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Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen
New York, New York, USA
June 03
Written for NY Times, W Post, Slate, Salon, Daily Beast. Publisher Twelve (Hachette)
An expanded paperback edition of my book COLUMBINE came out March 1, 2010. Links to the book and my bio below: http://www.davecullen.com/columbine.htm

Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 9, 2009 6:49PM

Is the Kindle (2) ready?

Rate: 8 Flag

The Kindle 2 was unveiled today.

It's thinner, lighter, the battery lasts longer and it flips the pages faster. The resolution is a bit crisper, 16 shades of gray vs. 4. (Review here.)

It all looks great, except for the one fatal flaw with the Kindle 1: the screen is way too small. The press release doesn't mention it, but it appears to be roughly the same size. It's also still way too expensive.

I tried a friend's Kindle 1 and hated having a paragraph or two at a time instead of the whole page. Maybe I'd get used to it. I doubt it.

I think the main thing holding back ebooks is they have to meet and beat all the key aspects of the reading experience.  Only techhounds (and people with specific circumstances, like reading a lot of books at once) are going to swap to a new way of reading that is almost as good as the old way. 

It needs to be the size of a book, except thinner, preferably. It's perfect there, as thin as a magazine. It needs to be lighter than a paperback, so it feels similar in your hand, but better, easy to hold up hours of reading. It's a winner there, too: 10.2 ounces. 

Most importantly, it needs to be as easy to read as a book. The Kindle 1 was in the ballpark, but not there. I'll have to see the new one in person to evaluate. (Anyone here held one yet?)

 And every page needs to be as rewarding as a book page. Major bomb there. The screen is about 1/3 the size of a book. Completely unacceptable. (And there's all sorts of wasted space.) 

I'm not sure what it is about having more available, but it's important for the pleasure of the experience. Jeff Bezoz's team seems to have put that one through the rationality test, figured out that you can only scan a few lines at a time anyway, so it makes no difference. Wrong. Imagine a book fed to you one line at a time. Ugh. 

Perhaps it's just the conditioning of hundreds of years of a book page holding a certain amount of info. Regardless, we've been conditioned.

Otherwise, there seems to be a lot to love. But not enough for mass market yet, I'd say. Make it like a book, people.

As a writer, I've been excited about ebooks for years. I expect and hope the printed book to stay around in some form for most of my life, but I believe that once publishers make reading easier and cheaper and more available, they can bring a lot more people into the reading fold. 

(Half the cover price of a book goes to the retailer, and another big chunk goes to printing, shipping and warehousing. Ebooks allow the writer and publisher to make as much money per copy at about 1/3 of the cover price--or, as is actually happening, somewhat less money per copy, but at a much lower price to the consumer. If ebooks eventually all sell for $10, we'll sell a hell of a lot more books. That's good for everyone.)

Which brings me to the price. One of the best long-term features of the ebook is how it will allow books to be priced reasonably. Yet here we have a huge economic barrier standing in the way of the whole revolution: $359 for the device

$359? Come on. If they want this thing to take off, it needs to be under $100. They need to bite the bullet on some up-front costs and make it happen.


Update: Thanks to Saturn Smith for word on Plastic Logic's really big ebook device. I love the way they're thinking.

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kindle, ebooks, books, technology

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A friend's book was bought by amazon.com for Kindle "publication." My first question was, "If your book is going to be on Kindle, did they give you one to be able to read it there?" They didn't.
By the time Kindle hits the Australian market hopefuuly
screen size and price will be acceptable.
We are very quick in adopting any new technolgies.
Ah, the Kindle 2. I was wondering what the hubbub was about. Thanks for giving me the heads up.

I was one of those people who bought the first Kindle on the good faith that it would help save a few trees and be a light-weight traveling companion for me. I waited for months before it arrived, and I was duly impressed. Reading from the Kindle screen indeed seemed to be faintly reminiscent of actual print on a page. I loved its portability, and I loved it that a reader like me (you know the one who has a lot of books open and reading at the same time all over the house) could bring along all of my books anywhere without a big hassle. No, I didn't like the placement of the page keys, and, no, I didn't like the cover that came with it. I replaced it eventually with a third party cover. I still read daily from my Kindle, though the screen has long since suffered from what I call "faded font" syndrome where you can still see the lightly faded print even though the machine is turned off. I will probably not bite the bullet and get the new Kindle. Maybe a few years down the road when they have perfected the screen and added color and who knows what wonderful new technology... then I'll bite.
interesting stuff.

amanda, how were you with the screen size? did that bother you at first? did it change over time?

i hope i'm not too negative, because i'd love to see the damn thing succeed. but i think they've got to nail the design for that to happen, and i think they're missing a huge element.
I admit I'm much more interested in the Plastic Logic E-book thingy than the Kindle, because of the screen size problem you mention. There's a small comparison up at Engadget: http://www.engadget.com/2008/09/11/plastic-logics-e-reader-vs-amazon-kindle-fight/
Dave, the screen size is not an issue for me. I think you need to spend some time with it before it becomes comfortable. It was by far the best gift I received last year. I've purchased over 40 titles and also send myself word docs to read. When I was reading manuscripts, it was really wonderful. Every early version of a new tech gadget is going to have some flaws, but if what they're saying is true and they've sold 500,000 K1's, that's a big jumpstart toward something much bigger.
good info, undertow. but how many people are going to take time to get comfortable with it for $359?

i'm actually less concerned about whether i like it, than whether it will click with a mass audience.

saturn, i really like the way Plastic Logic is headed. i sure hope they push amazon and sony in that direction. i had not heard of them.

i watched their video and it's pretty impressive--including the shoe-smacking of the screen. i hope it really is that sturdy. (i picked up my friend's kindle and it slipped out of the carrier in the first minute, hit the wood deck floor and the screen was ruined instantly. so much for bezoz's claim that it was indestructible.)

i do appreciate that the kindle got the ereader concept a lot of attention, and a small start, but half a million units is miles from mass market.
When e-books are found with the expat crowd, you'll know they've taken off. I live overseas where English language books are expensive and the few bookstores that have them have one or two shelves.

I haven't seen an e-book reader that's convinced me it's the solution to my lack of English book problem. Nor have any of my many expat acquaintances. No one in my book club has one.

Not ready for prime time!
Dave, apparently, 500,000 already have (if the analysis is right) and it was sold out over the holidays because of Oprah and now the new version is coming. The price will eventually drop--early adopters always pay more. The amazing thing is that in one year, the e-book is suddenly relevant.
thanks, UT, but where did u see the 500k figure? i've mostly seen lower estimates, like 300-400k.

truthfully, though, any of those numbers seem pitiful to me for a device (class of devices) more than ten years old. (i sold my first ebook in 1999, to random house, which was starting an ebook imprint to capitalize on the huge change. the readers had been around awhile then. that was ten years ago. RH closed the imprint in 2003, after miserable results.)

how does this compare to ten years in for the DVD player, CD, Iphone, PC, Tivo, etc.? or to the first year after a big new product in one of those markets, after the initial devices had been around awhile?

i could be wrong, but my impression is that this is extremely slow.

yes, early adopters pay more, but i'll wager than when ereaders are ubiquitous, they'll be selling for $20-30. an early-adopter price of $100 seems reasonable, and low enough to get the ball rolling fast. $359 is way out of range, in my opinion.

hence, only half a million.
as for sold out over the holiday, that is corporate malpractice. especially since it sold out at the START of the season, not the end.

the production manager or someone should be fired.

I saw my first e-book prototype in 1998, when I was working at the American Medical Association in the publishing division. My imagination soared.

Nothing that's ever made it to market has been as cool as the e-book in my head.

Mom bought a Kindle (fecking Oprah!) and I don't think she's used it more than 8 or 9 times.
verbal, i think you got it.

i was thrilled when bezos described the project and how they approached it: rethinking it all and insisting it had to match what the customer wanted. i don't think they delivered, though.

i'm wondering whether it should have been conceived as a stand-alone device, though. i have a feeling we might actually get books on the iphone very soon (including the kindles, probably), which some people will be happy with, and will get things moving somewhat, and eventually we'll get jumbo-sized iphones that are about the size of a book, and much more pleasant to read books and read the web and also play audiobooks (including switching seemlessly between reading the book ourselves, and then having the audio-book narrator pick up at the next sentence when we get in the car.)

i'm starting to think that eventually everyone will have several devices, one or all of the following:

1. mini-mobile. really small phone smaller than a credit card, for people who want something really easy to slip in their pocket. great for size and for talking on the phone, pretty shitty for texting and reading. Many people will skip this device.

2. iphone/ipod-sized device. great for talking/listening (ie, phone and music) and texting. OK for reading, but kind of small for that. Fits in your pocket, barely, and small enough to strap on to listen while exercising (gym, jogging, treadmill, etc.)

Some people will use #1 & 3 and skip #2.

3. paperback-sized device. Great at everything #2 does, plus a really good size for reading, and for doing simple work stuff like small spreadsheets and documents, and much easier to write longer emails, and see the web. this would replace ebook readers, and also serve as a very small/basic laptop. since basic PC are already well under $500 and use a lot of the same technology as the other devices, and computing power keeps doubling, this seems like no big deal.

4. laptop size. will this go away? maybe #3 takes over. the mini laptops are suddenly, finally very hot right now, and could scale down to #3. or maybe laptops still exist for people who want more space to do more heavy-duty work.

5. desktop/living room model. i think there will always be a market for people who want the max power and big screen and comfy keyboard and all the works that you don't want to lug around with you. this may or may not merge with TV, probably will eventually.

Five devices seems like one or two too many for most people, but not everyone wants the same sizes. Most people will probably pick 3-4 of those, but the five general sizes may exist ad finitim.

merging these classes has proven much harder than it sounds, yet it happens one big leap at a time. apple managed to merge the phone and the personal stereo in one swoop. this was not an expected merger.

we had stereos forever, and walkmen in the '70s. no one foresaw those merging with the phones hanging on our walls. but they came together nicely.

the iphone showed how it could be done, and how ravenous people were to merge two devices and have one fewer thing to carry around. others will, too.

there are two futures for the kindle:

1. get really great really fast as a book reader, and then do other shit, too, so it's the book-sized device we want, or

2. someone with a book-sized device is going to include books, and say goodbye to the stand-alone book reading device.
Dave, on answering your screen question, when I picked up the Kindle, I began reading without really noticing the details, i.e., screen size, font size, keys, etc. I wanted to experience an episode of reading without judging the gadget itself. What I found out was that once I started reading, the story carried me away, just as it does with paper books. The device itself fell away just as paper pages disappear for me when the prose is good. A few months later, I experimented with changing the font size for times when I don't have my glasses with me, but ended up leaving the font size where it was to begin with.

A lot of people like to "play" with the Kindle, adding emails, listening to music, and basically trying to use the Kindle as a multipurpose media device. I have no interest in that. It's just the reading that matters to me. I have an Iphone and an Ipod that work just fine for all the other media issues. Great discussion here, Dave.
good stuff.

thanks for that info, amanda. you're probably right that we'd all get used to it. they need to get potential buyers over that hump of believing/realizing that, though.

it will also be interesting to see how this plays out. will it be stand-alone, like you want now, or will people want fewer gadgets, and one that does everything?

in the 70s/80s, there was an early move toward a lot of all-in-one products, and the consensus was usually that they would do three things badly. eventually, they stopped trying.

i think they were just too early. in those days, all technology was pretty shitty: it broke down, was hard to use, hard to start, and did even basics poorly like screen resolution, sound, storage capacity, or the ability to edit a text document easily.

now we're at a much later stage where screens are good, sound is good, storage is massive, and things like word processesing hit their approx max improvement years ago.

now a device really can do two or three distinct things really well, and if most of the underlying functions are the same, it's extremely cost effective to do it that way. and most users don't really want to cart around four devices in their pocket, purse or briefcase. one is definitely better, if it can do all of them well.

and true mass markets of people will actually shell out $350 for an iphone, with built in ipod. if you can build a great ereader in there too for the same price or slightly more, we get rid of the huge barrier of people entering the market.

i don't think the iphone is where most people are going to end up reading books, but i think it may well be a huge bridge to get us there. if a lot of people start using iphones to read books, that can prove market viability on a scale massively larger than kindle, and get these ebook training running. maybe.

but i'm all for various different segments getting us there. if the kindle and iphone and sony reader all lurch forward, all the better.
ok, stupid question alert - how does the screen scroll? seems like it has an automatic scroll feature.
but, just thinking in terms of reading on my iPod Touch - from a user/human factors perspective - it is less the font/screen size/etc. dimension than the constant need to scroll that makes it uncomfortable as a reading device

I've watched movies on my Touch, which I never thought I'd do, and read blogs/newspapers fairly frequently. I think I would use for the occasional ebook, not sure if for main source.

You've hit a good point - I also wonder if it is only price that is keeping the Kindle from taking off. I agree it's too much, but people will happily drop that on iPhones, digital cameras, video cameras, Wiis/xBoxes....

and, oh btw - re: handspring - last I checked the Treo (product of Handspring/Palm merger) was still a pretty viable competitor in the PDA/phone market
dave - re: your 5 things comment - I think you've nailed it. As a tech heavy family, we pretty much have all but #3 and #3 is the gap that the Kindle would fill (although I must say I like the Plastic Logic one) - now if they would just make it flexible and combine it with a pen tablet, I would be totally and absolutely golden and set for life.

I would like to combine #1 and 2 though, or perhaps they can make the Bluetooth devices a little more robust with more range so that the main device can be in the car (BUT NOT YOUR CAR) or something with connectivity
I read an academic paper about why ebooks can't seem to replace real books a few months ago, and I wish I could track it down online again. It was quite long, but fascinating in some of its research and conjecture (if you're fascinated by such things).

One point the author raised was that books as objects carry a vast assortment of emotional and cultural subtexts and content (unrelated to what's in the book), and that people are reluctant to relinquish that. He likened it to doors: doors have been with us for ages and ages, and no matter how many times a sci fi show supposes that we will soon all convert to the kind that swishes into the way, we don't -- because we cannot slam such a door, open it a crack and peek through it, feel the satisfying sensation of swinging it open, etc. In the same way, ebooks cannot provide the satisfying heft of a hardback volume, the scent of old leather, the feeling of accomplishment as one sees the pages move from the right to the left hand side, or the ability to throw it at our wayward mates' heads.

I tend to agree -- I read constantly and have absolutely NO interest in the Kindle or any such thing; it seems so unsatisfying.