Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Amazon Kindle

tech 3 min read

So much has already been said about the Kindle, but I wanted to offer my own thoughts. It’s just how I am.

First off, let me state two things for the record:

  1. I have never owned an electronic book reader device.
  2. I've probably wanted one since before I was capable of articulating the thought.

Is the Kindle the device I’m after? No, but then it’s not even the same type of device in the first place. The Kindle isn’t intended to be a replacement for physical books, nor is it even intended as a new, electronic way to read books. It’s a new, electronic way to buy and read books. In that capacity, it does reasonably well - wireless access to Amazon from anywhere with a cellphone signal is a pretty impressive feat, especially for a flat fee. But, of course, therein lies the rub.

What people like myself are looking for is essentially a way to own a single physical book which can contain the text of many logical books. One oblong slab in my pocket or my jacket or my bag, but it contains the text of whatever work I’m reading at the time. By necessity, this slab must then be an electronic device, and at this point we enter into compromises and trade-offs involving some very common factors:

  • Cost vs battery life
  • Cost vs screen resolution and technology
  • Cost vs storage capacity
  • Storage capacity and battery life vs portability (in the form of size and weight)
  • Interface considerations vs cost (on-screen keyboards make the screen hardware much more expensive)
  • Interface considerations vs portability (physical keyboards take up a lot of space on a device, as shown by Kindle)
  • Ability to provide comprehensive access to the service vs unit cost of the device and the electronic books

The fact is that electronic books are compromises. We’re gaining switchable content by sacrificing, to varying degrees, robustness, portability, cost, readability, instant-on capability, limitless “power supply”, weight, universality, the ability to doodle and annotate, resistance to sunblock and indeed long-term exposure to the sun itself, and so on. Anyone complaining that the Kindle doesn’t tick all the boxes which a paper book does in those regards isn’t really paying attention, nor will they probably ever be satisfied. Picard still read his Shakespeare from an actual book, after all, even though his desk was perpetually littered with PADDs.

I don’t blame Amazon in the least for tying the Kindle to their own ebooks and store; indeed, it would be wildly irresponsible of them not to. They’re trying to appeal to a market which is outspoken in eagerness but exceptionally reluctant to actually adopt technologies. It’s a risky venture, and the Amazon crown jewel is its catalogue, which should be leveraged in every possible way.

So I don’t blame them for the nature of the device, but if you’re like me then it’s likely not the kind of device you want. I don’t need a store or wireless access or a built-in keyboard. I’ll even happily sacrifice searching and annotations if it’ll keep the cost down (less important) and make the whole device just be one big screen with a thin casing of plastic around it (much more important).

The fact that the ergonomics and form-factor of the Kindle seem both over-designed and questionable is another valid point, but not the central thrust of this post. The Kindle is a relatively misguided electronic book in the key areas of device transparency (as Bezos puts it) and the elusive quality of “bookness”, but it’s an interesting attempt at a ubiquitous electronic bookstore with potentially the best catalogue ever seen. Don’t dismiss it out of hand because it isn’t an e-paperback.

But, of course, don’t buy it unless it’s actually what you want either. For my money, I want something that says Book to me a lot more than the Kindle does, and with improved industrial design. Give me that and I’ll willingly pay a couple of hundred quid (around 16.8 million US$ currently). I’ll even promise to keep it safe from crayons and coffee and sunblock.

Until then, if you’re desperate for an electronic book-reader, albeit one with somewhat reduced sharpness of text and a battery-life in the teens of hours rather than several dozens, I have a humble suggestion. It even has facing pages.

Picture of a Nintendo DS Lite sitting atop a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne

Just pop a flash card like the R4 Revolution or M3DS Simply in there, and voila. You can put your ebooks on the card via USB, along with your ebook reading software of choice, and you’re away.

Oh, and it’ll even let you play Mario.

Disclosure: my fiancée is an Amazon employee, specifically a Java developer. However, she has no involvement whatsoever with the Kindle at time of writing, nor do we currently own stock in the company.