Earlier this week, Amazon began shipping the international version of the “Kindle” electronic book reader for US$279. The first generation of the Kindle was released almost two years ago in the US, so it has been a long time coming. But, with the announcement this week of the competing Barnes & Noble “Nook“, it looks as though the era of the e-book reader is well and truly upon us.
The Kindle has a monochrome “electronic paper” screen rather than the pervasive LCD screens found on laptops, iPhones and BlackBerries. Also known as e-paper or e-ink, the electronic paper screen comes a lot closer to replicating the appearance of traditional printed paper. There is no back-light and in fact displaying a page draws no power, it is only changing the display that will draw on the battery. As a result, the battery life of electronic paper devices is much longer than other devices. Amazon claims that, with the wireless connection turned off, you can read on the Kindle for up to two weeks before draining the battery. This also means that the Kindle can display an image on the screen when it is powered off, which is somewhat disconcerting at first. Although the contrast is not quite as high as print (the background is not quite white and the text is a little grey), reading on the Kindle is very comfortable. Better still, the quality does not degrade in strong sunlight as is often the case for LCD screens (although they are getting better all the time). So reading the Kindle outside is just as easy as it is in bed (although you will still need a bedside light).
The book distribution model for the Kindle is tightly bound to Amazon. Users can buy books for the Kindle either via the Amazon website or on the Kindle itself via a 3G mobile network data connection. The book is then downloaded (very quickly) via 3G. Amazon refers to this network connection as “Whispernet” and it clearly hopes to achieve the same user tie-in that Apple achieved with their iTunes Store. The workings of Whispernet also help to explain why the Kindle was limited to the US for so long as the original US model of the Kindle used the Sprint EVDO network, which does not extend outside the US. The new international version makes use of the AT&T 3G network in the US and elsewhere it uses AT&T’s international roaming parters. Users do not pay directly for any data usage on the network. Instead, Amazon has a deal with AT&T to access their network and they presumably factor the data costs into the cost of the books.
Anyone who has ever taken their mobile phone overseas will know that, while convenient, international roaming does incur additional costs one way or another. No doubt until such time as it negotiates additional deals with local carriers, the cost of providing Whispernet will be higher for Amazon internationally than in the US. As a result, there are pricing differences on the Kindle for international customers. I was able to get a good insight into exactly how this works because a colleague has also bought a Kindle but, for some reason, Amazon has his configured as though he is a US customer. While most books appear to be US$2 cheaper for him (there are even books which are free in the US which cost US$2 for Australian customers), Amazon levies a US$2 roaming fee on US customers for using Whispernet outside the US. So, in the end the cost is the same unless he travels to the US to download the books. Interestingly, newspaper subscriptions appear to be the same price for US and international users but US subscribers will pay the roaming fee on top of the subscription fee outside the US.
Exciting though it is for early-adopters, users in Australia will find that the Kindle has a number of limitations. In the picture you can see the front page of today’s New York Times rather than, say, the Sydney Morning Herald because no Australian newspaper subscriptions are available. I have heard that Australian publishers were unhappy with the meagre share of the subscription fee Amazon offered and so walked away from the deal. This may or may not be true, but it sounds plausible if short-sighted. But, when it comes to international newspaper and magazine subscriptions, there are a number that are available in the US but not in Australia, including The Economist. Also, the number of book titles available for the Kindle is still relatively small (around 2% or so of the titles available in print from Amazon). Barnes & Noble are aiming to leap-frog the Kindle by providing access to over 500,000 out-of-copyright titles in the Google Book Project. Furthermore, there are plenty of Kindle editions that are not available in Australia, such as the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers. Anyone who has been following the debate about the parallel importation of books will guess that this is related to the mess that is international book publishing rights. I don’t know how electronic rights work in this scheme, but I can only guess that it is not pretty. As I write, there are 288,816 titles available to Australian users. Admittedly this is up about 1,000 since I checked a couple of days ago, but the internationalisation that the internet is bringing surely has to start to break down anachronistic regional divides and conquer distribution deals sooner or later. As well as missing out on certain titles, Australians do not get access to the full range of features (yet?). For example, for US users, the Kindle offers basic web browsing, but apart from Wikipedia searches, this is blocked in Australia.
To purists, these are minor issues compared to the big one: the proprietary lock-in. The books you buy for the Kindle are copy-protected and so will only be useable on the Kindle (or certain Amazon-approved software readers, which may or may not be available around the world). So when you buy a book you are taking a leap of faith that Amazon will continue to support the format in a way that suits you. Furthermore, Amazon can remotely delete your books at any time, as was revealed in an embarrassing incident when a book was pulled because the publisher turned out not to have the rights. Of all the titles to be at the centre of this controvery, it was Orwell’s 1984. Critics argued that this highlights all that is wrong about digital rights management. In contrast, the Barnes & Noble Nook is built on the open Google Android platform and already some are arguing that the Kindle will rapidly lose ground if it is not opened up.
Lest you are starting to think that I am regretting my new purchase, I am still fascinated to get a relatively early glimpse of what I am sure will be the future of book publishing. The promise of a single device, the size and weight of a paperback which can store 1,000s of books is revolutionary. It can easily hold all the textbooks a student will need for all their years of high school, or all the books, newspapers and magazines that you could ever hope to read on a long-distance trip. In a year or two I am sure I will look at the Kindle and wonder how I could stand such a primitive device, but for now it is a tantalising glimpse of the future. And yes, for all the book fetishists, I still love paper books and have far too many but could never let them go. But that doesn’t stop me loving my Kindle too.
These are all initial impressions, as the Kindle only arrived two days ago, and I am sure that I will discover more good and bad things about it. In the meantime, here is a summary of the key pros and cons. I have split the cons into general limitations of the device and further “crippling” for international users.
- Lightweight and portable
- Easy-to-read electronic paper screen
- Very simple operation
- Book and periodical purchasing is easy and fast
- PDF documents (and some other formats) are readily converted to the Kindle format*
- Reasonably priced books (most are around US$12)
- Available in Australia (this is the big one!)
- Closed, proprietary system
- No ability to subscribe to arbitrary RSS feeds (US readers can buy access to some blogs)
- No ability to share purchased books with friends (the Nook apparently does allow this)
- Limited range of titles (to date)
- No web browsing (and no Google search)
- iPhone Kindle application not available
- More limited range of book and periodical titles
- No access to blogs
- No power adapter (USB cable only)
* Amazon does this conversion for you. When you buy a Kindle you are given an email address that looks like email@example.com. Email a PDF attachment to this address and, for a small fee, they will send a Kindle version to you via Whispernet. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will, for free, email you a link to a copy that you can load via the USB connection.