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Monday, December 10, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

In-depth review: can Amazon's Kindle light a fire under eBooks?


Other Alternative Content: Blogs, Audiobooks, and Other Documents

For a couple dollars a month, you can also subscribe to one of 310 different blogs. Some of these blog options make more sense than others. For example, one option is Slashdot, which is primarily valuable for its user comments, not its half dozen paragraph synopses posted every day. If you subscribe to it, you end up having to follow its links into the Kindle web browser to read either the originally linked story or the comments.

Other blogs have longer text entries that might make more sense to subscribe to, but the Kindle also allows you to directly access the web for free, so it seems hard to understand why you'd pay to subscribe to blogs unless the web browser version of a site just didn't work well on the Kindle browser. Reading blogs through the subscription service is nearly as slow as navigating the web. In fact, any time you venture outside of text-centric book reading, the limitations of the Kindle immediately begin to punch you in the face. As long as your primary use of the Kindle sticks to reading longer passages of text, the Kindle is rather friendly. Amazon's broad portfolio of books and periodicals is a good start to keep you happily occupied with reading.

It's also possible to manually copy over plain text files and unencrypted Mobipocket books, Audible audiobooks (formats 2, 3, and 4, which are the same are those sold in iTunes), and MP3s. Amazon also offers an automated email service for converting HTML or Word documents into the Kindle format, as well as for graphic files such as JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP. It will either mail them back to you for free to manually upload using your computer and the included USB cable, or wirelessly send them to the Kindle directly for a ten cent delivery fee.

A Decade of eBook Failure

Amazon's Kindle rollout suggests that the company just invented the ebook. In reality, the concept had already danced into the public consciousness several in the last decade. Each time, rivals dramatically fought over the stage and then walked out mid-performance after finding lackluster participation from the audience.

Back in 2000, the French Mobipocket introduced an ebook format and subsequently rolled out Mobipocket Reader software for a wide number of handheld PDAs including Palm, Pocket PC/Windows Mobile, and a various other smartphones.

The same year, Microsoft introduced Microsoft Reader for its WinCE-based Pocket PC, and later followed with support for Windows tablet PCs and UMPC devices. Like its other efforts, it was centered around tying an emerging industry to Windows; it introduced a new proprietary ebook format, loosely based on Microsoft's HTML Help format.

In contrast to the DRM efforts to sell ebooks commercially, Project Gutenberg began working to release plain text versions of the world's books. The group's efforts accelerated after setting up a non-profit organization in 2000, and it has collected and published over 22,000 ebooks to date. However, Project Gutenberg formats its texts using a hard returns to wrap text every 65-70 characters, rather than letting it flow an be resized by the reader. That nearly ensures that its ebooks won't look good on any handheld ebook reader, and won't support alternative text sizes very well.

By 2005, Microsoft had lost its interest in the ebook business after it became clear there was no easy money in selling them, and that there was no credible demand for WinCE-based, LCD devices as ebook readers. Mobipocket had also found tepid interest in commercial ebooks, but it worked to stoke interest by offering free downloads of public domain books. Unlike Project Gutenberg, Mobipockt's format allows text to flow and be resized.

Amazon bought Mobipocket in 2005. Although it never began selling Mobipocket books through its online store, it did brand Mobipocket's website with the Amazon logo and continued the practice of offering free reader software for Windows, Palm, Windows Mobile, Nokia and UIQ Symbian phones, Blackberry, and other hardware. It does not provide any Mac support however.

After the first wave of ebooks crashed, Sony floated a new ebook reader in the Japanese market called the LIBRIé in 2004. It followed up with the 2006 introduction of the Sony Reader for the US market. The Reader lacks the keyboard of the original Japanese version, so there's no support for adding notes. Like other Sony hardware, it was tied to the Windows-only Sony Connect store for content, which was oriented around Sony's own BBeB proprietary format. As was the case with Sony's ATRAC audio players, those factors helped to assure that the Reader would never take off.

Earlier this year, the officious sounding International Digital Publishing Forum announced a new ebook standard called epub, which included support for PDF. The IDPF had a single employee and a single gold sponsor: Adobe. Following the announcement, Nick Bogarty, IDPF's sole employee, went to work for Adobe, which now markets epub support in InDesign and other Adobe products.

Because most PDFs are formatted for a letter sized document, they often aren't readily readable on an ebook device with a 6" monochrome E Ink display that can't support real time zoom. PDF is also a presentation format, not a content-oriented format, so increasing the text size within the page isn't among its strengths either.

Amazon Kindle vs Amazon Mobipocket

That history leaves the Kindle facing little effective competition in hardware and free from having to fight against a dominant rival offering a strong and entrenched ebook format. Combined with Amazon's popular online book business, it appears that the Kindle is the only viable option for mainstream US buyers who want to read commercial ebooks.

It is also interesting that the Kindle wasn't integrated into Amazon's Mobipocket business. Did Amazon think it might be too complex to market its own hardware while also servicing reader software for other platforms, or did it just want to syphon attention away from alternative readers to focus on Kindle? Either way, the situation looks a lot like Microsoft's rival and intentionally incompatible ventures with PlaysForSure and Zune DRM, except that Amazon has no dominant ebook rival like iTunes to battle against.

To clarify: Amazon's Kindle can't use Amazon's Mobipocket DRM books, and Amazon's Mobipocket Player software can't play the new Kindle DRM books. Amazon also does not offer any reader software that allows Kindle books to be used with any other devices, including a PC.

Amazon doesn't seem to make much mention of it, but despite the odd chasm between Mobipocket and Kindle DRM, there are 10,000 free English Mobipocket, public domain, DRM-free books that do work fine on the Kindle. I downloaded James Fenimore's "The Last of the Mohicans: a Narrative of 1757" from Mobipocket and had no problems copying the file to the unit and reading it in various text sizes. Project Gutenberg books I tested technically work, but the formatting is terrible at any text size because of the fixed line length.

Amazon's existing, commercial Mobipocket ebook offerings are commonly priced significantly higher than its new Kindle ebooks. The same Cocoa book noted earlier at $31.50 at Amazon and $30 on Kindle is a full $49.99 for the Mobipocket version. One reason Amazon introduced a new format for the Kindle might likely relate to distribution contracts and Amazon's desire to offer Kindle books at a more attractive price than earlier ebook ventures and their publisher agreements accommodated.

Kindle eBook Content Management vs Sony Reader, iTunes

Despite its cheaper looking hardware, the Kindle functionally matches the technology of Sony's competing Reader and raises the stakes with an integrated wireless distribution service tied to a larger and easier to use library of commercial ebooks.

Sony requires Windows-only Connect software to download content to the Reader. It uses Sony's own BBeB DRM format for ebooks, but also directly supports text, RTF, and PDF documents on the Reader, and includes a converter to save Word documents as RTF. It also directly supports standard graphic formats and plays both MP3 and AAC audio, but has no support for Audible audiobook DRM like the Kindle. Sony's Connect store also offers 20 blog RSS feeds, but lacks the ability to update feeds directly.

Rather than offering desktop software to manage the Kindle comparable to Sony's Connect or Apple's iTunes, Amazon has tied the Kindle to its online service in a way that doesn't require the user to even own a PC. This is an interesting strategy, and makes sense for Amazon because its user base already has online accounts with the company. Rather than interacting with desktop software, the Kindle acts as a wireless thin client to Amazon's web store, similar to the new WiFi iTunes Store on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Among other things, this frees Amazon from having to develop client side software of any kind. That explains why it offers an email conversion service rather than a conversion utility, and also allows Amazon to support users of any operating system: Mac, Linux, or even users without a PC.

The Kindle's Whispernet service makes ordering new content easy, and delivers fresh content fast. Amazon links and archives everything you purchase against your Amazon account, so even if you delete ebooks from your device, you can download them again from Amazon. That's more convenient than iTunes, which only allows you to download purchased content again if you call in and plead a hard luck story.

The underlying reason for the difference is that Amazon's $10 digital books are around 1MB or less, making them about a third the size of iTunes' 99 cent songs, or roughly 1/300 the size of iTunes' $2 TV half hour episodes, or a thousandth the size of a $10 hour long iTunes movie download. Amazon doesn't have to deliver nearly as much data as Apple every time users want to download their entire purchased library over again. From that perspective, Amazon's ebook content is small enough to not require a more sophisticated desktop application.

Kindle vs the iPhone or iPod Touch as a Document Reader

Apple hasn't signaled any intention of entering the ebook market, although it does sell audiobooks in iTunes. It has the ability to sell PDFs from the iTunes Store, but currently isn't selling any outside of offering free digital booklets with certain album downloads, distributing PDFs alongside other content in iTunes U, or within its iTunes Apple Developer Connection. There's certainly no technical barrier that prevents Apple from flipping a switch and offering a library of digital books.

Unlike typical ebook readers using E Ink displays, the LCD display of Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch can zoom in and out of documents, skirting the limitations of PDF or heavily formatted Word documents that commonly confound Kindle and the Sony Reader. The iPhone can also handle other documents, from Excel files to full color graphics and fluid video.

While the iPhone's display is significantly smaller—about half the visual area of the Kindle and roughly a quarter the resolution (320x480 vs. 600x800)—it's just as sharp (160 pixels per inch vs the Kindle's 167 ppi), it's backlit for reading in the dark, it's full color, and most importantly it has no slow refresh cycle. The downside is that the iPhone doesn't last nearly as long on a charge, particularly if you're actively using it to read documents or browse the web.

Despite the larger screen size and resolution of the Kindle, both show about the same amount of content, even when the iPhone is zoomed in for reading text and the Kindle is set at its smallest text size to show the most content possible (below). The Kindle can only show a small set view of the page, while the iPhone can zoom out to see the entire page overall.

Amazon Kindle


Few people will find themselves trying to decide between the Kindle and the iPhone, because they are very different products. However, many will ask themselves whether the Kindle's E Ink advantage of reading for a week without power makes it worth considering on top of their existing mobile phone or media player. At $400, the Kindle is a significant investment in reading, and the small discount offered on many Kindle digital books certainly doesn't outweigh the upfront cost of the unit. The Kindle is a premium service compared to buying paper books, but does end up being a bit cheaper than most other ebook offerings.

For readers who consume books and want to sample from a fair selection of regular new content, the Kindle is a great match. For users who want to occasionally take digital copies documents with them but get most of their information from online sources, the Kindle is far behind the iPhone or iPod Touch, which make it so much faster to navigate between and within documents that the speed advantage of the Kindle's 3G EVDO is easily wiped away by the half as fast EDGE or embarrassed by the far faster WiFi when a hotspot is available.

Of course, the other key feature of the Kindle is its walled garden of content. While you can read online newspapers and other content on the iPhone via Safari at no additional fee over your existing mobile data plan, you can't currently download ebooks and magazines apart from ebooks offered in plain text or PDF. That won't change until Apple either wades into the ebook market in iTunes, third party developers offer Mobipocket or Kindle DRM for the iPhone, or Amazon opens its Kindle format up for other devices. If Amazon can sell its Kindle hardware profitably, the latter is unlikely to happen.

On page 4 of 5: Audible DRM Support; Kindle MP3 Playback; Amazon vs Open Formats; Kindle Readability; A Real Page Turner; and The Kindle's Experimental Periphery: iPhone Territory.