Amazon Kindle: It’s not for us, Jack

Amazon Kindle: It’s not for us, Jack

Summary: With any technology, there's a time for the masses to jump in and a time for early adopters with cash to burn. In the case of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, that time is more of the latter than the former.



My grubby hands on the Amazon Kindle at Continental Airlines' Presidents Club Lounge at  Newark Liberty International Airport.

See Jason's Amazon Kindle Gallery.

As I've discussed in this column before, I spend about 4 days a week away from home and about 8 to 10 hours a week in airplanes and airports.

Among my "Kit" of stuff that I drag around with me every day in my overstuffed backpack are a laptop, a digital camera, portable hard drives, numerous battery chargers, media readers, a portable GPS, and any number of other knicknacks including printed work documents, books and magazines, which add considerably to my schleppable footprint.

There's certainly a limitation to the amount of documents and reading material a traveler can reasonably carry with them, and that's why technologies such as handheld e-book readers which can store tens of thousands of pages of content on them are compelling.

But with any technology, there's a time for the masses to jump in and a time for early adopters with cash to burn. In the case of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, that time is more of the latter than the former.

The Kindle is not a new product -- the company released it in time for the 2007 holiday season, at an entry price of $400. A year later, the unit sells for $359, a whole $60 discounted off of the full retail.

As my frugal grandmother, Sylvia Perlow, who survived through the Great Depression used to say to my grandfather when questioning a potentially frivolous purchase, "It's not for us, Jack."

This is not to say that the Kindle isn't an impressive piece of technology -- it is. The black and white "Electronic Ink" display is as close as you can get to looking at printed bond paper, and the device is a pleasure to use.

The Kindle store has over 180,000 titles available, all easily browseable through the device's UI and search engine, which is delivered through Amazon's "Whispernet" Sprint EVDO wireless service in a matter of seconds -- a SF novella was bought and delivered to my device in less time it took to read a single page of text, and it happened transparently in the background while I was doing something else.

But the Kindle is still too expensive for mass adoption, particularly as it is an entirely closed system that mostly limits you to reading content you buy from the Kindle store. Current release best-sellers are $10 each, with older content ranging from $2.00-$6.00 depending on length, licensing costs and age.

For example, the 160-page Robert Silverberg novella "The World Outside" which was published in 1971 cost me $1.60. Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 "The Fountains Of Paradise" sells for $7.96. Major newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times cost $9-$14 per month. Newsweek is $1.49 per week.

Even blogs which are normally free to read on the Internet cost 99 cents per blog for a monthly subscription. The Kindle does have a basic web browser, but using it with the e-book controls is awkward and it can't really render anything but the most basic HTML sites.

The price of the unit and the accumulating content costs aren't the biggest negative -- despite the Kindle being powered by embedded Linux, as I said before, it's pretty much a totally closed unit and makes the iPhone look like a Open Source oasis by comparison.

You can't develop software for it, although you can load and listen to MP3s, Audible audiobooks and read converted Office Documents and PDFs using the SD expansion card interface.

And even though you've purchased any number of books from the Kindle store, unlike a real book, you can't "lend" them or "give" them to someone else with a Kindle, which leaves out the possibility of having friends and family content-swapping clubs.

Ideally, I should be able to add someone to my "library" list, and authorize them to remove the book from my content manager for their use, or at the very least, Amazon should implement some sort of electronic bartering service where if I buy a book for 10 bucks, I get $5 credit when swapping it with someone else who wants to get rid of a book of comparable value they've already read.

The dynamics would have to be worked out, but any kind of interactive Kindle community where content could be swapped and shared would make the unit much more attractive to prospective buyers.

The current going rumor is that in early 2009, the next-generation Kindle will sell for $100 less than the current model. If that rumor is indeed true, then I definitely think that most potential buyers should give the current model a pass, given the fact that the content costs are high and the device itself isn't cheap either.

In addition to slashing prices on the current unit, Amazon could considerably lower costs by removing the EVDO module (which Amazon incurs overhead and does not currently charge data service fees on) and replacing it with a combo Wi-Fi transmitter/Ethernet jack, which is entirely ubiquitous these days, although coverage isn't going to be as comprehensive as Sprint's data service.

However, given that most users are likely to download content when they are at their workplace, homes or hotel rooms, or in airports or Net cafes with public Wi-Fi access points like Starbucks, this would probably would be a good compromise.

Such a change would require a better embedded web browser which would allow users to agree to the usual billing agreement home pages to grant them full network access. Also, being able to read my GMail from a Kindle or browse my favorite web sites in a useful manner would sure beat squinting at a Blackberry or an iPhone.

An Open Source developer kit would allow creative "Mashup" apps to be written for the device, as well as the potential for Java-based MIDP applications such as Google's native mobile phone UI for GMail.

Are you already a Kindle early adopter or are you going to bypass the current generation? Talk Back and let me know.

Topics: Mobility, Amazon, Hardware, Networking, Wi-Fi


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Happy Early Adopter Here

    I have a Kindle and I think it's great. I currently use it solely for reading books. That's ok, because that's what I bought it for! Once my current magazing subscriptions run out, I'll probably convert over to Kindle subscriptions as well. It would be nice if it was cheaper, but the closed nature doesn't bother me as long as it's easy to use. I do like that I can quickly and easily re-download anything I've previously bought at any time. The DRM may restrict sharing, but it doesn't restrict me very much. Being able to take .txt "clippings" of pages is a very nice nod to fair use. It's easier to pull quotes out of a Kindle than it is out of a "normal" book! You don't have to either transcribe or use OCR software after scanning pages.
    • Erm, OK.

      How many times do you re-read a novel? What happens when your memory is full? You cannot sell anything on your kindle once its full.

      You cannot borrow one of your kindle books to a friend. You cannot borrow one of theirs. And that, is one of the best features of any book collection in my opinion. The ability to share...
      • I'm with you.

        My father and I have identical Sci-Fi tastes. Each of us gets a book, reads it, then trades off with the other several times a year. I'm not willing to tolerate even a credit or reduced rate for that 'privilege' when I can do it now for free.
        • Missed a detail

          You can have multiple Kindles registered to the same account, so both you and your father can read the same book... at the same time even, for no additional fee.
          • Still.

            What exactly happens when your kindle is full?
          • You buy a SD card

            Problem solved!
          • No additional fee?

            Oh, aside from shelling out for the second Kindle!

            The Kindle price needs to come down and the price for the downloaded content needs to come down.

            There are some small publishers out there who sell their books for a small fraction of the printed equivalent. Amazon sells most Kindle versions for the same price as the printed version - now THERE's a profit margin!
        • Or - Buy Your SF eBooks through Baen ;)

          They have DRM-free MOBI format, which the Kindle reads as well. I got most of my SF books on my Kindle that way - largely b/c Amazon doesn't offer any of them!

          @Bozzer - that's what SD cards are for. :D You just file your old books off on a SD card, like I do....

          @jperlow: I inherited my wife's Kindle (the page turn "flash" triggers her migraines), and while I wouldn't say I [b][i]love[/b][/i] it, I like and use it a lot more than I thought I would. I absolutely agree it's overpriced; I wish it read more formats than Amazon's proprietary AZW, MOBI and straight text (i.e., it doesn't seem to work w/PDF, which I thought it did originally); I wish it handled audio files differently than it did (for one thing, there's no separate area to file audiobooks so they get mixed in with the book files - for another, the "music" feature is simply playing loaded music files in the background while you read!); and I wish the screen would display color so I could read graphic novels and look at photos as well as books.

          But with all those "wish it couldas" and hopes for v.2 - I still use it every day, and it's a lot easier to carry than a hardbound book. :)
      • Slight difference

        when you loan out a book, you no longer have the book. You can't use it as long as it is loaned out. Those you loan it out to must relinquish access by giving it back.

        Digital 'sharing' is the very antithesis of this. Everyone feels they can 'share' and maintain access, which isn't sharing in the traditional, book sense.
        • Right

          Which is why I was referring to some sort of "swap" or DRM relinguishing mechanism.
        • Who is this "everyone" you speak of.

          Its quite obvious to me when a friend lends a book off me that I can not read it whilst it is in his possession, as the book is no longer on the bookshelf.

          So, who is this "everyone" you claim to represent? I certainly don't expect to be able to read the book that I borrowed my friend. Likewise if I sell one of my old books.

          But I tell you this. At least my books are not chained to my bookcase.
    • Another Happy Early Adopter

      I, too, am a happy early adopter. I think that the EVDO system works very well. WiFi would be much less convenient, and I don't buy the argument that the cost of EVDO bandwidth is priced into the unit. Units without it from other companies cost the same, and if it shows up in any price, it would be the books themselves. I'm happy to pay a bit for the convenience. Plus, the ebooks are cheaper than the printed books if buying new.

      Another argument that I don't buy is that the Kindle is a closed system. I have been able to move scientific papers I have in PDF format to it. The Kindle also reads .PRC eBook files. I have read several free book downloads in this format. There are also converters available to convert from non-DRMed formats to .PRC. The Kindle is able to read lots of free books, especially if the classics are your thing. Almost anything with expired copyright is available for free. Try or There are even open source college level textbooks now available free, but the lack of color and better grayscale can be a problem on the Kindle. The only catch with .PDC files is you have to connect to your computer to move them to the Kindle.

      There are, however, things I would like to improve. I'm not wild about how easy it is to accidentally press one of the page change buttons. I wish there were a way to share Kindle ebooks, but I now the limitations when I buy one. I wish the web browser were a bit easier to use, but considering its free and not what the Kindle was made for, I'm happy. I also think it should be cheaper. Finally, I wish the radio connection powered down on its own when not in use. The battery life seems much less when the EVDO is left on. I usually have it off unless I'm actively using it.

      All in all, I'm a very happy Kindle user. I find I'm reading much more than I did prior to receiving it.
  • It's not for me, either

    At least not now. It's going to have to get a LOT cheaper before I'll buy one, and I'm still not sure I'll be able to accept DRM in any form, anywhere. One of the joys of reading has always been the ability to share, and if I can't loan or give a friend a good book, my own enjoyment of it will be tempered considerably. Going the other way, I can't count the number of authors whose works I've later bought and enjoyed because a friend loaned me one of their works. Poul Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke come immediately to mind.

    Another good idea ruined by the media companies.
  • It's not for dinosaurs like Mr. Perlow

    you were complaining about all the books you need to carry with you and then you are unhappy with a device that can solve your problem.

    Moreover, you make the absurd claim that Amazon should stop using EVDO when one of the most appealing features of the Kindle is the ability to access content (almost) wherever you are. Coverage of EVDO is not 100% of the US territory, but it is certainly immensely more ubiquitous that Wi-Fi. Better yet, unlike Wi-Fi you don't have to pay a penny extra. With Wi-Fi you are under control of some provider and in most areas it is not free. Worse, even if free it does not have as ubiquitous as EVDO as I said. Say, you want to get books or the newspaper while riding the bus. It's absurd to pretend that you will find Wi-Fi signal in your whole trip. And that's just an example.

    Instead of suggesting such an absurd thing as replacing EVDO, it would be better if the Kindle include both EVDO and a Wi-Fi/Ethernet card. That sounds reasonable.

    I got the impression that you are disappointed because the Kindle is not a laptop. If you need one then buy it. The Kindle is not a laptop but a book reader. Besides, it's not only about Kindle. The latest Sony eReader is a fine device too.
    • If I'm a dinosaur call me Barney

      [B]you were complaining about all the books you need to carry with you and then you are unhappy with a device that can solve your problem.[/b]

      No, my objections are largely centered around the cost of the device and the cost of the content.

      [b]Coverage of EVDO is not 100% of the US territory, but it is certainly immensely more ubiquitous that Wi-Fi.[/b]

      You could make a strong case that a large percentage of people who have broadband Internet in their homes have Wi-Fi as well. And Wi-Fi is in nearly every airport, and in every Starbucks and nearly every Dunkin Donuts.and in most hotels that have Internet services for guests.

      [B]Instead of suggesting such an absurd thing as replacing EVDO, it would be better if the Kindle include both EVDO and a Wi-Fi/Ethernet card. That sounds reasonable.[/b]

      Only if this results in less cost to the end user. If Amazon is carrying the data services overhead like they are now, that cost is being handed down to the Kindle customers which is built into the price of the unit as well as padding the content costs.
      • You are thinking like one

        The arguments you put forward in favor of Wi-Fi opposed to EVDO are lame. First of all, Wi-Fi is not "entirely" ubiquitous as you said, far from it. Moreover, at Donkin Donuts, Starbucks and at most airports you can very likely get EVDO signals and when you do, the cost is included in the device's cost. You cannot say the same about Wi-Fi at, for example, every airport. Many of them charge you for connection time. So, EVDO in the Kindle is as useful as Wi-Fi and in more circumstances cheaper, more ubiquitous or both. So, why should it be "replaced" by Wi-Fi?

        You also talk about "overhead" but you fail to let us know what is that overhead? Aren't many books for Kindle cheaper than the NEW printed counterparts? What percentage of Kindle's cost goes to EVDO? You simply speculate about that. However, if Sony eReaders are an indication of costs, then it seems that EVDO is a negligible cost for the Kindle. Did you think about that?

        IMO, the Kindle will be better if it included, for instance, a slot for a Wi-Fi card. But replacing EVDO for Wi-Fi does not make sense.

        No, my objections are largely centered around the cost of the device and the cost of the content.

        Look, you started your post with a portability problem, didn't you? Doesn't the Kindle solve those problems for you? It seems to be. But now, you suddenly are concerned about the cost of the content, which is, AFAIK cheaper in the Kindle for many new books. Yeah, you can get used books and magazines, but how is that solving the portability problem you have?

        Also, you want to access blogs? Use your iPhone. Didn't you buy or attempted to buy one after initial denial? No, the problem is that you want the Kindle to be a laptop or an iPhone, which it is not. So, if you are expecting it be one, it is definitively not for you, Jack. Stick to your Thinkpad.

        The Kindle is a convenient device for reading books and magazines. It has great battery life for that, offers great readability, and extreme convenience regarding content accessibility with the use of EVDO. It also allows you to annotate books and as bonus listening to MP3 and browse the web. That's it.

        You want to get cheap used books and magazines? Fine, then do not mislead readers with your concerns about portability and please stop giving your unfounded reasons for Wi-Fi replacing EVDO in the Kindle.

        Thank you Barney
        • 10-22-08: Nearly 14 Percent Stock Market Loss in one day for AMZN

          Why? Because they issued a crappy outlook for their holiday buying season.

          Whatever your arguments are regarding EVDO versus WIFI, or the relative price of the digital books verus print media, the bottom line is they need to drop their prices or the Kindle's future is probably grim.
          • Which is not the point of your post, is it?

            How do you know their share fall is tied to the Kindle? I seriously doubt it is and you do not provide anything to back that. Surely, I will be immensely glad if they could offer a Kindle for $100, but now you want to convince us of your crappy arguments of Wi-Fi instead of EVDO by showing us that financial information? Maybe they will be able to reduce the price because the manufacturing process have got cheaper and EVDO will still be there. But that does not make true anything you said.
          • EVDO's data costs are being passed down to the end-user

            How much do you think Amazon has to pay Sprint to give free EVDO whispernet service to all 448,000 Kindle owners?

            You don't think that this seriously impacts the price of unit? Not one bit?
          • Still insisting on that?

            Look, several ebook Readers that use the same ink technology that the Kindle uses cost as much or MORE than the Kindle, so please stop this nonsense that dumping EVDO for Wi-Fi will make Kindle's cost significantly lower. That's simply NOT the case.

            Besides, at this point it should be clear to almost everybody that cheap does not equate with big demands. The iPod and the iPhone should be examples of how people is willing to pay for something they consider worth (despite being very fine competitor products) and they are in high demand. In the case of Kindle, the convenience of accessing content almost anywhere offsets any marginal cost Amazon is incurring on EVDO. Replace that with Wi-Fi which is much less convenient and one great advantage of the Kindle is gone and the value is gone with it too. Moreover, the Kindle's is selling well. Amazon has even been short of stock some times for it. I really really REALLY doubt Amazon did not consider the Wi-Fi option before and they decided it was less advantageous. Also rumors exist that the Kindle 2.0 will still use EVDO.

            Wi-Fi will be inconvenient

            - Not free everywhere: think many airports
            - Not available everywhere. If I decide to eat at Joe's
            instead of at McDonalds or Donkin Donuts, should I be
            screwed because of Perlow's nonsense recommendations?
            - Even if available, no guarantees of connection. I
            recently have to buy a new card for my PowerMac because
            the company required WPA2 which the laptop's card was
            unable to process. Just imagine what other issues
            will other users have when they cannot connect.
            Maybe at your IBM office people enjoy complicated things
            but Kindle's users seem to be very happy with the
            simplicity of accessing content with EVDO

            Finally, up to now you have been unable to (1) show how Wi-Fi is equally convenient that Kindle's EVDO and (2) that EVDO inclusion in Kindle significantly drove its price up. So please stop insisting in this nonsense.