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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Email a PDF attachment to this address and, for a small fee, they will send a Kindle version to you via Whispernet. Email to email@example.com and they will, for free, email you a link to a copy that you can load via the USB connection.
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I must admit, I’m still sceptical of “electronic book readers” as a product category. They’re essentially a low-powered computer with just one purpose: reading pre-written material. That means that unless I’m going to completely disconnect myself from the global data grid, it’s another device to carry in addition to a phone and/or laptop or netbook.
The DRM issues are another whole jar of anchovies. Personally, I won’t spend money on a library that can only be read while sitting at one specific coffee table, so to speak.
Thanks Mule for the review. Reading your comment about the primitiveness I’m thinking of the 2001 Creative Nomad mp3 player languishing at the bottom of my drawer. There are obvious parallels with the evolution of digital music, with Amazon hoping to be the Apple and not the Creative. I think though the competition will get them in this case.
I was tempted by a Kindle myself but I had doubts given the limited offering, closed shop approach and pricing. After reading about the Nook I’ll certainly hold off.
I’m not sure that the Australian providers holding out is necessarily so short-sighted. One of the great risks of a closed shop is unreasonable pricing; Apple have managed to more or less navigate that line, but from what I read, Amazon were really taking the piss and to agree now would set a bad precedent. A shame for the early adopters of course.
From a technical point of view, I’m surprised that they’re insisting on the Telco provided wireless model for the OS market. The ability to manage books without a PC was credited with broadening the market in the US but it’s become a hindrance rather than a bonus for the international expansion; and I can’t see why they can’t go global with the traditional PC model (avoiding the roaming charge issue).
PS your asterisk bit needs a syntax reboot.
As I was reading my Kindle I made to turn the page. Never done that reading a laptop in bed. I am a bit disappointed by lack of some modern titles e.g. anything by John Banville tho’ perhaps that will improve under pressure from non-US readers more familiar with such authors ie less US-centric.
Duncan: syntax rebooted, thanks!
Wait, wait, wait, yo.
1) So you _do_ get free wikipedia in Australia? and
2) If you get a newspaper or magazine (NYT or whatever), do you get ads with that? I guess I mean both classifieds and ads for myer sales. And it’s pretty low-fi, right? So are the magazines/newspapers unable to put up ads that shake and move and just generally annoy the goddamn out of the punter?
Michael Michael: yes, you can search Wikipedia on the Kindle in Australia (for free), but that is the only web browsing you can do.
The newspapers have no ads whatsoever, moving or otherwise.
Interesting. I was wondering whether DRM-rich e-newspaper classifieds on an e-reader might’ve meant a return to the (e-)rivers of gold.
What about the Franklin E-bookman? I have had one for 6 years and can download ebooks for free from various sites including project Gutenburg, usenet and bit torrent.
bruffy: Your point is a very interesting one. Some years ago, I was enthusiastically reading Gutenberg project books on my PalmPilot, but that was never going to catch on outside an enthusiastic few. The iPod makes an interesting case-study. I also had a Creative Jukebox Zen back before the launch of the iPod (and after that an iRiver H340). The iPod became ridiculously successfully not so much because it was better designed than the MP3 players that came before it, but because the iTunes Store made it so easy to buy music. Only enthusiasts have the patience and skills to source source content from Gutenberg, usenet and bit torrent and even some of them would have qualms about downloading unauthorised copyrighted material. What makes the Kindle and the Nook different is that getting books onto the device is extremely simple…and doesn’t even require a computer connection. Apple are the masters of this, so if the much rumoured Apple tablet is launched in conjunction with a comprehensive book selection on the iTunes store than can be downloaded wirelessesly, then Amazon and Barnes & Noble should be very worried.
And what happens when there’s devices like this purported mock-up of the new Apple Tablet? This is why I think the separate category of book reader will last a few years at most.
Still, I suppose that’s the product lifespan anyway, in this disposable planned-obsolescence universe…
Stilgherrian: I’m not the best person to argue about the pros/cons of the single multi-purpose device vs specialised devices as it was pointed out to me that a few years ago I did not want my iPod combined with my phone and now I have an iPhone. Still, my concern back then was mainly battery life and, although batteries have got better, I’ve still managed to drain the power on the iPhone and then lose the ability to make calls. Wouldn’t be without the iPhone though. Still, I do think that there is a place for a book reading type device (whether it be the Apple tablet, the Kindle or something else). That’s because I’ve already found the reading experience to be better on the Kindle than on the iPhone (or on a computer screen), which is probably a combination of the electronic paper and the ergnomics of size and weight. So I can imagine always wanting a device of that size for reading books and newspapers (whatever these may mean in the future), but it doesn’t seem like a realistic option to have something that size replace a phone….it’s just too big to have on you at all times.
But, I certainly wouldn’t back the Kindle to necessarily be the device that survives in this niche. A lot depends on what Apple have been negotiating behind the scenes. The article you linked to suggests that deals with newspapers are well advanced (although, with a multi-purpose device that is something like an oversized iPhone, I’d have thought you’d just read the free web content…but maybe these deals are part of the grand News Corporation plan to start charging for content). But, a big question is what deals they get with book publishers. If the do not launch with an extensive range of book titles available, the Kindle and the Nook get a lifeline. Still, in the short-term at least I do see a few advantages that the Kindle would have over the Tablet. The first is the old chestnut of battery life. With wireless turned off, the electronic paper format allows use of the Kindle for up to two weeks. There is no way (yet) that an LCD screen could match that, particularly if 3G and wifi (and probably GPS and Bluetooth) is more likely to be left on in the Tablet as it would be a multi-purpose device. The second (possibly even more temporary) is that the Kindle is very readable in bright light in a way that my iPhone (and other LCD devices) still are not.
But, as you say, this is quite likely to give the Kindle and the Nook a window of at most a couple of years. Since I resolutely stuck with the iRiver for only a couple of years (after all, it supported ogg) and then relented and switched to the iPod when later generations clearly surpassed the iRiver (in all but ogg support), I could well imagine being sorely tempted to switch from the Kindle a couple of years down the track (if not sooner).
Horse…I’m gonna try your suggestion, quick question, do I buy the Australia Kindle or the US Kindle if i go with your approach?
Tone: Keep in mind that my colleague who (unwittingly) found himself with a “US Kindle” will have to pay more for newspaper subscriptions as the subscription costs the same amount but he will pay a US$4.50 roaming surcharge each week for delivery. Books end up costing the same (or less) there is a US$2 surcharge, but the original price is lower and the surcharge on books can be avoided by downloading it to the computer (and I don’t think that can be done with newspapers….could be wrong there).
@stubbornmule: All of what you say there is true enough. The way to analyse these things is to look at the numbers — how processing power and memory and screen resolution and battery life have increased over time compared with the drop in price and weight — and see where those lines create sweet spots in which to insert specific products for a market niche.
You may have to vary those predictions based on known new technologies in the pipeline which may cause discontinuities — but as it happens these have all been remarkably consistent over time as the new technologies slot in just as the previous ones are running out of options for improvement.
My own usage patterns have often turned out to be rather different from what I imagined once I actually had the devices.
An example was my previous phone, the Nokia N80, which I chose specifically because at that time had the highest-resolution screen on a 3G phone. (I don’t think the iPhone was out yet, but in any event the iPhone’s lack of swappable battery was a show-stopper for me, and still is. Or so I imagine.) My plan was to use it to access my online job system while out and about. As it happened, the lack of a real keyboard was more of a problem, and I ended up taking my MacBook Pro pretty much everywhere anyway. Tossing it in a backpack didn’t seem to be a drama.
After doing my research, the point Neerav and Sean raise about B&N was the deciding factor to opting for the Kindle: when I heard about the Nook, I thought “Finally – that’s for me”, but like figured that developing a strong international capability is a significant endeavour and unlikely for B&N to develop, at least in medium-term (just look at the issues the both B&N and Borders have had http://www.wickedlocal.com/bridgewater/news/x880809338/Brockton-mall-book-store-to-close)
Over the years I’ve also I’ve taken on board the fact that there’s value in opting in early (despite imperfections!) vs. waiting (…and waiting and waiting) till something closer to perfection arrives. It often never does. So I’ve got my new Kindle. I like it. Could be better, but worth it on the whole.
Love the review and certainly is consistent with my experience. I do think that Amazon will continue to take some big hits for not including the 110-240v plug with the international edition though!
I have had had my kindle 2 for about a month and feel confident in giving it a positive review. The device itself seems a bit awkward to me, maybe because it doesn’t fit well in my smaller hands and feels to thin to hold by a corner, but I also bought the Amazon leather case, which makes the kindle feel more like holding a book, and protects it from scratches and bumps.
The Kindle 2 screen seems odd at first because it looks so unlike any other electronic screen I have ever seen. Electronic paper is an apt description because it looks just like paper. I have already spent hundreds of hours reading from my Kindle and it feels just as if a was reading off of paper, and this is important for me because reading off of any other screen for more than a few hours gives me a headache.
Plugging the Kindle into your computer is easy, as is transferring mobi and prc files to the device. If you needed to you could easily save your books on you pc, a memory device, or a disk, but the kindle really does hold over a thousand books.
The library is easy to navigate you can just type and click the page number you want to go to, or if you don’t know where something is you can just type and search. I love the search feature. I can search within any book I have in my library, which is especially great when looking for quotations or verses in a large volume. You can also search the dictionary and wikipedia just as easily.
I have found the built-in dictionary to unexpectedly useful, and have yet to flummox it. You can run a search for words in the dictionary, but if you want a word defined from a book you are reading you can scroll to the word using the 5-way controller and it automatically defines it at the bottom of the screen.
The Experimental features such as text-to-speech and the basic web browser I don’t really use, but I will say that I have found the text-to-speech feature best when using it to read a newspaper or a manual, basically anything that does not require a lot of vocal variety.
The thing that surprised me most about the Kindle 2 is that I have actually found it easier to read than a book. I don’t just mean that it is more convenient to carry around than a library, which it is, but that reading books on the kindle is more comfortable and efficient. You never have to worry about losing you page or cracking the spine of your book, you just push one of the next page buttons and the page changes just as quickly as if you had your finger ready to flip to the next page of a paperback novel.
As far as the book selection Amazon probably has the largest non-fiction e-book selection, with most new releases costing only $9.99, though many are more, though they seem to go down in price as time goes by. There are also thousands of books, from the public domain, which are available on Amazon and other sites including many of my favorite classics. I don’t think you will run out of things to read on your Kindle any time this millennium.
The most important thing to me about the kindle is that it really does disappear in you hands, so that you can focus on what your reading not how you’re going to read it.
I’ve had a kindle for two weeks now, and I love it. Convenient, easy to read screen and space-saving in a handbag are all big advantages. I still don’t think a kindle will ever replace the bookshop experience- the smell, the page-flicking etc (huge fan, obviously), so I’ll have both. Not sure how the kindle will cope on the beach, though!
Unfortunately international kindle is more expensive than US kindle.
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And since this post was written, Amazon has released the Kindle 3, increased the number of titles available in Australia, produced a power cord for Australian sockets, made the iPhone app available here etc etc.
It’s a real shame that Australian newspapers haven’t been willing or able to strike a deal with Amazon to make their publications available.
And the restrictions on book titles available here is a nuissance too. But it appears that the new Kindles are flying off the shelves and I suspect that the take up rate in Australia might force solutions to some of those issues.
Update: I’ve had my Kindle 3 for two weeks now and have been extremely impressed with it. It is lightweight, small enough to be convenient, but large enough to be easy to read. The contrast is very good (text against the background), and when I’m reading it I forget that I’m using an e-ink device. Amazon has been marketing the Kindle at every opportunity on its website, and by all accounts they are selling like crazy. I’ll be looking to read most books on my Kindle from now on.
My daughter is in the US and wants to buy a Kindle 3 there. I want know what features will not work or be restricted when she returns to Australia. I have read the above comments and am hoping for an update (and an improvement).
I bought a Kindle 3 in Australia and immediately took it to on a holiday to America. There were no problems at all using it in the States – in fact, it was a delight. Free wikipedia, pretty reliable wireless/3G coverage, and instantaneous book-buying … a bloody delight.
It is still true, however, that there are some books which are available to American Kindle owners that aren’t available to Australian Kindle owners (e.g. me).
I recently expressed my disgruntlement to two Australian publishers about books that are available for the Kindle but not to Australians. In both cases they said this was wrong and a problem with Amazon. The first (for Shane Jones’ Light Boxes) fixed it and the second (for Shaun Micallef’s Preincarnate) has said they will contact Amazon and sort it out. This suggests that it is worth contact the publishers directly.
Michael Michael thanks for weighing in there: I’d only be guessing as I haven’t taken my Kindle overseas.
Zebra there was a title I was after recently and Amazon told me that Penguin had the rights. I contacted them here and they confirmed that they had the e-rights in Australia but were not aware of any plans to do anything with them yet! So, the book is unavailable to Australian readers in any electronic format. :(
I am with Neville.I can’t buy an Aussie Kindle 3 and get it b4 Xmas. I have a friend in the US who will let me ship the US version ( not worrying about the 3G version) to her and she will ship to me. I want to know what issues i will have here? Does it mean I would be able to buy US books that Aussies can’t?Dowload to the computer then put on the Kindle? Please advise. What limitations will i have or will it be frustrating andrestrictive outside of the US?
Once you have your Kindle you can log on to Amazon and change the geographic location setting for your Kindle. So I’d say the only problem you might have would be a US charging plug.
I am about to return a Sony e-reader because, after innumberable attempts of various kinds, my computer will not speak to my e-reader – says “Windows does not recognise the (USB) device” (I have Windows XP, supposedly compatible). I’m now considering the Kindle – will I have similar problems????
Kerry: that sounds like you’ve got a fault with the e-reader or maybe even your computer…I’ve certainly not heard of the Sony e-reader not working with XP. Have you tried it on a different computer or simply returning it and getting a replacement?
My experience with the Kindle is not much use to you as I use Macs, but I know of other Kindle owners who use Windows (of various flavours) without a problem.
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I am thinking about buying one of these gadgets (there is one costing 89 bucks!) but I have some doubts. Let me assure you, that’s not my initiative: that’s my Russky friend’s fault (never mind, that’s a long story)
So, anyway, I decided to ask you, who are knowledgeable and sensible.
First thing: can I read PDF, PS, TXT and HTML files downloaded from the Internet in this Kindle thingy?
Second (and related): can I move things from my computer and back so as not to load the gadget’s memory?
For job reasons, recently I had to buy my very first mobile phone (believe or not!). At my age, I’m getting all modern and hip!
So… now I have a rope tied to my ankle… and my boss can pull it any time he wants! d’oh!
And on top, I have to pay for it! D’OH!!! :-)
@Magpie: while the Kindle is great for reading mobi format books (either those from Amazon or those created for the Kindle), in my experience it doesn’t do a very good job on other formats. The experience with PDF files is particularly poor: the screen size is such that with a full page displayed, the text is far too small to read and, while you can zoom to improve legibility, zooming is cumbersome and panning around even more so (particularly when compared to the ease with which these tasks can be achieved on the iPad). So, if you just want a light-weight device with long battery life to read books designed for the Kindle, it’s great, but for any other purpose it is the wrong tool for the job.
Thanks for that, Stubby.
Those seem to be reasons good enough to justify my remaining a troglodyte in these matters.
As my old man used to say: when something is too good to be true, it’s because it’s too good to be true.
Besides, if I wait a few more years, chances are these people will come up with something better, at the same price.