Kindle 2 not quite there

[4 March 2009]

By Brier Dudley

The Seattle Times (MCT) created an amazing machine. Its Kindle 2 is the greatest device ever built for buying books.

But as a tool for reading and handling digital content, it still feels like a work in progress.

Hands down, the $359 gadget - which began shipping last month - is the state of the art in electronic commerce.

Press its Lego-like joystick, and a fat novel flies off Amazon’s virtual shelves, races through Sprint’s wireless network and arrives on the Kindle in seconds.

You’re actually getting a copy of the book just for you - secured with software locks so it can never be sold, copied or given away.

In the background, Amazon silently swipes your credit card and e-mails a receipt to your computer.

As a tool for reading books, the Kindle works fine for early technology adopters. They’ll forgive the lack of color, unusual controls and occasional pauses when the device does something complicated.

Scholars will appreciate the ability to search and annotate books.

Kindles are especially handy for travelers who don’t want to carry a lot of books, which explains why fans include jet-setters such as Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and Charles Simonyi.

But the screen is small - 4¾ by 3½ inches - there’s still no reading light and the buttons are smaller and require more attention than on the original Kindle. Its potential is also limited by some decisions that Amazon made that gave the Kindle business priority over usability.

Kindles can be used to browse the Web, play MP3 files or display documents loaded via e-mail or a USB cable. But Amazon limited those capabilities.

Most heartbreaking of all, from this perch on the Titanic, is the awful experience reading newspapers on the Kindle.

I’m not being a print snob here. For years I’ve thought newspapers should adopt the wireless phone model - give away a device like the Kindle to people who sign up for multiyear subscriptions.

Newspapers are dying for this sort of thing. So far 64 papers are offering Kindle subscriptions, which deliver a digital version to the device each morning for $6 to $15 a month.

Yet the Kindle shows that the technology isn’t there yet. The problem is partly the screen size - you can display only so much at one time - and the limitations of the software platform.

The Kindle’s standard newspaper template shows part of one story at a time. When you open the morning’s paper, it shows the top few paragraphs of a single story.

There’s no way to scan headlines or see what else is in that section of the paper.

You click to scroll sideways through each story. A standard story may take five or six clicks to get through, or you can jump from story to story by flicking the joystick.

It’s like reading a newspaper on an ancient scroll that’s 5 inches high and 20 feet long.

Really it’s better to visit newspapers’ Web sites using the Kindle’s browser, especially if those sites are optimized for mobile devices.

That’s not all. The Kindle also delivers the news just once a day and doesn’t update the papers through the day. Anyone reading a digital newspaper nowadays expects the paper to be dynamic and updated as news breaks. When you subscribe to blogs on the Kindle, they are updated through the day, but not newspapers.

This gets to a bigger question about the Kindle’s future. How much will Amazon open the device up to competing software formats?

Microsoft and Adobe, for instance, have more flexible systems for publishing newspapers on electronic paper screens, but they don’t work on the Kindle.

Maybe Amazon will loosen up as competition grows. Sony’s pushing a similar Reader book, and a new company called Plastic Logic has lined up publishing partners for a device with an 8-by-11-inch screen coming near the end of 2009.

Meanwhile, the Kindle and other digital books are just starting to nibble at the book market. In 2007, the year the first Kindle debuted, e-book sales rose 23.6 percent to $67 million in the U.S., according to the Association of American Publishers. Overall book sales that year were $25 billion, up 3.2 percent.

Whether Amazon has enough clout with publishers to define the e-book platform remains to be seen. A factor may be how well Kindle sells versus other readers, but Chief Executive Jeff Bezos won’t release the statistics.

So far the only published number is Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney’s estimate of 500,000 units sold last year.

There are a jumble of document formats. Some are supported by Kindle, but Amazon built a tall fence to limit what gets onto the device.

If you want to load a Word or PDF document onto the Kindle, you have to e-mail the document to Amazon to be converted. The company will send it to the device for 10 cents per document.

To avoid the fee, you can e-mail documents to a different address at Amazon. It will then e-mail the formatted documents to your computer, where you can transfer them to the Kindle with a USB cable.

It’s easier to load MP3 music files. You connect to a PC and drag files to the Kindle.

Although it looks like a supersized iPod, Amazon chose not to include any of the audio controls you’d expect.

You can start or stop the music and skip to the next track, but no track information is displayed.

Audio playback is bright and clear, especially when using the Kindle’s new text-to-speech converter.

The device can “read” books aloud, although the company agreed to let authors and publishers disable this feature on a book-by-book basis after they questioned whether they were being compensated for audible versions of their work.

In use, the converter is accurate and doesn’t sound too robotic, although it didn’t pause at paragraph breaks on a novel, interrupting the pace of the story with a sort of hiccup.

Bezos has been clear about the design objectives: Kindle was built for reading, not as a multipurpose device, but for $359 you expect more from some of the built-in features.

Kindle 2 is an impressive device, and avid, affluent readers may love it. But its cost and the limitations Amazon imposed will prevent Kindle from becoming massively popular.

Maybe this is what Amazon gets for hiring so many people from Microsoft: a product with a great concept and business vision, but one that will take three versions to really get it right.

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