The Kindle is NOT a Closed System

I want to address one of the biggest bits of spurious push back I see on the Amazon Kindle. I see people over and over saying they don’t want one because it is a “closed system.” This is not the truth and I’ll get to that after a little prelude.

I’ve had mine for about seven months now and really enjoy it. It’s worked in to being a reasonable part of my daily life. About 80% of the non-comic book pleasure reading I’ve done in the last six months has been on this Kindle. When I do cardio at the gym I take it. When I need to be able to use Twitter or the the web in a mobile situation, I take it. When I shop the cheapo comic bins at a comic convention and need easy access to my collection inventory, I take it. This started as a luxury splurge for me, but it has become a daily tool of my life.

The counter argument I see over and over, in blog posts, in Facebook or FriendFeed comments when someone talks about the Kindle is something of the form: “I don’t want one because it is closed. I don’t want to have to buy all my books from Amazon.” I’ll give folks credit for not deliberately telling falsehoods, but that type of statement is not factual. You aren’t required to buy all your books from Amazon. You can put arbitrary documents on there from a variety of sources. I certainly do, and I’d imagine that practically every person that owns a Kindle has something on there that they didn’t purchase from Amazon.

I justified my Kindle purchase because in preparing for Reality Break interviews I get electronic copies of books. Sometimes these are prerelease manuscripts the author sends me, or electronic copies of a released book or in the case of Baen Books sometimes it is just temporary access to their Webscription catalog. Regardless of the path, I get ebook versions of a book I need to read to conduct an interview. Previously this required either reading on my laptop or printing out the book. I went to Dragon*Con 2008 with a giant stack of loose page printouts of books from Mur Lafferty and Tobias Buckell. It was a huge drag trying to read these things while standing in line or sitting in a restaurant with pages spilling everywhere. At that con, I thought “This would be so much easier with a Kindle.” Before the next year’s con, I did in fact own a Kindle.

In my seven months as a Kindle user, I have purchased exactly five books from Amazon for it: Gus Hansen’s Every Hand Revealed, Anthony Artis’ The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide, Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends And Followers , Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe and Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. In each case, the purchase process was simple and downright pleasant. I bought most of those from the regular Amazon web page but the Artis book I made a point of buying it from the Kindle itself as an experiment. Both ways of purchasing were equally easy and without issue.

I’ve paid Amazon around $60 (not all of these were the $9.99 price). However, I have hundreds of books on my Kindle. How did I get them? The first day after I bought it, I downloaded my entire library from Fictionwise and transferred it to the device. Because with Fictionwise you can choose a preferred format of books, I changed mine to MOBI and in 5 minutes had every book, short story and magazine that I had ever purchased with Fictionwise on my Kindle, in native format at that. Very sweet and easy.

It doesn’t stop there. I did an experiment where I took the first page of my recommendation list from the newly revived AlexLit site (I’ve had an account on there for 12 years!) and for every book that is in the public domain, I went and downloaded it from Project Gutenberg. That put another few dozen books on there, all for no cost and without any intervention from Amazon. I put them on via USB so I’m not paying the $0.10 per document to have them transferred. Even if I had transferred them at a dime apiece, that would have been $2.50 or so.

Add to this, I keep on my Kindle two text files related to my comic book collection. I take the data dump of my collection and my wishlist from ComicBookDB, run them through a formatting program and put the resulting text file on my Kindle. At Heroes Con, Dragon*Con and XCon, when I dug through the 3/$1 bins I had my electronic wishlist at the ready. If I wasn’t sure whether I had a specific issue, I’d switch over to my collection inventory to double check. It has a geeky irony to be using an ebook reader to handle my purchasing of paper comic books but it works out well.

These are just a couple of sources of books that one can use to get books for Kindle without paying Amazon. There is no definition of a “closed system” that this fits. One can argue that if such a proportion of my reading is non-Amazon why didn’t I get a different device? Fair enough question. In my case, I fiddled with a Sony Reader and just didn’t like it that much. I considered waiting for some cheaper Korean knockoffs but if my cheapo MP3 players are any indication, the spec sheets will tell one story while the actually usability is a whole different thing. I like the wireless access and I use it a little, for mobile tweeting and yelping and the like. It’s not good enough to do that iPhone/Blackberry thing of ignoring everyone else at the table but it is good enough to use Twitter to find parties at a SF convention. That’s good enough for me. It might be enough for you too. I’m not asking people to love the Kindle – everyone makes this decision for themselves. I am asking people to use valid and factual arguments when making the case for or against the device.

And while I’m on it, let me point to a dishonorable mention in Kindle criticism, here is a piece at Suvudu by Joe Schreiber, which includes this risible line:

If you own a Sony Reader or a Kindle, and you are able to use this amazing device to read hundreds of pages while its soft blue glow exhales into your eyes, well, big ups. I’m very glad for you.

That’s a clear indicator that Joe has determined these devices won’t work for him without ever actually being in the room with one. They don’t glow. That’s kind of the whole point of e-ink, my friend. It doesn’t glow, is opaque and easier on the eyes. It’s why we pay a premium for black and white e-ink devices when LCD are easy and cheap – it uses less power and is easier on the eyes for long haul reading. It’s OK to not like the device, but you should criticize it on aspects it actually has.

Update: I forgot a few other sources of books on my Kindle, all non-Amazon. I purchased the amazing King Dog by Ursula K. Le Guin from Book View Cafe, which is another up and coming source of electronic texts. I also purchased The Definitive ANTLR Reference from Pragmatic Programmers, which was more than a standard Kindle book at $24 but also cheaper than the paper version and allows me to download in MOBI, PDF or ePub but also tells me when the book has been updated so I can get an updated copy. That’s using the low friction distribution to good effect there.