Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kindle–out of the box experience

Mike's library - room 1After holding out for some time, I finally relented and bought a Kindle e-reader from Amazon. I already have a library of a few thousand books – many of which have lived on three continents with me now – but while I am happy to rebox and carry them around for as many more moves as I have in me, not all of the titles are keepers.

I now have enough collectibles and volumes of personal value to me that growing the library at the same rate as I have over my adult life is just not practical. Working out how to shelve and categorise everything practically and aesthetically is something that exercises the minds of many readers, as can be seen from the currently active #bookshelves topic on Twitter initiated by writer Alexander McCall Smith.  That in itself reminds me of a debate I had with a Newtown bookseller about where his books should be shelved, I maintained that it should be under “M” for McCall Smith, just as one would file Cats under L = Lloyd Webber, or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter under V=Vargas Llosa. I doubt that it would actually create extra work for bookstore workers since I’m familiar with being asked where Tolstoy might be found on a shelf of alphabetised fiction when I worked at Elizabeth’s.

The books I have and will have create a lot of the atmosphere in my house. (Munson creates a different atmosphere, but that’s usually only when he’s been given too much cheese.) There’s always a  place for both physical books and e-books. The issues around balancing both, particularly when active reading i.e. making annotations on and taking notes from different sources, was something that occupied me professionally as a software designer in my erstwhile career.

2001 Dougal uses prototype tablet pcI remember the pleasure of a lunch with Victor Nell (author of  Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure) and Cathy Marshall, annotations guru, whose own research papers I had completely covered in pen and highlighter ink, discussing the future of reading technologies. We were all lovers of traditional books but could see the advantages conferred by the inevitably ubiquitous tablets in a number of situations. That must have been 8-9 years ago and I’m still impatient that the technology has not caught up with designs and dreams of that time.

Returning to the purchase at hand, I decided to buy a Kindle Touch now for several reasons:
  1. while I’d love to have a colour e-reader, most of what I read is plain text, and those are the titles which are less likely to be “keepers”.
  2. there’s a bunch of big-fat books out this year and I nearly sprained my wrist reading both A Walk on the Wild Side and A Dance with Dragons this year.
  3. I can download sample introductory chapters from Amazon immediately and see if I want to purchase the entire text
  4. iPads are still ridiculously expensive and are horribly horribly horribly horribly limited by the iTunes gateway which takes longer to penetrate than Shelob’s lair en route to Mordor, after which time you just want to caste the precious thing into a river of lava and be done with it.

So anyway the package from Amazon arrives and I spend some time setting it up, which is the point at which I discover that I don’t have a Kindle Touch, but a regular 2nd-generation Kindle (non-Touch). It turns out that this is the only one of the the four new Kindle options that may be purchased outside of North America. This is not something that is made obvious when you’re ordering from my local UK or France stores. Indeed if you search on Kindle Touch on Amazon UK as I did you don’t get told that it’s not available, but simply shown the almost identical-looking Kindle Non-Touch which happens to be the same price as the Touch is in the US i.e. more expensive than the US Non-Touch. Also when I ordered it I was switched to the Amazon France store by force, which has the same problem whereby asking for a Touch model gives you the Non-Touch. The €99 Non-Touch translates to $132USD, rather a lot more than $99USD for a Touch, or 80% more than Americans pay for a $79 Non-Touch.

Furthermore I had no problem specifying and ordering a case for a Kindle Touch from Amazon France, adding to the illusion that all was going well.

I’m discovering the non-touchiness of the device as I’m setting it up which is a bit more difficult than it could be –especially when it comes to entering the 26 character alphanumeric password for my wifi network. Make one mistake and you have to re-enter it from scratch using the on-screen keyboard which requires a LOT of arrowing around to select each letter and number.

At least when I’m logged into the device with my Amazon account, it recognises that my purchases are in English from the Amazon UK store. It doesn’t tie me to the Amazon France store based on my location or on where I purchased the device – unlike Apple’s iTunes store which welds software, hardware and language together as if they were inextricably linked.  It downloaded the complete titles that I had purchased as trials earlier in the year to read on the Kindle software on my PC and phone. However it doesn’t download any of the sample chapters of books that Amazon had sent to those devices.

So I go back to my phone and bring up one of the book samples. On the last page of each book there are two links: one to buy the entire book immediately, and the other to look it up in the Kindle Store. Pressing either of these links gives the error “We’re Sorry. This operation is not currently supported”.

2011-12-14 Kindle screenshotsIt’s kinda dumb that there’s no way for me to make a purchase just when Amazon has me firmly at the virtual cashier’s desk. I could click, pay for the title and have the rest of it downloaded in seconds so I could continue my reading on the next page. Nope. So I use the Provide Feedback option and express my disappointment. We’re not talking grief but it seems to me that Amazon has stood on the brink of success and lurched backwards.

I got a response from Amazon’s helpdesk asking me for which exact book samples the purchase process failed. I don’t think they understood that the iPhone Kindle program just doesn’t support that feature, but I manually went through the Amazon site, looked up all of the titles so I could give them the unambiguous stock details, and pasted that into my response. Their response was to send me back a list of all the links I’d just looked up and tell me to go to each and download them again. Not exactly a triumph of ecommerce from the land of 1-Click purchases. Nothing from the exchange proved that anyone supporting these had ever seen let alone used the software I was giving feedback on.

Other observations from my brief experience:

  1. I’m disappointed that the Home screen is all text and I can’t view by cover image, sort by titles, authors etc as I can do even on my tiny phone interface [Edit: Can do that all except have a Cover Image view]
  2. The button interface is not good for much beyond page forward/back and home (ie list of books). Obviously the idea is that is what you spend most of your time doing, but the existing buttons are so awkward to use that it deters me from using the device’s other features. And when I accidentally invoke one of those other features  or modes by pressing the wrong button, getting rid of it is equally frustrating.
  3. I tried loading on some other ebooks I had on my PC, some in PDF format and a bunch of other random ePub files. That’s easy enough to do by simple drag and drop -  much easier than getting any of them onto an iPhone, which requires standing in a pentacle, and doing Rubik’s Cube while reciting a thousand digits of pi base 9 in Urdu. The PDFs all showed up and the other files didn’t. Navigating the PDFs proved to be a ghastly experience, especially since all the panning and zooming required one to simultaneously manipulate two buttons separated by about 5mm, or about one quarter the width of my index finger. That’s assuming the Kindle is sitting on a table: if I’m holding it in my hands, I have to try with two fat thumbs, and that’s just an exercise in futility.

I suppose I should send the thing back except I have a bunch of Kindle titles that I don’t want to read on my phone – turning pages that are a paragraph long is OK when I’m at a bus stop, but for a book-sized endeavour, it’s just going to turn my fingertips into teflon. Furthermore, there’s no indication when the Touch devices will be available outside North America. I suppose I could pay someone to receive and repost the device from a US address but meh. At the end of the exercise I’ve paid so much in postage returning one device and getting the other transferred, with risk of import duties that I’m down about as much money again. Also, given the cross-store confusions I’m not confident given some of the bundling options within the US store that I would get access to the same UK titles as I can today.

Tablet at the piano with Bondi, Cornwall 2007

After all that, the device that would honestly please me much more is an iPad-like tablet with a true A4-sized display that I could use for my sheetmusic. That would allow me to get rid of half a wall of musical scores.

There are iPad apps for music but the display is too tiny for practical use at a piano as you’re only getting 6-8 bars of visibility. My old Motion Computing M1300 Tablet PC from 2003 was approximately the right size for this and I used it at the piano for a while as above. It can’t be too many years before we have flexible, folding devices where I’ll actually have a double page layout, but I can dream.


  1. You can sort by title or author on kindle. Just go to home page move to the top of the page and it says either most recent first, title, author or collection. Right click on the 5 way button and then choose the way you want to sort.

  2. Thank you Janet!

  3. Lesley8:12 pm

    Wow! I did read all this and wonder if I could ever get one of these new-fangled thingies and use it. I have difficulty setting up (actually have never done it) the photo display thingy.
    More power to your e-elbow and if anyone wants to earn a bit of extra cash could they do classes for us old technophobes?

  4. I'd be very happy to do classes for technophobes. When I lived in Seattle I used to sometimes hang out in one of the weekend classrooms for adult learners so they could sort out any issues as they worked.

  5. I'm enjoying reading on the ipad more than I thought I would but you're right about finding titles -it just decides itself what you might want. I found a link to Mills & Boon - bliss! I can get my guilty pleasure without having to creep into KMart...but then the link disappeared and what I can find isn't the same. Is my device trying to save me from myself???

  6. Anonymous4:49 am

    Shouldn't have gotten rid of your Motion tablet - I have now accumulated 5 of them (mostly when I see one cheap on ebay) and I think they're way better than these stupid, primitive Kindles.

    Merry Christmas from Ross & Meep, in the snowy Welsh hills
    PS Have now finished my Welsh beginners course. How's your French now?