Recently I've been using two devices that have the potential to change the way I do things.
The first is the Amazon's electronic book reader - the Kindle (international version) and the second is a Gazelle bicycle (which I’ll detail separately and later).
Now that the Kindle is available in Australia, several people have asked me whether they should buy one. My response has been generally equivocal, because I'm undecided about its value to me.
The act of reading is as about as easy on the Kindle as it for a book. Unlike LCD, there’s no problem with glare, the contrast is comparable to most books, and the font is generally adequate.
Eight-year-old Marcus says it's actually easier to read using Kindle than a real book, because you don’t have to turn the pages, and you don’t lose your place as easily. He also loves the fact that he can resize the font to the reasonably large one he favours. The progress indicator (showing percentage of the book completed) also provides him with an incentive. He was very happy that he was 75% of the way through his bedtime book ("Fantastic Mr Fox" by Roald Dahl) when I was only 5% through mine ("Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel).
As you'd expect from someone his age, he has now co-opted the technology and his expectation is that any book can be obtained instantly (a major convenience indeed, and a dangerous facilitator of impulse buying!).
I don’t want to review the Kindle's user interface or controls in any detail. However, I would note that I find them clunky but adequate, with a major point of confusion being the relationship between "Menu" and "Home".
What’s more interesting to me is the ways in which the process of reading (as opposed to the act of reading) changes on the Kindle. One key aspect is the absence of a page number. Instead, there is a progress indicator at the bottom of the virtual page. Although Marcus loves this, I find it somewhat inadequate. Perhaps if I were brought up without the concept of a page being a real-world object, this would bother me not at all (and after all, on the web a page is frequently a fluid and dynamic thing).
Other, more physical cues are also absent. For example, I was surprised when I saw a copy of Wolf Hall (which I was reading at the time) in a bookshop – it was so thick! I tend to be a reluctant purchaser of thick books, but hadn't really considered how long the book was when I began reading it on the Kindle.
Similarly, when reading "The Big Switch" by Nicholas Carr I somehow had the impression that it would be a relatively quick read. Instead I’m ploughing through it with a sense of "are we there yet?" – even though the book itself is provocative and interesting. Perhaps the very thinness of the Kindle itself is shaping my expectations.
And there are a few specific things I miss about the real world equivalents. I won't talk about the feel, smell and richness of layout of physical books, because almost by definition the kinds of books I’ll read online are not the kind I want to own in the flesh, as it were.
For example, I often want a reminder of an author's name – but on the Kindle I can’t simply flick back to the cover or spine and read it. It’s an odd sensation to think that if I need to be reminded of the author, I will have to click a button and go "somewhere else", and then return to my reading – an enormously disruptive process when compared with the equivalent in the real world.
Another common interaction for me is to scan back a few pages in a physical book – to something that appeared, say, "half way down a left hand page". Reading online simply doesn't support that.
With books of a technical or academic nature, I'm also in the habit of reading with highlighter in hand, to mark up notable topics. That’s particularly useful if I want to refer to the book in the future or if I want to share it with colleagues. While Kindle does allow me to mark passages, it's much less fluid.
And of course the social nature of books disappears almost entirely with the Kindle. I can’t mention a book in conversation, get it off my shelf and loan it to a friend. All I can do is to describe it or talk about it. This is reminiscent of where we've been with digital music until recently, with the publishers treating every sale as a unique, one-off event, instead of seeing it as an interaction within a social ecology.
But in fairness, I would never envisage the Kindle as occupying the same metaphorical space as my bookshelves. These support browsing, reflection, conversation, and sharing, while the Kindle is for... well, just for reading.
At times the text on the Kindle is downright ugly, with poor formatting and inappropriate hyphenation. I don’t know to what extent that’s down to the publisher, and how much to the Kindle itself, but it’s disconcerting.
I've deliberately to this point in my usage (and I’ve now read several books in full or in part) avoided exploring the functionality in detail. After all, I want to read, not learn a new gadget. I haven’t bothered reading blogs, and I’ve only played with converting one document via Amazon’s free automated service to Kindle format (which worked well). I did subscribe to The Irish Times, but cancelled it within the two-week grace period as it is inferior to the free online version (not to mention the fact that it costs US $23 per month, which seems a tad inflated).
I did go to the inbuilt browser, only to be told that it "is not available in all countries". I found this disingenuous. I wanted to be told specifically that it didn't in my country if that was the case (and indeed this is what the message meant).
This brings me to a gripe with Amazon in general. Amazon is highly regarded its quality of customer service, but their internationalization has typically been poor.
For example, a quick trawl through some (non-Kindle related) emails from Amazon shows that they've offered me free shipping which didn't apply because I'm outside of North America, written to me about Black Friday (similarly meaningless in my region), sent me "winter prep" information in November (that ain't winter here), and so on.
If I go to Amazon.com on my iPhone, I'm told that only US customers can order Kindle products, and despite references to a Kindle app for iPhone in the Kindle documentation, in Australia the iPhone app store contains no such listing.
These may sound like gripes, but to me they indicate a strategic weakness that Amazon needs to seriously address as the balance of world trade and power shifts.
There is also a limited range of books available (well over 200,000 in Australia). This is because Amazon had to negotiate country rights with publishers, but it may lead to frequent disappointment. For example, I was unable to purchase Margaret Atwood's latest novel, although a Kindle version is available in USA.
From an Australian consumer's point of view, the price of books makes the Kindle potentially attractive. I purchased "Canon DSLR" by Christopher Grey for around AUD $35 (including my bank's gouging fee); it would have cost me AUD $61.95 at the local bookstore.
My recommendation for Australians thinking of purchasing the Kindle is to put a toe in the water by downloading the free Windows version. If you like the range and the service, you can make the leap to the Kindle itself for the convenience of carrying lots of books around in what is, after all, a very attractive little device.
Alternatively, they might want to wait until Amazon or a competitor delivers a more seamless and less restricted experience.