More Kindle Stuff

I’m aware that most of what little I’ve blogged in calendar year 2010 is Kindle related. What can I say? It’s what I’ve been most interested in lately, which corresponds with me also not having a whole lot to say on much else. C’est la blog.

I got some nice traction on my Spanish to English dictionary, getting links from Teleread, Kindle World as well as assorted fora and other places.There appears to have been a few people with technical glitches but that were able to get them sorted out. I assumed correctly that a reasonable chunk of the feedback would be “Can you do another version for Language X to Language Y”. The answer there is “No”, as the only other language I care about at this moment is Spanish. What I did was not rocket science and anyone with minimal scripting and Google skills could easily duplicate the efforts in other languages if they desired.

I also got some traction in my head to head comparison between the Kindle and the Nook. I still am wiling to love future versions of the Nook, particularly the screen contrast. The hardware is quite nice and if they ever fix the lagginess of the UI and the weird counterintuitive menuing system, it has a whole lot of potential.

I personally am excited about the upcoming release of a Kindle Development Kit that allows for putting apps on there. I and a lot of my kindred spirits had two immediate thoughts on hearing this news: 1) I’m not sure this is a good idea because the strength of the Kindle is that you don’t have much going on but reading books and 2) I’m signing up to join the developer program anyway. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of ideas that would use little or no bandwidth and would also play into the strengths of the Kindle. These fall into two classes: apps that one might want to spend a lot of time immersed with that don’t require huge amounts of screen refreshing and plugins that extend the existing functionality of the device. If one is allowed to do things like add extra menu options such that you can leave a GoodReads or LibraryThing review from inside a book, for example, that could be a hot bit of functionality to extend the device. I’m looking forward to seeing the KDK once it is available.

I’m an AAPL shareholder who has done awfully well with my stock, and as such I love whenever people get excited about mythical upcoming products. However, I’m completely sick of iTablet speculation and will consider it a sweet relief tomorrow when whatever announcement is finally made. I think most of the “Kindle killer” talk is by gadget headed techno-insiders who consistently fail to understand how ordinary consumers actually use devices. Like I said above, I think the affordance of the Kindle actually make it better for reading than an iTablet will be. When I sit down on the couch with the Kindle, books are not competing with videos, email, Skype or the panoply of distractions offered by your average online laptop. I’m looking for less distraction in my life and more time with words, and I think that key bit is beneath the notice of tech pundits who evaluate from every angle except for how a non-early adopter might actually incorporate this stuff in their lives.

This is a random half-baked thought that I’ve been wanting to blog about but am still ruminating over, so I’ll stick it on the bottom of this post like a tail that isn’t quite pinned on the donkey. With the coming of Kindle apps, the possibility of Nook apps, and the very real present of much money moving through the iTunes App store it occurs to me that in a large part these devices – an object with an account/open wallet attached to them – is a working manifestation of the dream of micropayments. Even though BitPass and other parts of the Scott McCloud-ian vision never worked or came to fruition, in their own way these apps represent a way micropayments can actually work. As I think about what things I could develop for Kindle apps, it’s never far out of my head how to tap into that. Assuming developers are given a way to invoke additional purchases from in app it could be very direct, but even having an app on a subscription is still a form of that. I have no walloping insight on this, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Kindle Vs Nook: My Experience

Nook and Kindle

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

I am blogging this from a Barnes and Noble cafe (specifically, the one at Market Commons in Myrtle Beach.) I meant to come in and do a final head to head comparison between my Kindle 2 and the new B&N Nook. I have previously done tests where I set the two of them side by side and done the same operations to get as close to a controlled test as possible. I can’t do that today because at the customer service desk where the Nook has been, there is now an empty anti-theft cable dangling. I’ll do what I can without the refresher. (Update: They put it back, and I did do another few minutes of fiddling and took this photo with my camera phone. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t show the screen differences well.)

As ground rules, because this kind of post is always a lightning rod for haters: I took the time to gather data and am posting dispassionately my first-hand experiences with both devices. Any comments of the form of “Device X sucks, you are stupid” will be summarily deleted. I brought data and science to the table, knee-jerk comments without them are valueless. I am very far from an Kindle fanboy and advocate. I did this comparison because one day my Kindle will die and if the Nook impresses me it could well be the next device. I did not approach this with a foregone conclusion and then gathered data to support my prejudice. My experience thus far is that talking to the very few Nook fans is a lot like arguing theology with a Branch Davidian. It doesn’t matter how much sense you make, the conversation is going the same way every time. Nook fans, rise up and be reasonable please. You have a stereotype to overcome, with me at least.

Now the results: When I first did this a week ago, every single operation on the Nook was slower. The opening of a book was very slow on the Nook (15-30 seconds), compared to less than a second on the Kindle. Turning pages in an already open book was slower on the Nook. I’d hit the button on both simultaneously, and the Kindle page would have been finished refreshing before the Nook started. Interestingly on the Nook, paging backwards was faster than paging forward. Both operations were slower than on the Kindle, but compared to itself, the Nook can page backwards more quickly.

Changing fonts between the two is radically different. In the Nook’s favor, it allows the choice of different fonts where on the Kindle there is no choice. In the downside, because of the increased complexity of the menuing and the very long refresh time of the book itself when you do change fonts, it is between 20 and 40 seconds between deciding to change fonts on the Nook and looking at the changed fonts. This is the same whether changing the font itself or just the size. On the Kindle 2, there is a dedicated button for the font menu. One can hit the button, use the 5-way controller to select a new font size, select it and looked at the refreshed page in about a second, two if slow. With the 2.3 software update, you can do the same for changing between portrait and landscape modes. I just timed myself and that was about 3 seconds total, which includes having to navigate a few rows down on the menu.

I’ll have to say that I find the menuing and the controls on the Nook pretty unsatisfying and significantly harder to use. The Nook is trying for a dive with a higher degree of difficulty here, it is true. However they aren’t executing on it. I found the touch screen very difficult to select the correct thing consistently, the swiping of the book covers to not work very well, and the menu structure organization to be convoluted. In March 2009 when I took my Kindle out of the box, it took maybe a minute to figure out every common operation and bit of navigation. I’ve spent half an hour over several trips fiddling with the Nook and still am not always certain where I should be navigating to. It completely perplexes me when at any list screen, such as the library management page (equivalent to the Kindle’s “Home” screen”) that one can only move up and down the list from the touch screen. The page up and down controls do nothing in that case. You are looking in one spot but the controls require you to manipulate from a different spot, one on a touch screen with a target narrow enough that me with my fat fingers must pay attention to exactly where I’m trying to click. It is not a good experience.

It felt this way from isolated tests, but setting the two devices makes it clear that the Nook has better contrast on the screen. The “print” is darker and the background is lighter. That is the one aspect that I think is clearly in its favor. The devices are of very similar weight and dimensions. The Nook is slightly shorter, and barely thicker. I think for most real users, you wouldn’t notice any difference in size or heft. For myself who occasionally likes to Tweet from the device (having no iPhone and using my Kindle as my own ubiquitous connection) the keyboard is awesome and even if the Nook adds a web browser then it will be a soft keyboard at best to type in URLs, which seems like it would be a drag.

In the final analysis, I’d recommend against buying the Nook 1.0. This is not a final, durable recommendation. I didn’t buy a Kindle 1.0 or any other Gadget 1.0 either. I find it best to let other people break in the worst problems and I’ll swoop in later when those are fixed. For the identical money and with the differences in usability, I don’t think $259 today is a good investment for a Nook 1.0. The good thing for Nook users is that most of my problems with the device are potentially fixable in software (B&N demo I used had 1.1.0 version on it.) Just like the Kindle’s 2.3.0 update made the device significantly better, a future software update could make the Nook much better. If I were an undecided consumer, I’d make B&N fix it before I gave them my money.

Let me finish with one point beyond the head to head comparison. A lot of talk is floating around with the possibility of an Apple iTable or future apps going on the Nook because of the Android operating system. One thing that gets lost in all this talk is that I consider it a strength not a failing of the Kindle and Sony Reader and Nook that they are not general purpose devices. Even with the web browser on the Kindle, this whole thing only really does one thing well, and that’s display text for you to read. It’s about sitting down and reading. You can tweet or check email in a pinch, but it will never be your first choice to do it on the Kindle the way you would on a laptop or iPhone/Blackberry. It’s possible but not fun. What it is best at is being a device you can sit down with on a couch or a beach or the middle seat of an airplane and read. And read and read. I have enough reading material on mine today that I could read for 2 solid months before I exhausted it, and there is still 1.1 Gigabyte free. A tablet, or adding more apps on these devices is the wrong direction in my life. I say I’m a reader and that I enjoy reading, but if you look at my actions the last 10 years I don’t actually read for pleasure that much anymore. Haivng a device that enables reading but doesn’t enable much else is a plus for me, and being an e-ink version of a laptop or an iPhone isn’t good for my particular needs. Milage varies, but for what is important to me today, that’s it.

Final score: I prefer the Kindle 2, but I’d love it to have the better contrast of the Nook. The Nook has a lot of potential but I’d seriously recommend that at the very least, you make the software get better before you give B&N $259 of your dollars.

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

Big Day in the eReader World

I missed it yesterday when Paul Biba at Teleread picked up on my ‘Kindle is not closed’ post from the weekend, which is gratifying and predictably brought out pushback in the form of comments including this one from Mitch Ratcliffe and a contrary response post from David Rothman. Some people agreed with me, some didn’t but in all the dissents they are talking about the Kindle store lacking openness. I agree with that but that’s not what I said. I very specifically was talking about the device, not the store or the upstream ecosystem. I stand by my post – the idea that one must purchase every book on the Kindle from Amazon is a misconception that needs clearing up. Less than 5% of the books on my Kindle were purchased from Amazon’s Kindle store.

Today came out with the news of the Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader. My very first reaction was “Really, B&N? You spend however much money to build, design, roll out and market this device and the best you can do on naming is ‘Nookie Reader’?” Like I tweeted within a minute of hearing the brand for the first time, that’s a name that is derision ready.

I’m looking forward to the point when the Nook is available for hands on fiddling at my local Barnes and Noble. My initial thoughts on reading the specs and looking at the feature comparison chart is that not a lot of the differences on their matter to me. Having wifi sounds great at first thought, but I’ve never once failed to get a Whispernet connection so what is the advantage there unless it is filling in gaps and jankiness in the AT&T data connection? When I turn on wireless on the Kindle, the job gets done. What would be different if that was wifi rather than Whispernet? The sharing sounds great, just like the Zune sharing does on paper. How many Zune users ever find themselves in the room with another Zune user? Very seldom have I seen other Kindles when I use mine, and that has a 2 year headstart in market share. If the Kindle had this functionality, I wouldn’t have used it once in the 7 months I have owned mine. The first time someone I know gets a Nook file shared with them I’ll care about this feature, until then it’s purely a theoretical curiosity.

The SD card expansion up to 16 GB seems useful, particularly if one wanted to put lots of graphic heavy books on there. The lower screen LCD touchscreen seems to make sense for browsing the library but other than that, what is it other than a battery drain? Swiping a touchscreen to change a page is not easier than clicking a button. The only reason that would seem to matter is if everyone’s iPhone muscle memory tells them to do that. The two worst parts of the Kindle 2 I have are the library management and the off-whiteness of the screen background. It looks like the Nook screen is the same one as the Kindle, so that’s a wash and the library management looks better. Being able to read PDF natively (without a conversion step) on the Nook is better than what I have, although it is available on the Kindle DX.

Overall this doesn’t look like the predictably named “Kindle Killer”. It looks like a rough Kindle equivalent with slightly different affordances. I am delighted that it exists though, because it will put pressure on Amazon in all the aspects I want them to have some pressure. I want to see them improve the sucky bookshelf management in some future system update. The contrast of the screen is what it is on the model I have. It’s acceptable but any device I buy in the future needs to be better. I probably would never buy a future one until the color e-ink technology comes along.

Whenever they hit the brick and mortar Barnes and Noble stores, I’ll play with a Nook. Anyone who wants to make a bet with me on when the Nook install base exceeds that of the Kindle, you set the line and I’ll take the over/under action. Chances are for any line you set, I’ll take the over.