Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Kindle Me Elmo

November 20, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Have you heard? In a breakthrough technology, the new Amazon Kindle allows human beings for the first time in the history of civilization to actually read books. No longer will we stare in befuddlement at those complex structures of paper, cardboard, and glue, wondering in despair how we can possibly use a device that contains no buttons, no batteries, no backlighting....

But seriously folks. The part that got me perked up was the $9.99 price for downloading books. Just within the past two days I've experienced serious sticker shock on checking out this $234 two-volume compendium and this 304-page but $235 monograph and I sure was hoping I could get a bit of a price break. Alas, these two books have not yet been Kindle-ized, and I'm not sure when they're scheduled for the process. A year? Five years? Never?

But here's my question: Say I purchase and download a book now, and then, say, 28 years from now, I get a strange urge to re-read the book. Do I just pull out my old Kindle and the book's still there? (How many electronic toys from 28 years ago in operating condition do you still own?) Or did I thoughtfully transfer the book to more permanent storage and now I can just copy it back to the Kindle version 15.0? (What forms of digital storage are still compatible after 28 years? Keep in mind that 28 years ago the most common forms of personal computer storage were 8" floppies, 5" floppies, and — brace yourself — cassette tape.) Or has Amazon kept a record of my purchase for these past 28 years and now allows me to download it again for free? (How many stores did you deal with 28 years ago are still in existence today?)

In contrast, when I wanted to re-read Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer (1979) recently, all I had to do was pluck it from my shelf. A quick puff of breath along the top, and it was ready to go. I didn't even need to change the batteries or convert the format!

It's weird. It's counterintuitive. But it's true: Paper is forever.



Most of the books I owned 28 years ago are packed in incredibly heavy cardboxes stored at best in my attic, at worst I don't know where. Would I want to find that book again, I have no idea where to start looking.

Now, if you're talking about that _great_ book I read 28 years ago, it's of course right there in my bookshelf and I can open it in less than 30 seconds. Because I took care of the book.

Same with files. Stuff I care about is carefully backed-up. And yes, I bet I can open a 2007 pdf file in 2035. Not sure, no problem: Buy a hard copy. After all, it's a great book! For all others, who cares.

Personally, I'm interested in Kindle to read technical docs, articles, blogs,... in bed, in my cough, whatever. Most of these are just not printed. And the last thing I want in bed or in my cough is a hot backlit laptop.

In my opinion (not changed much since Sony Reader:, these devices are not aimed at replacing all books in all situations. They are just convenient in many situations.

To come back to your 28-year old book: I'm sure it perfectly fits on a device with a 28-year old look such as the Kindle :-)

Serge Wautier, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 08:19:55 -0500 (EST)

We all could laugh at the Kindle and say that paper is better, but this is obviously the future.

We have many year in the earth now, and we learn to love paper books, but future generations will grow up with Kindle like stuff, and they will laugh at us.

— Edddy, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 09:23:00 -0500 (EST)

I've been waiting for your take on Kindle =p

I am not impressed. $400 is overpriced, DRM is there just for device lock in (Load a PDF on Kindle!?! I must be mad!), and pay a fee just to read blogs? "Wireless" doesn't mean WiFi either, it means a cell phone tower.

Those that read blogs think this is the future, those that read books know that paper is king. A note to amazon, one of those two groups buy a whole lot more than the other.

When it comes to reading for pleasure nothing beats a book in your hand. I'm not going to "curl up" with an ebook reader and a Steven King novel (nor will I do so when "Turing" is published). I buy most of my books from used book stores (but not programming books Chuck! well... honestly, only because they are way out of date by the time they hit the used book store) and those cost at most $5. Less if you count the credit I get back when I return them.

This is not to say I'm anti-ebook - quite the opposite, I can see myself using such a device often for reference. i own a huge number of books on programming and find myself needing to reference a book at home while I'm at work. Here Kindle would shine, I could just call up the book on the reader and jump to the section I needed. I'm sure you don't need to be a code monkey to have the same need.

Here is what I would like to see: First kill that keyboard on Kindle - why is it needed? Books are already well indexed (both by an index and a table of contents) and full text searching a book is often pointless (sorry Google). the navigation should be pretty simple (iPod like if you will) and that saves some space to either make the screen bigger or just have a smaller device. WiFi cards fit on an SD memory card now, so add WiFi and an app to configure advanced things like rss feeds and such.

Next, sell paper books with "kindle cards" or some such device so that I get a version I can load on the reader with the paper book. I like the idea of the kindle version being sent to me on physical media, eases the "back it all up!" fear of buying digital content.

Last, provide a desktop app "kindle converter" that lets me convert any document format to kindle - pdf, word, help files, even websites. You allow MSDN or WikiPedia to be loaded on kindle and you have created a huge desire for this reader. Why don't I suggest a non-DRM format? Well, though I would like it I still want to see the DRM option for authors who fear it could be copied without it. I know that not a solid argument - any DRM is cracked within moments of it's release - but this matters to some authors so I'm willing to accept it if it means I'll have their books available.

Michael C. Neel, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 10:14:18 -0500 (EST)

I use a Palm Pilot to read lots of Gutenberg e-books -- recently, Jules Verne travel book along the Trans Caspian railroad, a description of WWI fighting in Iraq, and "the Rover boys and the wrecked submarine". Every week I go through the list of Gutenberg books published in the last week and download them into my Palm Pilot (technically a Tungsten E).

It's astoundingly nice to have a choice of several hundreds of books at any time in a portable format that slips into a pocket and can be read snuggled in bed without turning on a light and waking my wife.

I've looked at the Sony reader, and concluded that's it's bad -- page turning takes too long, it's not a "muli-tasker", it's too big, and by looking at the versions in the stores I notice that it's easy to get it into a state where I can push every single button and yet not have anything obvious happen -- it just sits there and doesn't do anything.

The Palm has the problem of having lots of software but all of it has flaws. I'm using 'tibr pro' as a reader which is OK but getting a list of books takes too long. The built in reader is better, but has a fixed-size list of books; if you go over the limit it stop working.

I used to have a Franklin "e-bookman" and it was great but quirky.

I also have a Windows palm machine from work -- total yuck. Everything almost works, but nothing actually works.

— Peter, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 10:52:48 -0500 (EST)

I understand your key point is that paper books should not be entirely replaced, but you seem a bit too zealous to make this point and overlook some of the features that make an e-book preferable to a paper book.

Yesterday I had a question about some class and how it was expressed in XAML, and I remembered you wrote something about it in Applications = Code + Markup. I turned to the index but found the particular term I was interested in had escaped the index. I had to find the right chapter and skim through it until I found what I was looking for; it took 10 minutes or so. In an e-book, I'd have skipped the index and done a search for the term.

On top of that, the collection of books I shuttle to and from work totals about 30 pounds so I can't easily bring them all home for leisure reading and I certainly don't want to leave them all at work. If I had e-book versions of each book and an e-reader, I could easily have the books in both places without straining my back.

Finally, to go along with your point about the digital storage mediums, how many 28-year-old Windows programming books will be useful? I've been in the business for less than a decade and I already have plenty of .NET 1.1 books that contain obsolete chapters with suggestions to use methods that are now discouraged. Your concerns are fairly invalid for a lot of technical reading material. Still, even though I agree paper is a superior storage medium it'd be nice if when I want to pull a quote out of a novel I read three years ago if I could let a computer search it out for me rather than having to thumb through hundreds of pages.

I still prefer paper to an e-reader when I'm on my first read, but I'd love to have electronic versions to supplement my paper versions. If I had an e-book reader and you were to offer e-book versions of your books, I'd purchase both so I could get the personal feel of the print book and the utility of the electronic one. I'd do the same with many novels; I'd use the print version to get the reading experience and the electronic version for referencing specific parts quickly.

— Owen, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 10:58:33 -0500 (EST)

I am with Mr. Petzold on this one. New Technology may be cool and seem like the future, but it is the tried and true "technologies" that survive in many cases. Not that both technologies can't coexist. In fact, many times new technology just enhances existing processes (like printing books)

Luke Foust, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 11:49:07 -0500 (EST)

I agree with much of what you say Charles but, how convenient would it be carrying 200 paper books with you on the subway. I access much of my technical reference library through online sources which I can access from any computer with an internet connection. I would love to have them on a kindle like device that I could access from anywhere at any time.

— Michael Weeks, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 11:42:40 -0500 (EST)

I also understand that Jeff Bezos is trying to reinvent space travel. That is intended as a measure of his ambition, not to be snarky (literally the sky is no limit). After all, it's called, not

Walter Lounsbery, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 11:52:31 -0500 (EST)

It's pretty clear from your past posts on writing and literature that you're passionate about the simplicity and ease-of-use of paper books. I think great literature will always best be enjoyed in that format. Especially for the reason you mention, wanting to re-read a classic 28 years from now.

I do think there is a niche for electronic book readers, though. One was printed in the San Jose Mercury News this morning (yes, I get it on paper). Re-printed from a blog no less. School and university textbooks seem to be a good fit for electronic readers, since you can store a whole bunch of otherwise heavy materials in a relatively low-weight device. And most of the information in those textbooks is only relevant for a few years, anyway. Knowledge advances so quickly these days that what you learned three years ago is no longer relevant today. What you get from going to school is (hopefully) learning how to learn. The specifics are ephemeral, perfect for electronic books.

— GeekTieGuy, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 12:05:34 -0500 (EST)

Not all books are $10; a number of programming books have higher-but-not-quite-cover prices. For programming, the Addison-Wesley imprimaturs seem to have quite a few in Kindle format.

Personally, I've ordered a Kindle and hope to use it for periodicals, "plane" books, and technical books (not being one of those 4-color fetishists when it comes to my source code).

Larry O'Brien, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 12:31:32 -0500 (EST)

P.S. There are significant carrying costs associated with several hundred feet of shelving.

Larry O'Brien, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 12:41:23 -0500 (EST)

In fact, Kindle has no backlighting. You'll need a lamp if you want to read in the dark. Just like with a real book.

— Martin, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 14:58:37 -0500 (EST)

While I like paper well enough too, are you seriously suggesting it has better archiving properties? How many paper books have been lost completely in history? Everytime there is a library fire or war we seem to lose a chunk of our hard earned history because it is flamable.

I have no idea about the file format of kindle, but imaginably it is some simple xml, mostly the text of the book itself -- so I really doubt anyone will have much trouble extracting the book after amazon goes bust.

As for re-downloading, well maybe that is a legit use for a torrent. If you've paid for it, you own it right? Of course that comes down to the eula, which never seems to favor the reader/listener, but I think at least your conscience could be clear : ).

The death of paper will never happen, but it is sure nice to be able to store and transport things digitally.

Robin Debreuil, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 17:43:46 -0500 (EST)

i just tried the Sony eReader (already returned it) and quickly came to the conclusion that eReaders will not take off until they have a defacto ebook format (e.g. mp3 for audio) that all readers support. but for now, the Sony works great with the BBeB format from their Connect store ... while the Kindle is going to work best with their own format from amazon. on the flip side, i loved the hardware ... the ink looked great.

casey chesnut, Tue, 20 Nov 2007 18:09:39 -0500 (EST)

I buy a lot of computer books so the chances of me reading any of those books 28 years from now is pretty slim. They will end up occupying precious space in my garage/workshop. I think electronic formats are perfect for those types of books, you can just hit delete or shred the disk--much easier psychologically than throwing away into a giant recycle bin that MS Access 2.0 book that you know you will never have a practical need for but you just can't seem with which to part.

Mario, Wed, 21 Nov 2007 09:50:36 -0500 (EST)

But after 28 years, computer books become curious classics. I certainly wouldn't consider tossing my vintage (and well-read) copy of the original edition of Peter Norton's Inside the IBM PC, for example. From an earlier era, my falling-apart copies of Don Lancaster's TTL Cookbook and CMOS Cookbook seem more revealing of my inner-being than my genome. — Charles

> Paper is forever.

Like Robin mentioned, it's destructable (fire/age). It think a better statement would be "Paper has no dependencies."

— Ricky Dhatt, Thu, 29 Nov 2007 21:57:44 -0500 (EST)

Somehow, Charles, I just don't see my copy of Beginning SQL Server 2005 Programming by Wrox becoming a classic. I mention that specific title only because it is sitting right in front of me and is nothing against the author who wrote it. It is a fine book among many SQL Server 2005 programming books that exist and there lies the problem. The books you mentioned were probably the only books that covered that specific topic. They were from the "Golden Age" of computer publishing. Today, there are so many titles for each specific subject, it is hard to seperate the good from the bad without actually reading the book for yourself. Amazon and other online sites help provide insight before purchasing, but even that is dependent upon your compatibility with the reviewer(s). I guess I just prefer the electrons, which is how my former-military colleagues refer to electronic documents--the electrons.

Mario, Mon, 3 Dec 2007 16:49:44 -0500 (EST)

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