Update: I think it's important to tell you I bought a Kindle roughly five months after I wrote this article. So, after reading this, you may also want to read why I've joined the Kindle Krowd!

July 31, 2010

Amazon just announced a drastic cut in the price of its low-end Kindle, following hard on the heels of a similar drop in price of Barnes and Noble's reader Nook. You can now get a wi-fi only version of the Kindle for $139.

My wife certainly loves her Kindle, and I must admit the new price is low enough that I almost made an impulse buy. But after some thought, I decided against it - I still see some significant, fundamental issues with the Kindle and e-readers in general.

The first issue is philosophical: My general disdain for unitask devices. Retailers seem to love the profits they can glean from electronic unitaskers such as the PDA, Kindle, or Roku box. But nowadays how many different items does a person want to carry around (or hook up to his television)? Multitaskers are the future - heck, even my five-year-old cell phone includes basic PDA functionality and a simple point-and-shoot camera. However multitaskers are almost always more expensive, plus they often require some level of compromise regarding any given task. The Kindle's e-ink display, for example, is certainly superior for reading when compared to, say, the iPad's screen. So for the right price, I could see myself using a dedicated e-reader - if it does its job well enough.

But there are functional issues with current e-readers as well, mostly related to the retailers' attempts to keep manufacturing costs low. That same evening Amazon announced the new Kindle, I picked up my wife's Kindle and read for a while. The e-ink display is nice, no doubt about it... but the button-driven interface is annoying. Part of the problem is I've owned an iPod Touch for several years, plus my daughter has an iPad - so I've seen how a well-designed user interface can work. It's much more convenient and intuitive to turn pages with your finger, since that's what we're used to with paper books.

The biggest problem with e-readers, though, is with their Digital Rights Management (DRM) implementations. Want to share a book with a fellow Kindle owner? You can't, unless that person's Kindle is registered under your account rather than their own. Want to buy an e-book for a friend? Sorry, it's just not possible. The best you can do is buy a gift card for that individual and tell them what book they should purchase for themselves.

I am philisophically against DRM; but if the retailers are going to insist on using it, they at least need to keep it from getting in a person's way. Apple actually did a decent job with this on their iTunes Music Store (ITMS) back before they removed DRM completely. You could authorize friends and family members to listen to your music. You could even let them keep a copy of your music on their computer or iPod - all you had to do was authorize their computer one time, and from then on your friend didn't have to worry about it at all.

And, if you want to buy a friend a specific song or music album - no problem! Just log in to the ITMS and "gift" it to them.

So what can Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the other e-book sellers do to address these issues?

I'm not sure the hardware functionality shortcomings are addressible in the short term; it's a matter of cost. For single-task devices, it just doesn't make sense to put a touch-sensitive panel on top of the e-ink display - it might double the price. So I think a button-driven interface is the reality for these devices for at least the next several years. Sony sort of gets it, but their inexplicable decision to require a stylus for most actions cuts into what appeal their "Reader Touch Edition" has for me (not to mention Sony's historical status as the poster child for stupid DRM-driven decion-making).

The DRM issues, though, are easy to fix if they have the will. The bare minimum that Amazon and other e-book retailers should do is follow the old iTunes model - make it easy for users to share their purchased e-books with designated friends. This isn't perfect - paper books can be lent to any of your friends, not just some arbitrary sub-group - but it's at least a starting point. It's true that Barnes and Noble has taken some baby steps in this direction, since Nook users can "lend" their e-books to another person for two weeks; but heck, I've borrowed books from friends and not managed to finish them for several months. With a Nook I'd have to ask that person to re-lend an e-book to me multiple times if I wanted to read the whole thing.

If Apple comes up with a smaller, cheaper version of its iPad (perhaps with a 6-inch screen like the Kindle), all bets are off. Apple's already shown it has the know-how and the will to dominate a market, if it so chooses. And while e-ink is superior to an LCD screen, many of us already read off LCD screens for hours at a time without issue. I have no doubt that the recent dramatic price cuts from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Sony are mostly in response to the release of the iPad. Much as I like Apple, though, I'd prefer they don't come to dominate the e-reader landscape to the same degree they already own the portable music market. The electronic book revolution is unstoppable, whatever the publishers may hope for privately - and a vibrant, competitive market is always in our best interest as consumers.

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This page was last updated November 18, 2013