This weekend was my grandfather’s birthday, and to celebrate I drove down with them to Westport, where my parents live, and we had a family dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant. For a present, we bought him an Amazon Kindle 2, and after they charged it last night, I spent the ride home getting it set up. We learned a few things along the way.
The Kindle comes with “free” EVDO internet access, but it doesn’t work until you enter your Amazon account info. Once you’ve done that, you have instant access to the entire Kindle store, including 250,000 titles, some of which are actually worth reading. Most are priced at $9.99, which is a bit less than a new paperback at full price (typically about $15). The newspapers are about $10 a month or more, which seems a bit overpriced, and the magazines run about $1.50 a month, which seems extremely reasonable.
The first thing we learned about the Kindle is that its input devices are not quite ideal. Without a touchscreen, it relies on a pressable joystick of the sort that’s become so popular in the past few years (my cell phone from 2006 has one). These are easy to click accidentally… for example, in the Kindle store. Amazon knows this, which is why they provide an “are you sure?” confirmation after each purchase, but if you miss that button, you’re stuck.
The second thing I learned is that the Kindle is not well-integrated with its support services, or with anything, really, except the Kindle store. There’s nowhere in the Kindle UI that lists the support phone number. Amazon even provides an online callback service, where you give them your phone number and they will call you when a representative is free (no waiting on hold)… but there’s no way to access that service through the Kindle. The Kindle includes a web browser, but the web page for requesting a callback doesn’t work.
Ultimately, we just had to call their support hotline. Service was courteous and fast; we were able to “unbuy” the book in less than a minute.
The Kindle’s browser is definitely severely limited. There are special search functions for a dictionary, Google, and Wikipedia, which all work beautifully, but navigating to any of Google’s search results is a disappointing experience, as many pages are reflowed in ways that make them hard to navigate. Amazon.com is actually particularly bad; we were entirely unable to shop for a Kindle carrying case from the Kindle’s own browser. This was shocking to me; I’ve begun to wonder if the difficulty of using Amazon.com on a Kindle is deliberate, so that Amazon can’t be accused of attempting monopolistic integration.
I was disappointed to realize that there are no free books in the Kindle store. There are a dozen variations on the complete works of Mark Twain, but they all seem to cost $5 or more. Perhaps there are free items buried in their somewhere, but if so they are certainly well-hidden. Thankfully, it seems that Kindle can handle direct download in Mobipocket format from its internal browser, and so there are sites like Manybooks.net, which have thousands of free books available. That site even has mnybks.net, a deeply simplified version that works well on the Kindle and similar browsers. Manybooks.net seemingly contains the entire Project Gutenberg archive, as well as the works of Cory Doctorow and other authors who place their work in the public domain.
I was initially a bit unhappy with the Kindle, though its industrial design is very impressive. I still don’t think I would ever buy one, due to its extensive use of DRM, which I find unethical and dangerous. However, with unlimited Wikipedia access (do you know what a tourbillon is?), instant free download of almost every digitized public-domain book (even audiobooks), arbitrary MP3 playback over headphones or built-in speakers… I can see why it would be nice to have, even for someone like me who would never buy a book.
Maybe one day they’ll have some competition. I hear OLPC’s coming out with some new hardware…