Daily Archives: December 3, 2007

Kindle: It’s About More Than Just Waffles.

An edited version of this column first appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times on November 29, 2007.

So here’s what Amazon went and did. Metaphorically, they invented a humanoid robot capable of autonomous action. Every morning at 4 AM, it gets in your car and drives all over the state, buying fruit, milk, butter, eggs, and other staples straight from the farm. By the time you wake up and trudge into the kitchen, there’s a steaming plate of waffles waiting for you, made from scratch and topped with fresh-picked strawberries and whipped cream.

It’s one of the most awesome consumer products ever. It might even be a landmark moment in technology.

…And Amazon is promoting it as a $399 waffle maker. You can sense my concern.

I mean, yes: the $399 Kindle is indeed a swell electronic book reader, as advertised. I bought David McCullough’s “1776” from Amazon’s Kindle Store and hey, cool, I read it just fine. You can have various periodicals delivered to its internal storage as soon as they’re published. You never even need to connect it to a PC or a Mac if you don’t want to. All content is delivered wirelessly and you can purchase stuff straight from the device.

But really…you couldn’t care less about the waffles. Because:

1) The wireless connection isn’t WiFi. It’s a direct connection to the Internet via Sprint’s high-speed EVDO network. If you’re anywhere within Sprint’s national cellular coverage area, your Kindle can reach the ‘net.

2) The Kindle also includes…a web browser.

3) This browser works great with the mobile editions of Google Reader and Bloglines. You know…those free services that automatically track, organize, and display the freshest content from any blog or website you care to bookmark there.

Deep breath, now:

4) There is absolutely no additional monthly fee of any kind for using the Kindle or the Internet connection.

Wow. All told, the Kindle moves blogs and websites into the real world (the bus ride to work, the table where you eat your lunch every day, the back pew during an exceptionally dull sermon) like no other device can. A laptop’s design isn’t optimized for reading and its mobile Internet connection is usually pretty fussy to activate. And a smartphone is such a cut-down device that honestly, you’re thrilled to be surfing the Web on it at all.

But with the Kindle, reading a blog post is like reading an essay in a magazine. You pick it up and the pages are more or less right there. All of the Flash [ed note: keep capitalization] and froofery of the webpage have been stripped away, leaving just text and the pictures flowing on a full paperback-sized screen. You turn pages with two big fat buttons that are located precisely under your thumb.

You don’t need to be conservative about using it, either. I found that a full charge supported at least 7 hours of Web browsing…roundtrip from Boston to New York on Amtrak, with no gaps in service.

It feels historic. The Kindle is almost certainly the first bona-fide Internet appliance. Buy someone a $399 Kindle and you buy them the Web, wherever they go, for life (well, so long as Amazon never cancels or changes the service).

And give Kindle ten points out of ten for showmanship. It sports built-in search tools for both Wikipedia and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (real humans do a websearch and select the most relevant webpage to send back as an answer, in the form of a new “book”). You can also load your own desktop documents onto the device via an email conduit.

It’s just a shame that the Kindle isn’t a superlative device for reading electronic text. The experience is like a fast-food meal. It’s not great, but you’ll get it down just fine.

I downloaded a free book from the Project Gutenberg site and spent an hour on my sofa reading chapters on the Kindle and then on my iPhone. I can’t say that the Kindle was a superior experience. I preferred the Kindle’s larger display and its page-turning buttons, but I had the usual gripes about the screen’s E-Ink technology. It’s black text on a gray, non-backlit background, so you don’t get the same crisp, black-on-white contrast of the iPhone’s backlit screen. You’re also dealing with the satiny glare from your reading light.

Worst, E-Ink needs to “flash” the screen every time it’s redrawn, which means there’s a huge visual fart every time you turn a page.

But who cares? The Kindle is an incredible product. It’ll be widely compared to the iPod, but that’s a cheap analogy. The Kindle isn’t merely an entertainment device: it’s an information device. A generic, empty book that can be used to read anything on any subject from any source, whether it’s a DRM’ed copyrighted novel, a file from your desktop, or text published on the Internet.

It’s not an iPod. Kindle is the closest we’ve come to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

After The Show

Ach, there was way too much to say about the Kindle, and way too little space to say it all in print.

I think the most efficient and peppiest way to sum up my reaction is that before it arrived, I was serenely confident that the iPhone would be my favorite bit of tech from 2007…but now the sash and tiara are up for grabs.

Okay, so let’s start in with some more verbiage on that iPhone versus Kindle comparison. I’m not saying that the Kindle is a poor reader. It just isn’t better than many alternatives, the iPhone included. It isn’t really a fault of the device. It’s a weakness of the display technology.

I think I’m prepared to say that E-Ink simply isn’t a great display medium. Its advantages (crisp detail, low power) make it an obvious choice for en ebook device but it has its own share of problems. Most of the complaints I have about the Kindle and its user interface come down to “Yes, but with E-Ink, there’s really no way around that problem.”

If the Kindle had a display like the iPhone’s, I’d be a lot happier. And a lot poorer. I don’t even want to guess at how much a Kindle-sized edition of the iPhone display would run.

But I’ll balance that out by telling you about another little head-to-head comparison: the iPhone’s built-in Google Maps app is damned nice but in a (very) casual test it wasn’t all that much better than the Kindle at helping me find a comic book shop in New York City…!

I was on 57th Street and wanted to visit Midtown Comics down on 40th. A pal of mine thought there was a second location that was closer. I’d been telling him all about how nifty Kindle’s NowNow service is and I thought this was a great opportunity for a live-fire exercise.

“Does Midtown Comics have more than one location in NYC?” I typed, and sent off the query. Then I unpocketed my iPhone and sought the same answer via Google Maps.

I got an answer from the Kindle only about a minute after I got it from my iPhone.

Yes, it’s an unfair and unscientific test. It didn’t include the time I spent submitting the question. The iPhone also lost another a minute or so because I’d left the Map app in “route” mode. One of the few terrible design flaws of the iPhone software is that if you’re in “route” mode there’s no obvious way to get back to “Where is this location on a map?” mode.

I’ve had my iPhone since the first day of release. I’ve written a book on the thing. And yet to this very day, I can only switch from one mode to the other via blind luck. That’s bad design.

So let’s make adjustments and say that the Kindle took 5 minutes and the iPhone found the second location in a minute flat. The answers that NowNow returned were way better and more than made up for the time deficit. The iPhone showed me the two Midtown Comics locations on a map, along with phone numbers, addresses, and a URL to the site. When I checked the Kindle and opened the new “book” that contained the answer to my question, it lacked a map but also included subway directions plus driving directions plus store hours. Not bad at all.

In fact, I spent the whole weekend playing with the service. “How does meat become pastrami?” I asked, after ordering a deli sandwich. And a few minutes later, an article from “How Stuff Works” arrived, describing the whole process. I actually got three answers (same info from different sources) by the time my sandwich arrived.

I imagine a feature like that will truly prove its mettle when I need to ask it a question like “A cop has just asked me for permission to search my backpack. Do I have the right to refuse, and if I do, does he have the right to run me in just on general suspicion? Please hurry.”

It’s these little things that make the Kindle such a seductively cool device. It’s nice to have a phone with Internet access but my iPhone (and other smartphones) are jack-of-all-trades devices. Your relationship with the Kindle consists solely of reading information. Any other features it might contain (like NowNow) are just mechanisms for getting more text to land on the screen.

At its core, the Kindle is a light, compact device that (metaphorically) contains the Wikipedia in its entirety; the complete text of every RSS-enabled site that you care to follow through Google Reader or Bloglines…as well as tens of thousands of commercial titles.

The context in which a resource operates has a big influence on how you come to regard that resource. I’ve been using Bloglines and Reader for years. I’ve even been using them in a mobile context (on laptops and smartphones) for years. But the Kindle is the first device that feels like a conventional book which constantly refreshes itself with content published on the Internet.

Truly. I did hear Ford Prefect saying “Don’t worry, the Guide will have something to say about that” as I keyed in my Pastrami question.

Plenty of folks are raising a huge stink about the Kindle Store’s DRM. This is probably just a knee-jerk reaction. Yup, it’d be swell if I could buy any Kindle book in a format that I could use on any device. It’d be even cooler if all of these books were free. And delivered to me personally by Uma Thurman wearing her “Baron Munchausen” costume. You know…the first one.

But look, if you hate the DRM, then just don’t buy any DRM’ed content. I did buy a couple of books and a newspaper through the course of testing, but 99.99992% of all of the time I spent with the Kindle was spent reading free content…either stuff online, or free content that I’d downloaded and installed myself.

My big fear when I first heard about the Kindle was that it’d be one of those sucker’s deals where you give $399 to Amazon and in return, you get the right to keep giving Amazon more money, $10-$15 at a time. Lots of these useless products have shown up on the market over the years.

But that’s certainly not the case here. You can do pretty much whatever you want to do with your Kindle. It’s such a flexible device that it really doesn’t seem expensive…not even at $399.

There will indeed be lots of analogies to the first iPod…which also cost $399 when it was first released. And some of that sticks. I do think in a year or two, Amazon will have a radically different product that’s a whole lot slicker and cheaper and which more people will relate to.

But I actually think it’s more similar to Apple’s Newton MessagePad. It, too, was a transformative, groundbreaking device without an accurate precedent…something likely to be miscategorized and misunderstood by the public. It was a fab machine but it didn’t find its feet by the time the CEO who championed its development left the company. He was replaced by a typical short-sighted bean-counting stooge who wouldn’t know innovation if it bit him in the butt. He immediately canceled the whole Newton division. Moron!

(Oh, wait…it was Steve Jobs.)

That brings up what is probably the Kindle’s biggest advantage over Sony’s ebook reader and every other attempt to bring a device like this onto the market. It’s not the technology or the 80,000-title Kindle Store or even the lifetime of free coast-to-coast high-speed Internet:

It’s the simple fact that Amazon is willing to eat it for a few years until the Kindle becomes a permanent and familiar part of the landscape.

Jeff Bezos is investing billions in building his own private spacefleet, for God’s sake. You don’t think he’s willing to keep Kindle afloat for as many years as it takes?

A few final details that didn’t make the final column:

  • Yup, it’s damned ugly. But it’s ugly in the same way that a Stealth fighter is ugly. All of those weird angles and edges have purpose. In the fighter, the edges are to force incoming radar to bounce off in harmless directions. In the Kindle, they help make it more comfortable to hold. Each edge seems to fit comfortably into a crook of your hand.
  • That said: yeah, the only way you’d ever see a prototype as clumsy as this on the Apple campus would be if it were clenched between the buttcheeks of the engineer who presented it to Steve Jobs. If the guy completes a lap around the entire Apple campus without dropping it, he gets to keep his job. At half-salary.
  • Yup, you can put your own docs on it, and you can install free ebooks available hither and yon. The Kindle uses a proprietary ebook format but if you use the Kindle’s email conduit to install your docs, Amazon will happily convert popular file types (text, HTML, Word, JPEG, etc.) to native .AZW format. The book I mentioned in the column was Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” and it installed just fine.
  • PDF support is “Experimental.” That is to say…they’re still working on it. I was hoping that I could load up .PDF editions of a few comic books, but apparently they were too complicated. A simpler PDF of a set of travel confirmations worked just fine, though.
  • Speaking of “experimental,” the web browser I mentioned is also an Experimental feature. I did ask, nervously, if this meant that these Experimental features might be so designated because Amazon isn’t really committed to keeping them. Nope, the designation is just a warning that the feature might not work flawlessly under every circumstance.
  • Followup: but given that Amazon has a certain amount of control over the device through that steady Internet connection, could Amazon “remove” features for whatever reason? Answer: well, technically, sure, but as a general rule if a feature is on the Kindle you can expect that it’s there to stay.
  • 256 megs of built-in storage. That’s plenty for most purposes; each book is just a meg or two at most. When you connect it to your desktop via USB, it appears as a standard mass-storage device and you can access its internal folders. But the only time you actually “need” to dock the Kindle is when you want to put Audible audiobooks on the thing. There’s also an SD card slot under its back plate for expansion.
  • The Kindle is wrapped around a rich, nougaty center of Linux.
  • It comes with a cover that’s supposed to make the thing look like a hardbound book. I thought it was silly and “precious” and wish they’d included a simple slipcover or even just a plastic snap-on top that protected the screen. In fact, I don’t think I even managed to get that cover on the way it was supposed to go.
  • The page-navigation buttons are great when you’re reading something but a bit of a nuisance otherwise. It’s impossible to pick up the Kindle (to move it from one corner of your desk) without nudging one of these buttons. So unless the Kindle is asleep, picking it up off the sofa and continuing to read where you left off before you answered your phone is a two-step process: picking up the Kindle, and then undoing the page-turn that happened when you nudged one of the buttons.
  • I wish I knew why the Kindle even bothers to sleep itself in the first place…probably to avoid random keypresses during transit, I suppose. After being ignored for a while, it wastes power replacing the text you were reading with a picture of Emily Dickinson or somesuch, and you can’t get back to your text without executing a two-handed buttonpress. The Kindle might therefore be the first electronic device to consume more power via Sleep mode than if it just waited patiently for you to pick it up again. Even if a Sleep mode is important, a two-handed buttonpress isn’t an elegant answer to anything.
  • The blog subscriptions is a pretty pointless exercise. You can get the same content for free via the Web. It’s only of use if you want to carry the blog with you onto a plane or something, where you can’t use the wireless.
  • Good news: you can buy newspapers by monthly subscription but you can also just buy today’s edition. I can see doing that a lot on my way to board a plane. Fifty cents is cheap; you can buy it blindly and be sure that there’ll be something interesting in there.
  • Bad news: the newspapers you buy don’t contain any syndicated content. I bought the San-Jose Mercury News because it has a terrific comics section. Nope, no comics to be seen in the Kindle edition.

What else, what else…well, the answer to the question “Can I use the word ‘fart’ in The Sun-Times?” turns out to be “Sure, just not in the lede paragraph.”

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 3

Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)

Alanis Morissette

De-Lovely

Genre: Soundtrack

Blah, Blah, Blah: There is such a thing as Ungodly Talent. Cole Porter had it. His songs are like magic tricks that never become mundane. You can play it over and over and over again and listen to it from every conceivable angle but you’ll never figure out just how the hell he did it.

You can listen to “Let’s Do It” just as an ordinary song. Or, you can enjoy the simplicity of the melody; pay attention to how many opportunities the tune presented to the guy writing the arrangements. You can do just about anything to that melody without fear of breaking it.

Sit back and simply enjoy the playfulness of the lyrics. The words snap together like Legos:

In shallow shoals, English Soles do it
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it
Let’s do it!
Let’s fall in love!

And of course, there’s the neat trick of being cute and light and yet orbiting around smuttiness at all times. On the surface it’s a sweet little song until you decide that “let’s fall in love” is actually just a euphemism. And then you enjoy it even just a smidge more than you did before.

Writing a song like “Let’s Do It” is like inventing the color orange. Boy, you’ve done something big and lasting. The existential middle-of-the-night question “Just what have I done with my life?” will never be wanting for an answer.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I think I actually bought this album twice. I got home from the movie and I couldn’t wait for the record stores to open the next morning: I bought the whole album on the iTunes Store. And then a few days later I decided that I wanted to rip high-quality DRM-free tracks from a CD.

“De-Lovely” is a fairly nice movie. Without the musical performances, it’d probably be a 2.5-star flick but the tunes add another star.

This soundtrack could have been a disaster, though. Cole Porter tunes don’t need to be modernized or (God help us all) “fixed.” “Red, Hot + Blue” is a terrific collection of Porter songs, recorded by modern stars. Annie Lennox’ version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is utterly heartbreaking, just as it ought to be. But apparently Aaron Neville thought “In The Still Of The Night” had practically no appeal as-is…but don’t worry, he turned it into a Bossa Nova number. Whew! Thanks, Aaron!

Fortunately, all of the performances in “De-Lovely” are in the basic style of the era in which the songs were written. Based on artists’ interviews it seems like they had an absolute ball recording the tracks and performing them in the film. Lemar is a successful young R&B singer. In the movie, he sings “What Is This Thing Called Love?” in a smashing linen suit, backed by a four-piece jazz band. He has no lines, but he got to spend a couple of days pretending to be a jazz singer of the Thirties entertaining people from the bow of a big gondola.

To hear him tell it, it was like being paid to spend a couple of days in Vocalist Fantasy Camp.

Alanis Morissette makes the ends of her lines go a bit too curly at times, but still, it’s a nice rendition. Like the rest of the tracks, she didn’t try to make it into an Alanis Morissette song.