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

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The Kindle Paradox

January 4, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

Jeff Gomez, the Print is Dead author and blogger, has now declared that the Kindle is dead.

Mr. Gomez believes that for Kindle 2.0 to be successfully, Amazon must unlock some of the hidden features (such as a Minesweeper game) and add some more features. Otherwise, why pay $400 to read a book?

And therein lies the central paradox of ebook readers like the Kindle: The more features an ebook reader accumulates, the less suitable it is for actually reading books.

What are the prerequisites for reading a book? A good chair and light, of course (those are the technological requirements) but most important are time, a quiet mind, and minimal distractions. If you read a paragraph of the book and feel a need to look up something in IMDB — and believe me, I've been there — you might want to actually turn off the biggest assemblage of hyperlinked distractions you own.

The Kindle can already access Wikipedia. Why shouldn't it access the whole Internet? And why can't you get your email and read your RSS feeds? And shouldn't it play MP3's as well? These are not unreasonable features, and surely the Kindle seems emaciated without them. Yet each new feature is nothing more than another distraction that seductively lures you from the actual pages of the book.

Ebook readers like the Kindle can't survive in the market without features that end up subverting the original purpose of the device. Have you ever heard of a technological concept more doomed to failure?


I agree. I don't think eBook readers have a long term future. They are a tablet PC like single purpose computing platform (that's a mouthfull!).

Eventually, people may read books on smart phones with better displays -- the iPhone browser is an example of the potential of this. But I think it will only be used during commutes on public transportation and other examples of sub-optimal reading locations - rather like books on CD are used now.

The dead tree book will always be the best medium for, well, a book.

Christian Knott, Fri, 4 Jan 2008 12:14:02 -0500 (EST)

I'm an ebook fan. I have a Dell Axim x51v (VGA one), a UMPC (first an Asus R2H that I sold because it was very slow and malfunctioning, and then a Samsung Q1U that works very fine), and an IREX iLiad. The main purpose of those devices is to read.

My main reading software is Mobipocket in the PDA and the UMPC. iLiad has Mobipocket support, but it is slow, buggy and using the dictionary is a nightmare. My second reading sofware is Acrobat/Foxit reader for the UMPC and iPDF for the iLiad.

What I'm trying to say? That none of the current ebook readers are ready and fully useful. One lacks screen size, the other battery duration, the next is very slow and needs external light. All three are slow (more slow than take a book, sit on a chair and open the book).

Normally user needs to take the ebook, format it for the device, and send to the device. Slower than take the book and start to read. Sometimes ebooks are malformed and looses images or footnotes...

And of course, to read you need a chair, a light and a book. Nothing more. Dictionary is a disturb. Music is a disturb.

Only when reading devices will cover and solve those problems, they will be successfull. And in the meanwhile, I've payed off all three devices. Each time that I read a book I annotate the cost of the real book and the ebook and annotate the difference. This is another thing to count.

RFOG, Fri, 4 Jan 2008 13:08:24 -0500 (EST)

"The more features an ebook reader accumulates, the less suitable it is for actually reading books."

Interestingly, Cory Doctorow has the same opinion, as he says in this nice interview with Tor Books: (ca. 6MB)

— FrF, Fri, 4 Jan 2008 13:08:38 -0500 (EST)

I just received one of these eBook readers, the iRex's iLiad, as Christmas gift, and it is great--a few books preloaded, the abiility to load any pdf eBook I own, marvelous crystal clear screen. But one thing that bugs me is the fact that I could easily read the eBooks using my laptop and have one less gadget to worry about. The iLiad does have the ability to mark your books with notes (though the response time is pretty slow), but it's hardly a feature I envision myself using.

At $700, it is definitely not something I would purchase with my own money, especially when a laptop could be had for that price, or is it something I would recommend to anyone but the most die hard gadget fan with deep pockets.

Mario, Fri, 4 Jan 2008 13:22:07 -0500 (EST)

I love my Kindle, and will always look for a Kindle version of a book first. It already does everything it needs to do (even plays MP3s, but I won't), although I've found myself wanting a realtime clock somewhere.

After a few minutes, you forget that you're using a device, and just concentrate on the book. Among my recent readings has been Ha Jin's A Free Life, a 700-page printed book that I read with great delight in about two days.

— MichaelB, Fri, 4 Jan 2008 15:25:06 -0500 (EST)

I am a fan of digital books in principle...but they are way too expensive for what they are tasked with doing.

I mean, think about it...a Playstation 3 can transform millions of 3D polygons per second and render them in high-definition, perspective correct, bilinearly-filtered glory, while simultaneously bombarding you with fantastic music and sound effects...and it costs about as much as the Kindle, whose purpose in life is to display a page of static, monochromatic text.

The problem I have with printed books is primarily the bindings. Most books are perfect bound. Perfect bound books do not want to be read. They resist every effort expended to open the cover, and at every opportunity, they try to close themselves. In fact, the only way to successfully combat this propensity is by permanently mauling it, forcing a crease near the spine. But even that has limited effectiveness.

The other problem I have with print is the weight. Again, the more information that the book contains, the more strenuously difficult it is to curl up with it on the couch or on a does not want to be read. Also, the thicker binding further exacerbates problem number one.

The solution is not to add features to an expensive electronic book reader...the solution is to simplify the mechanism of putting words in front of my eyes, and to make the cost of doing so more congruent with the technical challenge it represents.

John Nagle, Fri, 4 Jan 2008 18:17:22 -0500 (EST)

In the size of a steno pad and a weight of 9 ounces, I am able to carry the entire contents of Project Gutenberg's texts as well as read several thousand pages of it between recharges on a electronic ink display second only to the printed page in quality.

Dead trees or power hungry laptops as the perfect media for books? I think not.

— BH, Wed, 9 Jan 2008 13:24:57 -0500 (EST)

Well, books are cheaper. I can still read a damaged book. If I lose it I can buy another rather cheaply. If I'm in the mood to read, I can can peruse my library as I sit in my chair sipping a nice beverage. If I don't have the book, I can hit the library and get it.

— Bill Bumper, Mon, 28 Jan 2008 15:10:01 -0500 (EST)

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