Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Kindle, Revisited

Are e-readers like the Kindle a good thing or a bad thing?  It depends.

I have owned a Kindle for a few months now, and can comment on its merits - and disadvantages.  As I noted in a previous posting, a friend offered me this Kindle for $70 as they had won it at auction.  This was about $50 off the retail price for a "promotional" Kindle - that displays ads on the screen as a screen saver. 

By the way, these ads do burn into the screen over time.  Not a good thing.  Spend the extra dollars on the non-promotional model.

The original Kindle lasted about a month before the screen died after a trip to the beach.  I called the Amazon people and they sent me a new one, no questions asked. The new one arrived before I could ship back the old one.   So they are good about replacing the units under warranty. 

Of course, after that, I received offers for extended warranties from Amazon.

I have spend about $100 on books for the Kindle.  This is about $100 more than I spent last year on books overall.  Last year, to save money, I used our local library to check out books, ordering books from other branches, online, when necessary.   It was a pretty seamless process, although I had to wait a week or two for some books to arrive.  Libraries rock, frankly - offering you the world of books for the overall purchase price of NOTHING.  Free.  Bubkis.  Zilch.  You really can't beat that.

The Kindle, on the other hand, encourages consumption.  A simple click on the unit will download a book for anywhere from 99 cents to 99 dollars, depending on the tome.  You can spend a lot of money this way, without realizing it.  They have cleverly set up the system so you can buy books with "one click" shopping.  So you hear about a book on the radio, say, on NPR, and a moment later, you can download it and read it.  But it costs you, of course.

One advantage of the Kindle, of course, is portability.  We are traveling for two months (!) in Canada in a 17 foot travel trailer, and keeping stacks of books is out of the question.  Local campgrounds have paperback book exchanges, but most of these are of the mystery, thriller, or bodice-ripper variety.  And while local libraries may lend out books to travelers, if you are in one place for only a few days or weeks, this is not practical.

We also downloaded a lot of guidebooks, (Fodors, Moon, etc.) to the Kindle, although the traditional book is easier to read in the car.   I also downloaded a French/English dictionary, which came in handy.

So for traveling, it can be handy, although it is delicate and can break.  I bought a case for it, made of leather, that folds out like a wallet.  It works well to protect the device, and I can clip an LED book light to it to read at night.

But, it is not the same as owning a book.  For example, we downloaded some of the "Joe Gunther Mysteries" after hearing an interview with the author on NPR.  The problem is, only one of us can read them at a time, and since you can't "share" a book between multiple kindles, if you download a book, you are basically downloading it for one reader at a time.

In this regard, the revenue model is advantageous to the publishers.  Since a Kindle is very personal - like a cell phone - when you sell a copy of a book, you sell it to one user, basically.  Unlike a paperback, which can be shared, re-sold (in a garage sale, for example) or swapped or whatever, a Kindle book is basically a one-time, one-use sale to one reader - for practical purposes.

The Kindle has a primitive "experimental" mode that can access the Internet - provided you are in range of a WiFi station.  They have approved sites, such as google, gmail, Yahoo, and the like (but NOT hotmail, oddly enough, or perhaps not so) and it works OK for reading those sites, although the "mouse" jumps between fields, rather than moves linearly.  They call this "experimental" mode for good reason - they don't have to guarantee it will work - and it does "hang" on occasion, forcing you to hard boot the unit.

Overall, it has a kind of clunky DOS feel to it - or perhaps UNIX.  I like that primitive aspect of it.  But it concerns me that it encourages consumption - in the form of buying books.  And it concerns me that it effectively limits use of a book to one person (the owner of the Kindle).

Perhaps these types of readers are the future.  However, they are more expensive than other forms of traditional reading - borrowing books from the library, or borrowing a book from a friend.  The price of many books online rivals the paperback cost at the store, so there are no savings in buying an e-book over a paperback - and in some instances, a hardcover!

And it concerns me that eventually, the format used for the Kindle, being primitive, will become obsolete, and the Kindle will end up in a drawer somewhere, its batteries flat and its formats no longer recognized.  We've seen this before - in the transition from LP to Cassette to CD to iPod and beyond.  A consumer spends a small fortune accumulating a content library, only to see it obsoleted overnight.

So for me, the Kindle will remain a toy.  I plan on renewing my library card when I get home.  And I certainly have no interest in spending $500 or more on an iPad or other device with a $100 a month access bill attached to it.  That is far too much money to be spending on content, IMHO.  Particularly when you can get it for free....