July 21, 2008

Amazon Book Reader Favors Dexterous Users


Just before Mother's Day, my wife casually mentioned hearing Amazon.com's announcement that ample supplies of its Kindle electronic book reader were finally on hand.

I'd reviewed the Kindle just after Thanksgiving, and while I liked the concept, the controls were so badly designed that I kept accidentally turning pages every time I moved my hands ever-so- slightly, so I was constantly losing my place.

Being more dextrous, my wife quickly surmounted this obstacle. In fact, she loved the gadget, which allows you to browse more than 120,000 Amazon titles over a wireless network and download a best- seller for 10 bucks in about a minute.

The issue of buying became moot after I returned the review unit, because Amazon announced that it had sold out its Kindle inventory within days and wouldn't be able to fill its backlog of orders for months. So I'd almost forgotten about the reader when my wife casually brought up the subject again in May.

If there's one thing I've learned in 37 years of marriage, it's how to interpret these casual signals: Two days later a Kindle arrived at the door.

Good move, Himowitz. The Kindle was far more successful than the usual chocolate and flowers, and well worth the price tag in matrimonial happiness.

Within a few hours, my wife had downloaded a handful of titles from her favorite authors.

Over the ensuing weeks, she has found the electronic book a delightful companion thanks to a sharp, reflective screen that's comfortable under exactly the same lighting conditions that make it possible to read a real book.

Because there's no backlight, and Kindle's E-Ink technology uses power only when you "turn" a page, battery life is remarkable, particularly if you keep the radio turned off.

Eventually, I felt compelled to try the Kindle again myself this time at length to see if my first impressions were valid. So I persuaded my wife to part with the reader for a week and set about reading a mystery novel she had downloaded.

With enough practice, I got to the point where I hit the Next and Previous page keys mistakenly only five or six times an hour. I also learned to insert lots of electronic bookmarks and "lock" the screen on the current page before putting the Kindle down.

In addition to being a book reader, the Kindle has some terrific features, including a built-in MP3 player and a function that allows correspondents to send you Microsoft Word documents and photos for 10 cents apiece (although the screen's four-step gray scale display is marginal for images).

Amazon also offers Kindle subscriptions, as well as single-copy sales, of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

However, as much as my wife loves her Kindle, those basic control problems still made reading on it a wash for me almost as annoying as it was convenient. So when she started agitating to get the Kindle back, I was just as happy to return it to her.

Although it generated lots of hype at the outset, it's hard to know just how popular the Kindle has been. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos won't discuss exact sales. But Apple and other gadget makers usually trumpet these figures when they're good, so the lack of hard numbers could be the result of two scenarios.

One is that Amazon rushed the Kindle into the gadget stream without thoroughly testing the controls, and then couldn't ramp up production in time for Christmas. The other is that Amazon didn't want to take a chance on an expensive dud -- so it made about 300 Kindles and then bragged about selling out overnight. Taking orders for a popular gadget that's out of stock poses a lot less risk than overstocking something that won't sell.

But if Amazon really wants the Kindle to take off, it must lower the price, which is at least $150 too high for an impulse buy. It's certainly too high to justify his-and-hers Kindles in our house -- as much as I'd like a new model of my own.

E-mail Himowitz at [email protected]

Originally published by MICHAEL HIMOWITZ Baltimore Sun.

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