E-Books: Amazon Versus Barnes and Noble

I’ve been complaining quite a lot about Amazon’s e-book service. My basic complaint is that, because of Amazon’s proprietary software, Amazon e-books will only play on devices supported by Amazon’s reader software. Presently that excludes my Mac, which means that the only way I could buy Amazon e-books was to also buy Amazon’s Kindle (or an iPhone or Touch, which runs the software).

I don’t want to buy a Kindle because it does way more than what I want it to do, and as a result it is quite overpriced for my budget and needs.

Thankfully, I have friends who tend to be early adopters of new technology. One of these friends (Diana Hsieh) lent me her Kindle for a few days so that I could check it out. This was quite helpful, because, as Amazon has no physical store front, it is otherwise impossible to pick up and play around with the Kindle before buying it.

I also purchased Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God from Barnes and Noble (BN), because it will read on my computer (with the BN reader) and I wanted to try it out. I’m contemplating buying several more books through BN but I worry that they won’t read on the e-reader I may ultimately buy and that I won’t be able to integrate my purchases from different suppliers. (The word is that Apple is also getting into the e-book game, which could change the industry dramatically.)

BN’s Nook is not yet available for purchase, so I cannot directly compare the two services. I’m reading the God book on my Mac screen and comparing that with text on the Kindle. But that’s what I have to work with.

I’ll begin with the BN e-book. It was easy to buy (once I set up my account), and the BN e-reading software installed and functioned flawlessly. The text looks fabulous on my great Mac screen, and it is easy to increase the font size and resize the window for a narrower column of text.

There is a huge disadvantage with the BN e-book and a minor one. The huge disadvantage is that the e-book will only read with the BN e-reader software, which bugs the living hell out of me. What is the point of having universal formats like pdf and HTML if e-book sellers refuse to use those formats? By contrast, an mp3 song you buy from any vendor will play on any device on the standard software. You don’t buy mp3s from Amazon that play only on the Amazon music reader. (Apple-formatted songs will only play on iTunes, but, as I’ve noted, Apple can get away with this because the company is so great at making players.)

Incidentally, today I spent $63.10 at the Cato Institute’s store to purchase seven e-books. These were straight pdf downloads, so I don’t have to worry about the compatibility issues of DRM. I do think that publishers should sell both pdf and HTML formats so that users can select the format best adapted to the reading device.

The minor disadvantage is that the BN e-book has no standardized page numbers. Instead, the pagination adjusts to the window and text. The problem is that BN e-books are useless for citation purposes, unless we’ve gotten to the point where nobody cares about page references because books are so easily searchable. If I do a review of the book, I’ll look up the page numbers, ironically, with Amazon’s “look inside” feature. Perhaps that should give Amazon the idea that its business model in this area sucks.

There are some advantages to reading an e-book on a computer screen that I did not anticipate. For note-taking, I can easily open a text window next door. The BN e-book allows the reader to cut-and-paste short passages, which is awesome. I also love the way the endnotes work. Click on the endnote to move to that note at the end of the document; click the number again to go back to that point in the text. That beats the hell out of flipping back and forth in a paper copy.

What about the Kindle? Previously I had indicated that I didn’t much like the Kindle’s design, whereas the Sony e-reader looked more appealing. I have since visited a Sony e-reader in a Target store, and I now think it completely sucks. What I didn’t notice before is that the Sony device features ten menu buttons on the right-hand side, which screams poor design. The Target model didn’t even work right, which didn’t fill me with confidence. It seemed a lot more like a toy than a serious reader.

The Kindle, by contrast, is an elegant machine. The screen looks marvelous, and, while I have not yet spent hours reading from it, I have no doubt that will prove no problem. The Kindle’s controls are a lot more intuitive than I thought they would be. One key control is a miniature joystick, which works fabulously. (I’m used to operating a similar control on my Canon video camera.)

The Kindle, then, is great at what it does. The problem is that it does way too much for my needs, and therefore costs way too much for my budget. The Kindle is like a Hummer, when all I’m looking for is an economical and reliable little Honda. Because I don’t want to buy a Kindle, and because Amazon e-books will not yet read on my Mac, I am simply not going to buy any Amazon e-books. (Again Amazon might consider the fact that its business model is completely stupid, though at least the company is working on more readers.)

The main thing that the Kindle has that I absolutely do not want in an e-reader (for the money) is wireless technology. What I want is a cheap little USB cable through which I can load e-books from my computer library onto my reader. The ability to buy books on the road is of practically no value to me.

I didn’t realize you can browse the internet on a Kindle, which is cool, but again the coolness is not nearly worth the money. Of course I loaded up my own web page. The browser was tracking the loading progress — I kid you not — in kilobytes, with a “k.” I finally got irritated by the wait and hit the stop button, at which point (at least part of) my web page displayed, and quite nicely. But, seriously, who wants to browse the internet s-l-o-w-l-y in black and white? If I want to browse the internet on the go, I’ll buy an iPhone or Touch. I’d much rather carry two devices that do what they’re supposed to do than one device that sucks at most of its functions.

Speaking of suckage, I tried the Kindle’s audio reader software. Painful. If I were blind, I imagine I could get used to it. But it would be a real struggle. Think of the challenge of getting past Keanu’s acting to enjoy the Matrix, then multiply that by a thousand.

The Kindle has a built-in speaker and audio-processing software, so it will play mp3s and audio books. That’s cool, but I’d much rather buy a less-expensive e-reader plus a $59 iShuffle. Just sell me the reader. That’s all I want it to do.

As an e-reader, the Kindle works great. If I could just buy the e-reader part of the Kindle at a lower price, I’m pretty sure I’d do it. The dictionary is very cool. You just push the joystick until the cursor is in front of the word of interest, and the definition pops up at the bottom.

It is possible to take notes and record them with a Kindle document. Again push the joystick until the cursor is where you want it, then start “typing” your note. The keyboard, as I anticipated, is horrible. I mean, if you were a sentient ferret or something, it would probably be the perfect size. Maybe it’s okay for the “texting” generation. But I absolutely hate it. I’d much rather scribble down a few notes on a piece of paper. So, Kindle minus wireless minus the keyboard minus the high price is a device I’d love to buy.

At least the Kindle has standardized “locations” (rather than “pages”), but these don’t match the paper version. They are also listed as ranges (such as “locations 14-19”), which is strange. Will publications allow Kindle-specific citations, or will Kindle buyers need to check the page references against the paper versions? I don’t know why publishers don’t simply insert a page counter into the text itself matching the hard-copy page counts. This is trivially easy to do, though it would be a minor distraction while reading the text. Granted, some older books already have many different paginations. But there’s no reason for new books not to feature the same page references for the hardback, softcover, and e-book versions.

The Kindle will run pdf files fine. You can even upload them via USB. But to run files like Word and HTML, a user must send the file to a Kindle-specific e-mail, then Amazon “will convert the document to Kindle format.” So, in other words, to get an HTML file from my computer to my Kindle sitting right next to it, I need to send the HTML file half-way around the world to wherever Amazon keeps its computers, where Amazon will convert this already-standard-format file to the completely-non-standard Amazon format, then send the file back to my Kindle wirelessly. Did I mention that Amazon’s business model for the Kindle is completely ridiculous? I mean, God forbid that I’m able to send an HTML file via a USB cable and read it with my $259 e-reader. I mean, Amazon can install software that will (sort of) read the text out loud, but it can’t figure out how to let me read HTML files directly?

I only had one minor problem while using the Kindle: at one point, when I was trying to jump to a linked table-of-contents entry, the Kindle thought I was trying to highlight some vast portion of the document. But I soon figured out how to cancel out of that mode, and with a little jiggling got the joystick to do what I wanted it to do. (Much of this tinkering I was doing while reading Amazon’s tutorial, which is a pretty good document.)

If my income were more upper-middle-class than lower-middle-class, I’d gladly buy the Kindle, despite the risk of betting on an e-book reader that turns out to be the equivalent of Beta or HD DVD. But, given that the Kindle does way too much and therefore costs a lot, I’ll wait to buy a reader until the market has settled down a bit, the formatting issues have been resolved, and I can buy a nice low-end reader for $150 or less. At this point I will either wait to buy e-books or buy BN e-books that at least will read on my Mac.

It was a fun date, but the Kindle is not yet marriage material.

December 23 Update: I just had a thought: why doesn’t Amazon allow e-book purchasers to view the books in a web browser with password protection? Then Amazon wouldn’t even need to release additional readers. Any device with a browser would suffice. Also, I sincerely hope that Apple makes an economy-model reader, as I imagine the Tablet will be priced well outside my budget.

2 thoughts on “E-Books: Amazon Versus Barnes and Noble

  1. Paul Hsieh

    For many online articles that I want to read on the Kindle, I set up the printable version then “print” using the PDF option on the print window.

    This creates a PDF version which I then transfer onto my Kindle DX.

    I read a lot of online articles that way. Plus it avoids the conversion service.

  2. Bill Brown

    Instapaper has some sort of Kindle download capability. I don’t have a Kindle so I never dug into it. I’d recommend Instapaper in general; I use it on my iPhone all the time.

    I think that Apple’s suspected tablet will solve a lot of the eBook DRM issues you’ve mentioned, albeit indirectly. I suspect that it will run iPhone apps in some fashion (they’d be exceedingly foolish to not make 100k apps available immediately at launch). Thus, it will support Kindle and Nook formats (among many others like ePub, PDF, and Audible). If it doesn’t run iPhone apps without modification, then it’ll likely be akin to the iPhone 3.0 transition where developers just had to make some minor adjustments to support the new OS. Amazon and B&N will update their apps because they’re more interested in selling books than selling the hardware.

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