Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Being Wrong in the Right Way (Why the Kindle is Still a Better eBook than the iPad)

I've owned a Kindle for about seven months now, and that's plenty of time to develop a real feel for its advantages -- and it's shortcomings.  It has plenty.  The screen is great for text, but very poor for pictures.  It's lack of a folder-file system quickly turns  your eLibrary into a hard-to-navigate jumble.  And speaking of navigation, it's tiny 8-way joystick is sometimes tricky to use, and hard to click without moving the cursor.

And of course, an eBook is pretty much all it is.  No apps (yet, in a clear response to the iPad, Amazon has announced a developer's kit and an app store.)  It has a primitive browser, but it's pretty limited by its poor grapics, slow processor, and lack of support for Flash and anything else animated or video.  But for the most part, it reads books, newspapers, and a few magazines.

The iPad, on the other hand is new, sexy, and fast.  It has color.  It has a big, backlighted, touch-screen.  The user interface is a joy.  Its graphics are beautiful.  And other than Apple's refusal to support Flash, it will have a full featured browser, plus access to tens of thousands of iPhone apps.

Cool huh?  Yeah, it's a pretty neat device.  But it's got a couple of shortcomings that, despite all this coolness, make it a piss-poor ebook.  Oh sure, it's close, and at first glance, it might seem much closer to the ideal than the obviously more primitive Kindle.  But while both devices deviate from the ebook ideal, the iPad deviates in the wrong ways.

The Kindle if the Kindle gets more wrong, it gets it wrong in all the right ways.

Huh?

Well, certain aspects of the iPad's sutability will only be proven with time and hand's on experience.  Like the pretty color screen.  Is it sharp and flicker-free like the Kindle, or will its subtle defects result in eye-strain after long reading sessions? Will it be be readable outdoors?  Will it wash out in indirect sunlight?  Will you need to turn up the brightness to compensate, and if so, how much will it reduce the already short battery life?

I'll give a pass on these potential screen issues, because I simply don't know.  Instead, I'll focus on what I think are three deal-breakers that in themselves make the iPad a poor ebook, even if you buy it for other reasons.

First issue is battery life.  Serious book readers need lots of it, and they need it to spare.  There's nothing more frustrating than having the power go out three pages from the end of a murder mystery or thriller.  The battery on the Kindle currently (it was recently extended considerably by a software upgrade, and it's at least vaguely possible further refinement is possible) allows for up to a week (even more with the wireless turned off).

In my opinion, that's overkill.  But I figure that as a minimum, a good ebook reader should last an extended work or school day, plus commute time, with a comfortable reserve.  Call it twelve-fourteen hours at minimum.  Now, at first glance, the iPad isn't terribly far off this mark.  Battery life is said to be "up to 10 hours."  Assume that the work/school day isn't extended, the commute is short, and you live without reserve...

But the operative words here are "up to."  Experience with the iPhone and other such devices (even the Kindle, which burns its battery much faster when using its simple web-browser to surf the net) shows that battery life is highly dependent on what the device is doing.  And that's the problem with the iPad.  Unlike the Kindle or Nook, it isn't a dedicated ebook reader.  People are going to use it for other things, surfing, games, apps, social media, video, all of which are likely to be more power hungry.  Expect 10 hours to turn out to be closer to 8 in practice, maybe less.  Very little of which, on average, is going to be spent reading books, newspapers, or other "old media."  In fact, for most iPad owners, I predict reading will be "tail-end Charlie" on their priority list.

So in terms of battery life, the iPad falls far short, and the Kindle (and the Nook) hit it out of the park.

Next problem is weight.  The Kindle weighs just under 12 ounces.  That doesn't sound like much, and it isn't, but as a Kindle owner, I can tell you it sometimes feels like a lot more.  When you're holding it in your hand for an hour at a time, it can almost seem too heavy.

I'm aware of its weight just often enough to think that the Kindle is close to the upper limit on weight for an ideal ebook.  I certainly wouldn't complain if it were even lighter.  Wife Chris complains that when she reads in bed with the Kindle propped up on her chest, that if she falls asleep, the Kindle hits her in the forehead and wakes her up.  For an ebook in the field, a little difference in weight makes a big difference.

But if the Kindle is close to the limit, the iPad is way over-limit.  It weighs over twice what the Kindle does, a pound and a half.  That's a lot of weight to hold in one hand, much less for any length of time.  It's a lot of weight to hit you in the forehead when you fall asleep.  It's too much weight to haul around without thinking about it.  No doubt, for use as a primary ebook, the iPad is just too darned heavy.

But the final deal breaker is probably the most important, and not in the way you'd expect.  I'm talking about the price.  The Kindle and Nook currently sell for $259.  I'll say right now, that's too much.  And the iPad isn't $259.  It isn't close.  The low-end iPad model sells for $499.  That's just way too much.

Now maybe you're saying to yourself, "it's not really that much.  Not considering all the iPad can do!  The Kindle and Nook are just ebooks, but the iPad is a lot more, and that's worth $499 or more!"  And in that, you'd be right.

The issue with cost actually isn't buying the iPad.  Not entirely anyway.  (eBook chip maker Freescale claims that dropping ebook prices by $50 will double the potential market, and dropping it another $50 will double it again.)  But even assuming you're buying an iPad anyway (and many of you will) price is still a deceptively important factor, because price effects how you treat a device, and for ebooks, that's important.

Fact is, while many people can afford the $500-700 to buy an iPad, not many people will consider it a trivial amount of money.  An iPad is valuable.  You're going to be careful with it.  You're going to be protective of it.  And fact it, the iPad is going to be an attractive target for thieves, especially when it's a hot, new, product.

And this isn't like an iPod or iPhone where you can simply slip it in a pocket and keep it out of sight.  The iPad is going to be big enough, obvious enough, valuable enough, and fragile enough, that you'll probably want to carry it in a big, obvious, case.

If you own an iPad, you're going to think about taking it with you.  You may be nervous carrying it on the subway at night, or leaving it in a locker at the gym, or in your desk while you're away from your cubical.  You may hesitate to throw it in your backpack when you go biking, or to take it camping with you.  Even when you do take it with you, you'll still be thinking about it.  There's going to be a small, but perceptible mental burden on you every time you take your iPad out into the cruel, dangerous, world.

Now some of this is true of the Kindle and Nook as well, but to a far lesser extent.  First of all, the price is far lower.  Not trivial, but lower.  The devices are still a bit cumbersome, fragile, and beyond pocket sized, but they're small enough and light enough to slip in a purse, briefcase, or notebook.  And let's face it, when the average 15-year-old with larceny in his or her heart looks at an iPad, the'll be thinking of what they can do with it.  When they look at a Kindle or Nook, they're probably only wondering how hard it will be to fence.  It isn't just directly how much the iPad costs, it's how valuable it is in a broader sense, and how attractive it is to someone who might be tempted to take it.

But a burdensome device is not how serious readers want to read.  A serious reader needs their reading material handy.  They need to be able to haul it along with them everywhere, and have it available at a moment's notice, sitting in a waiting room, stuck in traffic, strap-hanging on the bus, in the taco stand where they have lunch, standing in line at the grocery store.  Even the most dedicated iPad fan is unlikely to lug their iPad along to all those places, just in case...  (But they will have their iPhone, which is why I still maintain it's a more significant factor in the ebook market than the iPad is, or is likely to be for at least a couple of hardware generations.)

That's the bottom line.  The iPad may be a great device that will be used for some ebook (and magazine, and newspaper) reading, especially around home, but it's not a good general-purpose, primary, ebook.  It's possibly a good secondary device.  It's a great ebook for people who don't actually read, or at least, not much anyway.

The Kindle and the Nook are far from ideal ebooks in many ways, but the way they're imperfect are the right ways to make a the best device currently possible for ebook readers.  You might think the iPad is closer to perfect.  It does other things.  It has a bigger screen.  It has color.  It does video.  It can do magazines, newspapers, and technical books with illustrations, charts, and complex layouts.

But none of that does you much good if the iPad is sitting at home or locked in your car when you need it.  None of it does you any good if the battery is dead.  None of it does you any good if it's too heavy to read the morning newspaper with one hand while you shove your morning cornflakes into your face with the other.

All these devices are imperfect, but for ebook use, the Kindle and Nook are wrong in all the right ways.  The compromises made were made with the reader in mind.  Not so with the iPad, which is clearly aimed at a much more general audience.

And while the iPad is new and unlikely to come down in price soon, conventional eBooks like the Kindle are becoming mature technology.  I mentioned Freescale.  They're company that is making new processor chips specifically designed for ebook use.  Current ebooks need two general purpose processors to run the epaper display and generate text.  The new chips will be specifically designed to run ebooks, and combine both functions in one chip.  This will save weight, power, cut costs, and improve performance.  Predications are that a device similar to the Kindle 2 could be selling as low as $150 by year-end.

The real future of ebooks isn't with bigger, fancier, more expensive devices.  It's with smaller, lighter, cheaper ones.  This iPad is great, just for different things.  Sure, you can deliver pizza in a Porsche, by why in heavens would you?

Someday, some descendant of the current iPad may evolve into that kind of cheaper, lighter, device.  But we're a long way from that.  And by then, the grandsons of Kindle may be in your box of cornflakes -- as the free prize.

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