. I had the Kindle “read” to me an entire periodical magazine on a short car trip. While “audiobooks” have allowed me to consume vastly more knowledge and information than my disorder would normally allow, there are to my knowledge no “audio-magazinesmagazines” widely available in the subjects I have interests. I feel it is rather offensive for publishers to take issue with “text-to-speech”, but sadly this “rights” question wasn’t the only “copyright foolishness” to crop up on the Kindle as I will cover in a moment.

There are “Kindle Apps” for my iPhone and iPad, and I have these loaded, however these do not include the “text-to-speech” features.  I suspect this has to do with licensing issues regarding Nuance Technologies, who provide the vocalization and the “Tom” voice used on the Kindle. (As an interesting side note, Nuance Technologies also provides the vocalization for Microsofts in-car control system known as “sync”, as well as voices for “xtranormal”, a website that has been used to make several meme videos from chat logs. It basically means that your Kindle and your Ford have the same voice.) I think I will hold out a bit longer and hope that the text-to-speech feature will be added to the iPad, but if it is not, it is worth the $140 for a Kindle just for that one feature.

My finale thoughts on the Kindle are less about the Kindle itself and more about Digital Rights Management. With books quickly moving from physical paper to digital downloads, the publishing industry is trying very hard not to become the music industry.

15 years ago, people started “ripping” there digital CDs to MP3s and as the Internet bandwidth increased, people found that they could pass copies of these MP3s around the net. It took the music industry 5 years to even acknowledge that this was happening, then they spent 10 useless years, and untold billions of dollars, trying to make world “forget” about digital music before finally accepting reality and offering a legitimate easy to use method for people to buy music online. However, in those 15 years, the worlds music industry faltered, and was forever stripped of any control it ever had. The publish world does not want to end up the same way.

Up until now there has not been an easy way to convert physical books to into digital form like we had in the dates of the CDs for Music and currently with DVDs for video. But when most books are going to be sold digitally (we have already hit the high water mark for physical books sales, sales will only decline in the future) there is now a large collection of digital books in the publics hands, and that public is going to want to share and trade those books. However, if the publishing industry does not create some easy and unobtrusive method for allowing people to use their digital books in the same way they used their physical books, then the power of public desire will simply overwhelm the demands of the publishing companies, and this has already started to happen.

Case in point: My wife, in her capacity with the local Library, started a project to allow library patrons to “check out” digital books from our Libraries website and put those digital books on a portable e-reader such as the Kindle. Like most governmental insinuations, our local library did not create their own  digital book library website, but rather contracted with an outside company. This company claimed to allow these digital books to be placed on a Kindle. However after 6 hours of wrestling with this website, Adobe, desktop software, and the Kindle, my wife was unable to “check out” a single book from her own library’s website. Just as a test however, she Googled the name of the book she was trying to check out, and within 4 minutes had a “pirated” copy on her Kindle.

This is in no way meant to condone depriving authors of their right to make a living from their work. It is however meant to be an indictment of the publishing industry for falling into the same trap as the music industry did back in 2001. Digital goods are not the same as analog goods, they flow differently and people treat them differently. Trying to artificially place restrictions on digital goods so as to make them behave like analog goods will only result in people bypassing these restrictions. While the vast majority of the people bypassing the resections will not engage in behavior with will violate copyright, the fact that these restrictions have been bypassed will enable piracy on the part of less ethical people. When you have a critical mass of people who see nothing wrong with piracy, your industry collapses. When that happens no law, lobbyist, lawsuit, or international treaty will put the gene back in his bottle.

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