E-Books, Kindles and Dreams

You probably need to have been living in a cave for the past few months (or just blissfully uncaring about advances in digital technology) to not have realised that Amazon has released it’s Kindle book reader.

Enough people have shared their opinions on the matter (a select few links are at the bottom of the post) so I will save you yet another dissection of the gadget. My only Kindle-specific views are:

  1. It is just so damnedly ugly
  2. I love that you can connect via wireless to Amazon to get books
  3. Why is it so cripplingly content locked?

Please Note: these views are based TOTALLY on other peoples reviews of the Kindle. I haven’t had the (mis)fortune to play with one myself yet. This might change. It most likely will not.

Instead I’m going to use this post to answer Jeremy’s question of what I want from an e-book reader a bit more in depth than I could in the comments.

My mobile telephony needs have once again been thrown into sharp focus after I so spectacularly flattened my last one. As I was wandering through West Quay shopping centre the other day, I pondered once again why, when I want a mobile that lets me easily browse, send emails, upload pictures, take calls, has a useable UI and looks good, I keep holding off from getting one. It might be because I am a stingy cow, and what keeps me from upgrading is the payment model. For my mobile phone I am used to paying for what I use, and that not a lot. I don’t like data plans because who the hell knows if they are going to be using 1, 2, 10, or 100000000 oogies of data transfer each month till they’ve tried it for a bit?! I am also miffed because the phone I want isn’t on the network or plan I want. Why do mobile phones have to be locked to a carrier and price-plan? For example I would be more likely to go for an iPhone if it was not tied to 18 months on O2, a carrier I have never been able to get a signal on in the areas I live, work and play. I resent paying a premium for the handset I want and I doubt I’m the only one so I have to stray into the shady world of phone-unlocking and crippled features depending on the limits of my plan. It is not a scenario I am happy with. Yes, I know I live in cloud cuckoo land where we can chomp merrily down on the cakes we also possess, but, damn it! I can’t be the only one thinking like this?

Plus, if I am being honest here, do I really need to get my emails and browse on the go? Probably not.

So how does this mobile phone rant tie into the Kindle and my ambivalence? There is a link, I promise you.

It is all to do with the content locking and the payment method. Amazon have one thing right in that you pay per download for books, instead of in advance, but my spidy senses are still tingling. What about all the text documents and free e-books I have already got stored LEGALLY on my laptop? They were free and open when I got them, which is why I have them, so why should I want to pay to read them on my Kindle? What about documents I have written myself and want to read on my own Kindle/device away from the laptop? Want to read over a draft of your own novel whilst curled up in bed? Sorry. You’ve got to pay Amazon for the privilege of getting it onto the Kindle in the first place.

And then there is the styling. Can you really imagine being comfortable pulling a Kindle out of your bag to read on the train? My Filofax gets me looks of retro admiration. My PowerBook still has its sleek titanium 12″ gorgeousness going for it. My iPod, even if it is now 4 generations of styling out of date, still looks reassuringly sexy. The Kindle? Just thinking about using it in public makes me want to curl up in a ball of my quirky aesthetic and die. So I am shallow. I am going to be paying hundreds of my hard earned cash for the privilege of totting this thing around – of course I want it to look good!

Before my rant starts to disappear up its own derrière, perhaps I should clarify what I want from my fantasy e-book reader?

This kind of goes without saying, really. By portable I mean no larger than about the size of a large paperback because that is the biggest size which is 1) easy to hold and 2) fits in my handbag. Plus, of course, it has to be slim and light. My Filofax weighs enough already and as I am still a depressingly analogue girl at heart, I suspect I am going to give it bag-room in preference to a digital gizmo any day of the week.

Scroll view OR paged view
Give me choice. Give me options.

Mac compatible!
You would think this went without saying, but it doesn’t. I have no plans or desire to ever go back to being a personal Windows user. It is not inconceivable that I might stray into Linux territory, but either way, my device is going to be supported on as many OS’s as possible.

DRM independent
I may not like it, but I accept that the e-books I buy may come laden with a form of DRM. It would be nice if they didn’t, but I live in the real world. However, my reader will be able to display all formats, both the locked, the crippled, and the gloriously free. See my afore mentioned grumble about having to pay to read my own draft writings? I don’t want that to happen.

What is the point of having all that text in digital form if you cannot search it? I will not embarrass myself by admitting the number of times I have read a physical book or journal and wished for search…

Note Taking and Annotating
Scrawling notes on drafts and research papers is vital. Being able to tag notes to a particular part of a digital text? Goosebump time. A reliable tagging and bookmarking functionality are key.

Text input functionality
This is kind of necessary if it is to have that annotating functionality. I am not sure the form they input should take. My preference would be for a physical QWERTY, but I could be persuaded to adapt to an alpha-numeric keypad a la a mobile (so long as it had decent predictive text), or a handwriting interface like a Palm, or… something I haven’t thought of. Do I want to be able to write documents from scratch or just edit/tag/annotate extant ones? Now that’s a questions. If it is to be a proper mobile computing device then I need to be able to at least write emails…

I am willing to pay for internet use on the fly but if I am in the range of my own home WiFi, let me use it and save some cash! I am not sure if I am sold with the method the Kindle uses to get content. The whole dock-with-computer-to-get-new-content ritual is familiar from the iPod, but it would be nice if my shiny e-book reader could do more than just display me some books. If it could let me browse online as well, connect to ebook stores (not just the one of course!) all the better. If it could let me ‘beam’ books and text to other people? Oooh. Depending of course on the text input functionality, if it could let me blog on the move… Well, that would eliminate the need for me to have many digital devices.

This is where my wish-list for an e-book device is blurring into my wish for a portable media platform, I will admit it.

Why do I want a colour screen when books are essentially black/white? Well, if it is going to have that lovely WiFi so I can look at things online, why am I limiting myself to just black and white? On top of that, B/W is perhaps one of the worst colour contrasts it is conceivable to have for screen reading. Right now I am writing on a screen with white text on blue – let my device have a quality screen and a customisable display. Screen reading is not the most fun experience in the world and after a while your eyes get tired. Plus, let us not forget the number of people who have visual problems. Hands up who has ever bumped the resolution up/down on their screen, flipped the colours, increased the font size? Right…

Well, digital media encompasses audio as well, so let me listen to my podcasts and audio books and music. I am not expecting the device to be able to spew out dolby digital surround sound, just a recognisable tune through some headphones.

Easy to use
Watching Curly Durly play with her Christmas TomTom I was struck with how she is just plain scared of technology. Beyond a certain level it freaks her out and she is petrified of breaking it. I fully expect this is because for the past two decades barely a day has gone by in the house without one of us yelling at a particular piece of (computing) technology that (once again) wasn’t functioning as we expected it to. Her “it’s too complicated for me to understand” mentality started as a defense mechanism but has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, so getting her to adopt technology is an uphill struggle. To this day she still SHOUTS in her text-messages and anything beyond the VCR defeats her, but she was getting to grips with the TomTom after just a few minutes because there was a limited range of things she could do to start with and it would take some going to f*** it up. It really was “out of the box” easy. I want my device to pass the Mum Test – I want her to pick it up, be comfortable with it, and to be reading books without having to wade through a fifty page manual first.

Looks good
I know. I know. I know. What is and isn’t good looking is highly subjective and I am no designer, but in my head my device is sleek. Elegant. Smooth edges. I have no colour preferences, nor am I a die-hard fan of the current trends for brushed metal and/or white plastic, but… It is going to have to be classy. Timeless. Something you want to pick up. Something you covet. Something that goes “I am worth the money she paid for me”, but says it in a refined manner. A top-range Tag Heuer timepiece instead of Argos-Chav-Bling.

Now I am just being silly, but I have got to be able to photo-blog from my portable media platform, haven’t I?

And there you get to the sleeping policeman in the avenue of my reasoning, because I don’t actually want an e-book reader when all is said and done. I want an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia mobile computing platform device that will let me do anything and everything, including reading e-books. And make me a decent cup of tea into the bargain. I want it to be extensible and legitimately hackable like the Chumby so I can benefit from the things other people created that I never dreamed of.

The one thing I *don’t* want is for it to be my only mobile phone. I want my phone to be, well, a phone. Something I can stick in my jeans pocket on a night out so I have something to call a taxi with and to arrange to meet up with other mates further down the evening. Something I’m not going to be out £500 when I drop it, sit on it, leave it in a taxi… I’m not saying that I don’t want my device to be able to take/make calls and route them through my bluetooth earpiece, but that’s not actually a deal-breaker.

Everything else though. That I want.

I just don’t want a Kindle because it disappoints me as I think it has disappointed other people. Frustratingly it could be so much more. But am I on the wrong track here? If this 3000 word ramble shows you nothing else, it is that even I am not sure what I want myself.

I’ve tried to put down in this post what I want from a mobile computing device and where I see mobile, ubiquitous computing going, but I am still not convinced. It is all a bit too nebulous still. Plus I am still not totally convinced that I even want an e-book reader. I love physical books too much. I had a great time over Christmas rummaging through the crates of books in the loft from my childhood. The memories they evoked were just so powerful. Can I, will I, ever feel that for a digital book? I have e-books sitting on the laptop right now but I rarely (if ever) read them. Is that because the mechanism I have for reading them (sitting at my desk) is unsatisfactory, or because I just don’t like e-books? And is a useable e-book reader, as Scoble points out if you can bear to sit through his rant (link below), not necessarily the death of physical books as doomsayers predict, but are people going to end up with a digital copy AND a physical copy? Try it in digital form for a nominal cost, enjoy it, share it with friends, buy a copy for your bookshelf to read in the bath? Instead of wanting my tea-making-device, should I be wanting an e-book reader that excels at being just that: a reader for my digital library?

I quite clearly cannot make up my own mind.

I’m going to extend Jeremy’s original question to all you lot here: What do you want from an e-book reader?


9 thoughts on “E-Books, Kindles and Dreams

  1. I’ve recently got a 3Skypephone with an unlimited 3G/2G data plan and I’m loving it so far. The phone is tiny and battery life is great, with the main let-down being the rather mediocre camera. Opera Mini 4 works a treat for mobile browsing.

    That said, it’s easy enough to take a quick snap and email it to Flickr, and use it as a no-frills “I saw this” camera.

    It also works well as a bluetooth modem with OSX, and if you sat on it – it’d only be £49 to replace… 😉

    I did look at the LG Viewty but the Skype client on all but the Skypephone don’t have Skype Chat (text chat – I use it a lot), and it was double the monthly rental. That said, the Viewty does have a large screen, and you could load up a J2ME e-book reader which should work nicely with the large screen. The camera is amazing on it. The only trouble is that all 3 phones require an 18 month contract…

    And as for the Kindle – it looks like a beige 80’s Speak and Spell. Ugh!

  2. I’m hoping to get a job again one day, and when I do, I’m going to use my first pay cheque to buy one of those dinky little pc’s with the twisty screen that has the buttons on the screen. And I’m going to use that as my ebook reader, because it can do everything you mentioned. Which all seem to dovetail quite nicely with my own requirements of a piece of technology dandoodlyness. (Except for the mum proof part, I could care less. As long as I don’t have to show her how to use it…)

  3. The perfect e-book reader isn’t going to be an e-book reader, it’ll be a portable computer with a flexible display like the e-paper technology that’s currently in development.

    I hope it’ll be a MacPaper 😉

  4. Tom – I have heard good things about the skypephone, but sadly there’s little/no decent 3 coverage in the places I end up! Plus that whole contract thing bugs me. I’m currently on a pay-as-go deal but don’t have to top up in advance… I genuinely only pay for the calls I make and nothing else, no line rental, nothing in advance – it’s perfect for me as my monthly bill only went above £10 when I went on holiday and was texting to Twitter all the time! The only time I regret the plan is when I need a new phone because then I have to buy either a new pay-as-go handset and chuck the sim, or lash out for the full handset price. Eek!

    As for the viewty – Stephen Fry wasn’t totally love with it, and if he isn’t head-over-heals with it, why should I be!

    JB – I hate to admit it, but I think you might be on the right track with the twisty-screen-laptopy-goodness idea. A little bit pricey though and *slightly* bigger than I had in mind…

    Surly – sounds like a good plan, though I’m going to commit heresy here and say I’m not too fluffed if it isn’t Mac. Don’t get me wrong, I *love* the OS and the design, but I think other people could do better. Plus, I resent paying the premium they slap on things because they are so pretty to look at, and they haven’t got the best track record on the whole open-ness side of the argument!

  5. No. What I’m saying is that the idea of something that exists only for reading eBooks is kind of silly. They just need to make portable comps with screens that are good for reading, and an eBook format that doesn’t blow.

  6. Why is the idea of having something just for ebooks silly? I am curious.

    I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days and it struck me as I was waiting at the traffic lights that perhaps what the ebook needs is a simple, useable sub-£200 (or even better sub-£100) device. My gut feeling is that you could drop all the fancy extras for a simple device that let you read digital books.

    One of the biggest selling gadgets of all time was the Walkman – that just let you play music. I expect you’ll find that mobiles that are primarily phones (and inexpensive) outsell the fancy smart phones.

    If an average user is going to adopt the ebook then a Walkman-type deal might be what is needed. Simple, not to hideous, docks with a computer to get the content, good battery life, good screen, simple bookmarking functionality.

    What more else do you really need?

    (I still want the fancy-pants portable computer solution detailed in the post, but if I’m being honest I’m more likely to buy and use the cheap version I’ve just lain out).

    Just something to think about.

  7. I think there will need to be a radical rethink about the screens before ebook readers really catch on. They’re just not comfortable to look at for long periods of time. I can quite happily spend an entire day reading a book, barely moving from the chair (the same chair I use to sit at my desk). I can’t spend the same amount of time staring at a screen, because it’s physically painful to do so.

  8. I’m not a fan of single-use computers. once we get flexible screens illuminated by ambient light I’ll look more seriously at e-books. Right now I just think they’re a dream who’s time is not yet.

  9. I purchased a Sony Reader while the Kindle was on back-order, but it was such a nuicance purchasing the books

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