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Rebuttal to Amazon Kindle Critics

I started writing this as a comment to a post on Greg Smith’s blog, and it got kind of long, so it became its own post here. Disclaimer: I don’t own and haven’t touched an Amazon Kindle connected ebook reader, but I want one badly, and I’m going to buy one as soon as I save up my pennies. Oh, and that’s an affiliate link, so if you want to help me get closer to buying one of my own, buy a Kindle (or some books, or anything from Amazon) after clicking that link! 😉

There have been lots of blog posts written complaining about how Amazon will nickel and dime you to death after you buy a Kindle. You have to pay for books. You have to pay for blogs. You have to pay for newspapers. One thing that people often miss is that you don’t HAVE to use the for pay subscription services. They’re a convenience, and (I agree with Greg in his post) mostly a rip off. Let’s look at those nickels and dimes more closely.

It doesn’t go widely advertised (I think they’d sell a lot more if they promoted this feature), but there’s a web browser built into the device, so you can use it to read websites or RSS feeds directly (Google Reader Mobile is PERFECT for this. I use the iPhone version dozens of times a day). You don’t have to pay to read blogs and newspapers (in fact, I’ll go so far as to say you’re rich and/or foolish if you do). You can look things up in Wikipedia (which makes the Kindle a magical physical manifestation of Wikipedia as a book). You can use it for whatever else you want to do on the web (tip: use Google’s Mobile products to pre-format web pages for the smaller screen). And all at no charge. You’d pay $20/month for unlimited (and slower) data access on an iPhone. $40/month on most PDA phones. And $60/month for a cellular modem card and unlimited data for your laptop. In that perspective, Kindle becomes a LOT more valuable.

“But,” they say, “you have to pay for books.” Of course you do. Unless you use the library exclusively, or know of some magical goose that lays books, you’re already paying for books. At least on the Kindle, they’re cheap. About $10 for a bestseller. Older or public domain books are cheaper – only a buck or two (see below for how to read public domain books, or any other text you already have for free on the Kindle). Amazon has said that they’ll keep Kindle editions of books cheaper, because you can’t share them (more on this in a second), and you can’t resell them.

“But,” they say, “Amazon charges you $0.10 to convert a public domain book, PDF, Word Doc, or anything else into the Kindle format.” Not exactly. They offer the ability to email a PDF or other document (or image) you already own to a special email address that will convert it to Kindle’s format, and send it to your Kindle wirelessly. BUT they also offer a FREE service that does the conversion and just returns the converted file to you via email. Then you can stick the file on your Kindle via USB or the SD card. You don’t have to pay to put content on a Kindle. You only pay if you want the convenience of automatic delivery. And come on – it’s only $0.10.

“But,” they say, “you can’t share books with anyone! It’s draconian DRM!” Again, not true. Amazon says you can share books with up to 5 other Kindle accounts. Yeah, it’s DRM, but it imposes the exact same sharing restrictions as Apple’s iTunes Music Store (you can “authorize” up to 5 computers to play songs purchased from your account). Does DRM suck? Yes. Do we want to get rid of it? Yes. Is it more or less evil than iTunes, probably the most used DRM system in the world? It’s the same. Is there hope for the future? Of course there is. iTunes never would have gotten music companies to agree to sell their music without DRM. Now, a few years into it, some of them are starting to relax a little, and offer DRM-free versions of their songs. And Amazon itself just launched the DRM-free Amazon MP3 Store (which I use to buy my music, when it’s available there). Call me a naive optimist, but I have good reason to believe that ebook DRM is going to relax in the future. But we have to start somewhere, just like music.

Besides the web browser, another feature that gets overlooked a lot (both by Amazon and the press) is the fact that the Kindle can play MP3s and Audible audiobooks. Load up an SD card with podcasts, music, and audiobooks, and you’re off. A 4GB SD card will cost you maybe 20 bucks. The MP3s only play in “shuffle” mode (a shame, and something I hope they fix via software updates), but that’s how I listen to music anyway, and I could live with it for podcasts. What would be REALLY cool is the ability to subscribe to and automatically download podcasts via the included Whispernet EVDO service. That would be one step closer to the self-contained podcatcher that Dave Winer and many others dream of. It’s not going to replace your iPod, sure, but it’s a nice feature you get that they could have easily left out.

So, instead of worrying about being nickel and dimed to death by Amazon, and declaring Kindle dead on arrival, think of it this way. For $399, you get a device with a state of the art eInk screen, that fits in your pocket, which you can load to the gills with just about any content (including reasonably priced DRM’ed-but-shareable ebooks) with a minimum of effort (certainly as easy or easier than other comparable devices), that comes with a lifetime of free high speed EVDO cellular wireless, which you can use to read anything on the web, your RSS feeds, etc. And it’s an MP3 player. And it’s only going to get better, via software updates.

It’s kind of like a crude, 21st century version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy travel guide when you look at it that way. And that’s exactly why I want one so badly.

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18 thoughts on “Rebuttal to Amazon Kindle Critics

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  3. Good arguments Josh. I haven’t used the Kindle, but it sounds like a cool device if you like to read books electronically. I prefer the old fashioned books, but the free EVDO is very compelling. You could look at the Kindle as a web browser with free wireless.

  4. All very good points, and exactly the reasoning I went through before I bit the bullet and plunked down my credit card (too bad it won’t get here for a MONTH!!!)

    My only concern is that free lifetime EVDO access to the web. It’s just too good to be true, and Amazon itself states in the kindle faq that the experimental web stuff is “currently free.” Currently. Meaning it could be a subscription thing in the future, which I think it WILL be if enough people catch onto it and start using too much of Sprint’s bandwidth.

  5. @Matt – I know! They’re so backordered know that I could order one tonight, and not get it until after Christmas (a month away). Bummer. I hope they get more supply soon. As soon as I scrape together the funds (my gadget account is pretty bare), I’m going to want one as soon as possible!

    They may try charging for the EVDO access in the future, but if they do, it won’t be much, or they’d lose too many customers (I think that the data plans from cell carriers are way overpriced anyway). And I guess they COULD disable/neuter the web browser, but again, there’d be backlash. I hope they don’t get that greedy.

  6. Hitchhiker’s Guide! Exactly.

    One reviewer called part of the user agreement “infuriatingly vague” about if and when they’ll charge for Web access, and how much. I wouldn’t count on it being free forever.

    I’m not sure I’d pay extra to read RSS feeds on the Kindle either, but if you want to read a blog and you’re not at your computer, or there’s no WiFi, you would have that option. I can see the appeal of being able to just whip out your Kindle, see what your favorite blogger has said in the last 5 minutes, and then go back to whatever you were doing. It’s a convenience. If people want to pay a little extra for that, I don’t see a problem with offering it.

    I’m with you on the DRM. It sucks, but how else was Bezos supposed to get publishers on board? He wants it to be the iPod of books, not the Napster of books.

  7. I really admire Amazon for putting out the Kindle. It’s a great piece of technology and if anyone is going to get the business model right, it’s Amazon. That being said, I know that it is not (currently) the device for me. I’m a paper book and audiobook kind of guy and I already have an iPod and iPhone for the audiobooks (nevermind the ability of the iPhone to read DRM-free eBooks, if I ever get the urge.) I also have a few concerns about the current state of the Kindle:

    * All of the really cool stuff, like the web browser, is under the “experimental” menu. That term worries me, as it implies that it’s can disappear at any time–for instance if Amazon sees that subsidizing the free EVDO becomes cost-prohibitive when people use web-based RSS readers instead of paying for the blog subscriptions.

    * Going hand-in-hand with the above point is the question of firmware updates. If they start removing features from the experimental menu, do they force a firmware update over the air at you, or do you get to choose whether to install it?

    * The DRM is a pretty annoying, in my opinion. I can take a book off my shelf and loan/give it to a friend. I can sell it back to Powells if I feel I no longer want it. The Kindle DRM sounds more like the iTunes authorization scheme, where if I wanted to “loan” someone a DRMed file, I’d have to log in at their computer/Kindle to authorize it (possibly deauthorizing their existing authorization in the process, preventing them from accessing their own files?) and then hope they remember to deauthorize my account when they’re done with the book to free up that slot of the 5.

    * I don’t see this as a good open hacking platform. Anyone can tell you (especially after the iPhone) that having an open(ish) platform fosters a good ecosystem of creativity and synergy and helps to boost a product. Apple locked down the iPhone because they’re anal retentive about the user experience, but they’re not really losing money if you install 3rd party apps because you’re paying for your own service data. Amazon has strong financial reasons to lock down the Kindle, as they’re paying for the connectivity, and I’d say that more often than not a 3rd party Kindle app will want to use that network connection (downloading media, instant messaging, etc.) I realize that it is still a bit early to know what sort of hardware/software/firmware hacking will develop around the Kindle, but the hardware specs are a little underwhelming, which will limit the scope of what applications can do.

    So those are my thoughts/counterpoints on the subject. It’s still pretty early to conclusively say anything. I honestly wish Amazon the best of luck on the Kindle, but as I said, it is just not the device for me.

  8. My girlfriend and I are both frequent travelers and read a lot. We’ve used a Sony Reader for quite a while and were very excited about the Kindle. We’ve had it for a few days and really love it.

    The arguments we’ve been seeing online seem to miss the point, probably because they’re tech pundits who don’t read long novels too often. It’s really about the consumer experience for people who like to read. People who say that they can read books on their iPhones have obviously never experienced electronic ink. People who want PDF support should check out what happens on the Sony Reader when you try to put a letter-sized PDF onto a paperback sized screen. In any case, the PDF-conversion on the Kindle is actually perfectly acceptable for simple documents and I’m sure it will get better in the future.

    Basically, we have very similar sentiments to you.

    You can read our full retort here:
    http://lifetinker.com/?p=25

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  10. Excellent information! I LOVE my Kindle, which arrived a couple of weeks ago. I’ve felt reluctant to explore the web browser, partly because I felt a weird responsibility not to abuse the free wireless connection–doing my small part to keep it free longer, I suppose. But the other factor is that I love the Kindle because it’s NOT my computer. It’s easy to pretend it’s a book, because of the size and feel, and even the almost-leathery holder. I curl up with it. This puts my mind in a different place than where it is when I’m leaning toward the screen of my MacBook Pro. So I’m pretending that all the Reader can do is bring me books and the occasional 75-cent copy of Le Monde, so I can practice my French.

    It’s good to know there’s a whole other world on my Kindle through RSS feeds, and when I set up my Google Reader on it, there will be no turning back. If I curl up with Google Reader in my comfortable chair, I might never uncurl!

    I posted other ruminations about my early experience with the Kindle here: http://lenedgerlydotcom.blogspot.com/2007/12/re-kindling-love.html

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  13. Josh – well, normally I’d jump on here with a lengthy comment of my own, but I’ll just say I loved the line “Unless you use the library exclusively, or –> know of some magical goose that lays books <–, you’re already paying for books.”

    That’s simply priceless. Maybe the goose is Jeff’s next big product? 😉

    For me, I’m very happy that the Kindle is sold out for now, so I can just avoid buying it, as I hate buying something that expensive and waiting for who knows how long. That, and we’ll see what Apple unveils in January. Anyone want a largely unused Newton 2000, BTW? Sitting here on my desk, all charged up and ready for YOU!

  14. http://lbook.com.ua/en/ is cooler IMHO. There are no CDMA block, just SD-reader slot, Linux inside and it can work for 3 (!!) weeks or 1000-2000 pages.

    it’s not an advertisement, just sharing thoughts.

    but a bad thing in LBook – it is China-produced device with china quality and china software inside (although there are some open software for this e-reader is building now)

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