kindle - and the eLibrary concept

The news of interest this week is Amazon’s launch of their eBook service, Kindle. Newsweek published an article about it on Monday and Amazon made the Kindle available on Tuesday. From the technical and use perspectives, it’s intriguing. It looks as though Amazon has arrived at a good physical design: The feel is reported to be ideal, the electronic paper is easy on the eyes and, since the device is focused on only a handful of tasks, interaction seems simple and intuitive.

It’s interesting to note that on Nov 20, 2007, the Kindle had received 275 reviews as of 8:30AM. On Nov 21 at roughly the same time, the review count totaled 438. Given the launch happened this week, I am not sure how useful the reviews are. Even at both counts, the reviews average to 2.5 stars out of 5 with a 40% rating the device with one star and the remaining 60% being evenly distributed from 2 to 5 stars. Really, though, the reviews seem to be based on speculation (some outright wrong) or based on the Amazon provided documentation. But it is entertaining reading.

I have some mixed feelings about the thought of going to a completely digital format. I like the tangible. It’s perhaps an artificial comfort but one that I can’t deny. Also, the habits from years of pre-internet activities make the potential paradigm shift uncomfortable at best. This isn’t to say a digital world isn’t without its advantages but it is certainly a trade off.

In thinking about whether or not I would find a Kindle worth purchasing, I started to weigh the pros and cons of a tangible library, one with physical books, versus the Kindle-brary.

Populating the Library
In general, the process is simple for both systems but in terms of immediate gratification the Kindle is superior. Barring being in an area without any cell phone reception, you can acquire just about any book you want in 60 seconds using the Kindle. Populating the physical library is done either by on-line ordering – and at best a day delay before holding it in your hands – or by traveling to a local bookstore where the book may or may not be in stock. On the other hand, Amazon is the only retailer that the device connects to. So, if you want self-contained mobile access, you are limited to what they offer.

The Kindle can also work with other formats such as PDF and MOBI. You can move files from your computer to the Kindle via USB. So, you can work with content from other providers. You just need to be able to have access to a computer and, perhaps, the web.

There is still a satisfaction to be derived to walking the aisles of bookstore and flipping through what is there. You can’t get the same experience while on line. In fact, many people I know like to go to bookstores to get away from the on-line world.

Storing the Library
The Kindle again has the advantage. As those who have a healthy addiction to books can attest, finding a place to keep them is a serious challenge. The Kindle itself can store 200 books (in Kindle format at least) as well as accepts an SD card for further storage. Since you can connect Kindle to your computer, you have significantly more storage at your disposal.

Also, in addition to being the provider of content, Amazon will also store your purchased content automatically. This means that your entire Amazon-based library will be available to you from anywhere you have wireless access. This has appeal. If your device fails – or your permanent storage fails – you still have access to your content. This assumes that you get another Kindle.

Searching the Library
Finding a book using the Kindle is obviously more efficient than looking for a book on a shelf – or at least in the way I manage my books. Similarly, searching for an explicit term, phrase or quote is also more efficient than the manual method. However, I think there is something to be said for manual browsing. Sometimes I think I want a specific book but in the process of looking for it realize another is really more appropriate. Explicit searches give you explicit answers. You don’t get to take advantage of being human and modifying the search as you progress. To perform an explicit search requires me to believe I have an explicit need. That’s not usually the case. Sometimes my keywords are at best an approximation and explicit searches will only be somewhat useful.

Using the Library
Much like the Web, one of the biggest draws to the Kindle is having all the information within reach at all times. Every time I travel from home to the office or from the office to home, I spend a few minutes negotiating the items I want to carry (books, magazines/journals, hard copies of papers I am using in my research, student work in need of evaluation, change of clothes in the event I want to go to the gym, etc.) with the physical limitation of my bag. Inevitably, at least twice a week, I forget a key item.
Standard eBooks readable from any web-enabled machine is a reasonable mitigation for the home/office problem. But it doesn’t solve other travel problems (e.g., I want to meet a colleague for a research tête-a-tête). And, even at work, it would be nice to have a book’s content displayed somewhere other than the limited real-estate of my desktop.
Grade school students would benefit immensely from this lightweight container that enables them to carry all of their school necessities with minimal strain.

An interesting advantage to the Amazon-managed (or some other third party manager) is that errata could easily be corrected. Similar to subversion upgrades in software, as errors in the text are encountered, they could be corrected in the digital file and periodically updated on Amazon’s servers and in turn, the Kindle. For technical manuals – and more importantly school books – this feature would be invaluable.

Sharing/Pruning the Library
Here, the physical library wins. And wins big. If I want to share a book with someone I can physically lend it to them. There are no legal ramifications since there is still only one copy of the work. It appears that Kindle content is locked to a small number of devices. I couldn’t confirm the statement but it would make sense. A publisher is not going to want reproductions of their products being exchanged without some way to get a return on their investment.

I find this troubling. Aside from just positive experience of sharing a physical book with a friend or family member, there are times when I don’t need to own a book but need to sift through it for a day or two. Most often, these books are technical or reference manuals. I also borrow books to evaluate them for classes.
There also does not seem to be a way to transfer ownership. While I readily admit I horde books, there are books I eventually retire. I give them to a friend or donate them to a non-profit organization. Others may prefer to sell them. College students, for example, typically sell their text books to either the book store or other students. Using Kindle, this wouldn’t be possible.

Archiving the Library
Physical books will always be usable. We, humans, are the technology that consumes the format and we don’t evolve too quickly. One concern voiced about Kindle is that you may experience vendor lock-in. The real advantage to owning a Kindle is using Amazon’s services. As long as you remain an Amazon customer, your Kindle content will always be available to you. Next generation Kindles may see a change in the Kindle file format but since you are always able to sync your Kindle with your virtual library at Amazon, you will have access. I would hope that it is in Amazon’s plans to continuously evolve customer titles whenever possible and not force users to pay for an upgrade to equipment or content files.

In the long run, I would hope to see an open framework which enables vendors to provide different devices and content to be acquired from multiple sources. Amazon may still would only manage the Amazon-purchased content but third party storage might become a viable business.

An open platform would encourage competition which in turn leads to innovation. It would seem that it would be in their interest to enable third parties to create competing devices since the real money is in providing the content.

Intuition would suggest that the cost of a Kindle library would be less than the cost of a physical one. To get a feel of the difference, I selected a few random items for comparison I found

New hardcover: $16.79 Kindle format: $9.99
Exiting paperback: $11.16 Kindle format: $8.76
Java book: $45.00 Kindle format: $40.00

I know book prices reflect a great more than content and printing cost. I realize that wireless access and storage is the analog of the printing, warehousing and shipping but the overhead of getting the digital content to the reader as opposed to the physical equivalent has to be considerably less. Of course, the digital approach has barely been launched. Publisher’s income streams are still based on the traditional model – and they have books physically in print to manage – so we should expect it to take some time to see a difference.

By comparison, a quick survey of a few newspaper subscription services indicated that the costs are consistent for digital formats. For example, the NY Times ( offers to electronic versions of their paper for $14.99/month (about 50 cents per issue). (In terms of at-home delivery, this is a significant reduction in price. If you live in Pittsburgh, you can have the NY Times delivered to your door daily for $12.80 per week, or $55.45 per month.) Amazon offers the Kindle version for $13.99.

What could be
I don’t think physical books will ever disappear if for no other reason than reading physical books is one of the few things we can do that remove us from technology. Given that most of my day is spent working with one for of technology or other, I welcome the chance to disengage from technology altogether. I also like the comfort of being surrounded by books. I like browsing my shelves and the shelves at local bookstores. I like the smell of the libraries (usually). I know I am not the only one and because of that, books will be. There are other issues, too, such as books don’t require power or wireless access nor do they experience a software failure. I suppose they can have hardware failures like a failed binding but the book is still usable. More importantly is that the failure of one book doesn’t impact the failure of another.

One balance between the physical and virtual would be to offer both. This gives the advantage of both worlds. Currently Amazon offers Amazon Upgrade. In this program, for a fee, which looks to be about 15%, you have access to a digital version of the book as well. If this can be coupled with the Kindle, Amazon definitely has my attention. At this point, it’s hard to tell if that is the case.

The next step would be to offer upgrade pricing. As mentioned previously, errata updates would be useful. Technical manuals and text books also get versioned. For some text books this isn’t all that problematic (calculus is calculus). Other books that try to track a moving target, programming languages for example, necessarily evolve. While receiving a price break on the printed copy wouldn’t make sense, it would be nice to have an option to upgrade the digital version at a reduced rate if I had no interest in having the physical.

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