First thoughts on the Kindle

Being in the UK I’m obviously late to the Kindle party since they only became available here a few months ago. I got mine a few days ago (as a Christmas gift from my wonderful parents), and I’m excited enough to write about it here even if it’s all been said before.

I won’t say too much about the physical device itself, which functions very well. The e-paper screen is a pleasure to read from. The slightly reduced contrast means it’s tough in very dim light, but the trade-off of being able to read in bright sunlight is well worth it. The inclusion of a qwerty keyboard is a real marmite feature, but on balance I’m glad it’s there.

What really excites me about the devices is its potential to change the way I read. In the past I’ve left a trail of half-completed books in my wake, as I’ve never had the right one with me. Sooner or later I’d forget where I was in a book or even that I was reading it in the first place. If nothing else, the Kindle works well as a way of centralising my collection and tracking where I am with each one. Could I do the same with a few cheap bookmarks and a large sack to carry the books? Kind of, but the point is that I never did do that.

The built-in mobile phone circuitry that supports “whispernet” (global wireless delivery of books) looks on paper like massive over-engineering, since I purchase books far less frequently than I sit down at a computer. However, it changes the nature of the device from a portable book collection to a portable library, and that starts to feel like something out of a culture novel (the series of science fiction stories set in a high-technology utopia.)

Whispernet really comes into its own for newspapers and magazines, which benefit especially from arriving with you fast and effortlessly, and from old issues not taking up space. At the moment the catalogue of magazines is small and many suffer from the lack of graphics, but there are already some good titles that are very keenly priced. If I could transfer my subscription to The Economist to Kindle I might never read a paper magazine again.

One of the most overlooked things about newspaper and magazine delivery is its potential as a monetisation platform. Because it’s linked to your Amazon account, you can pay large or small amounts for content with ease. It may seem odd to say that I like having to pay for content, but he who pays the piper calls the tune. If I want something, I’d rather pay for it than hope that some advertiser values my eyeballs highly enough to pay for it on my behalf.

Using an electronic format essentially kills the second-hand market: since data doesn’t get worn out like a paper book does, resale of e-books by customers would compete unacceptably with new sales. Therefore Amazon has no choice but to prevent resale from happening. I don’t have a problem with this, provided that publishers recognise it and price their books accordingly. Second-hand sale of a book (whether for money or swapping in an informal economy) helps to defray the high cost of acquiring new books (at least part of which is in printing cost, and cross-subsidising printing of unsuccessful books).

In this sense, a Kindle book is less valuable than a brand-new hardback, since it has zero resale value. In the case of back-catalogue books it is also competing against virtually free copies of the dead-tree version from charity shops or Amazon Marketplace, which further lowers the price I’m prepared to pay. I suspect that the publishers who realise this and price accordingly will benefit.

One last thing about copyright: I don’t like the Digital Rights Management (DRM) of the Kindle. DRM is the technology that binds a copy of a book to a particular physical device, preventing you from lending the book to a friend or using it on an e-book reader not made by Amazon. It’s not unduly restrictive in everyday use, but the prospect of buying my entire collection again if Sony wins the format war is a bit of a downer.

However, I think the best way to ensure DRM goes away is to back up my voice with my wallet. DRM on music is on its way out, and this is not because of the people who forcibly broke DRM, but because the iTunes store proved that there was a market of people who were prepared to pay money and play by the rules. Adhering to the spirit of copyright when safeguards were in place gave the industry confidence in a way that arguing over the letter of the law never did.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *