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Kindle in Japan: Any questions?

The International Kindle, released last week, finally came into my eager hands last night. This is my first eReader. The reason I purchased it is — ironically enough — my love for paper books. I love to annotate, but I would rather not deface my books. For me there is just something wrong with marking up books. Furthermore, I move often. Over the past dozen years I have moved house ten times — mostly international moves too. This time next year I could be in Tokyo, San Francisco or London. Who knows. The result is I have hundreds of pounds of paper books stored in caches all over the place; at my parents house, at friends houses, and here in Japan. The Kindle solves these problems (annotations, space) — how well, it is too early to say.

There are a number of issues related to the network and purchasing in Japan that I was worried about. Many of you may have similar qualms so let’s see if we can’t put some of them to rest.

As soon as I got the Kindle up and running I:

  • bought a book from the device
  • bought a book on my iMac and transferred it to the Kindle
  • downloaded and transferred a book from Project Gutenberg
  • converted an ePub book to Mobi with Calibre and transferred it
  • downloaded a sample chapter from the Kindle store
  • downloaded a trial subscription to a magazine
  • converted and transferred a magazine Calibre

I can happily report that all these operations worked like a charm. I have yet to try MP3s or audiobooks. I have an iPhone, ‘nuff said.

There are only a few caveats I would warn you about. First of all, although there is no download fee for purchasing books over WhisperNet, books sold in the “Asia Pacific” Kindle store are $2 more than their American counterparts. What annoys me is that if look at a list of books on Amazon, they are listed at $9.99, but when you click through to an individual product page, the price becomes $11.99 all of a sudden. Amazon obviously have some work left to do on their database.

Second, “Newspapers and magazines delivered outside the U.S. will not include photos and other images.” This renders any periodical that uses graphs useless. Furthermore, the pricing scheme for newspapers and magazines overseas is way out of proportion to domestic pricing. Thank the gods for Calibre.

Third, blog subscriptions are not available overseas. Earlier I assumed this meant no access to the web at all. However, web access — including Google and Wikipedia — is perfectly available in Japan. Too bad navigating to the browser is so kludgy: to access the browser you have to make a Google search. That brings me to my impressions about the device itself.

When I first opened the box (see unboxing pics here) I was impressed with the packaging. Very slick. The Kindle is very light, and the build quality is sufficient for a plastic device. It disappointed me to see that the brushed aluminum back is actually just plastic. The power adapter is nice and small, smaller even than the iPod adapters released earlier this year.

This is my first experience with eInk, so I have nothing to compare the Kindle to, but I find the screen impeccably readable. The font is legible and pictures render well in 16 shades of greyscale. It being a plastic device, the buttons are very clicky. Hopefully they will be worked in over time, but as someone who is used to a keyboard and multitouch, these buttons are too much work. ( ̄ω ̄;)

Navigation is achieved by a clickable 4-way control nub, a MENU button and a BACK button. This of course means an endless array of nested menus resulting in a kludgy interface to say the least. Navigating is a pain. Maybe that is why the Sony Reader has so many of those ugly soft buttons on it. Many of the nav problems of the Kindle could be solved with a touch screen. Yes, I am spoiled by my iPhone.

Even worse is the lack of any visual mapping as to where you are in the system. There are no breadcrumbs to let the user know where they are in the system. It is like navigating UNIX: the user has to have the entire file system mapped out in his head. Mind you, this is more of a problem with magazines and newspapers than with books.

The Home screen could also be better. The Home screen displays all of your content in one massive list. The only categorization is:

  • Personal Docs
  • Subscriptions
  • Books

If you fill your Kindle with the 1500 books as advertised, finding anything will be a chore. The “search my items” menu does not even act as a filter. A user generated categorization system like Genres or Authors on a iPod would be useful. At least have a “Latest Reads” smart list like Stanza on the iPhone so I can quickly find the books, newspapers, docs and magazines that I am currently reading.

The filesystem is also so simplistic as to be a mess. There is just a “documents” folder that you drag and drop all your content into. Reminds me of the MP3 players from the late 1990s. This is obviously not an elegant solution when one has 1500 books. Once again, Apple has spoiled me. Thankfully, the Kindle can see files inside of folders so content can be organized to some degree within the filesystem. This however does not solve the problem of the information overload on the Home screen.

The Clippings file, a single plaintext file where all one’s annotations are saved, also seems problematic. If I make 100 notes for every 300 page book and have 1500 books, I can see this file getting pretty difficult to manage. This file should be a database or an XML file. We’ll have to wait and see if it works out in actual use.

Having only had the device for a mere 18 hours, these first impressions are simply that: first impressions. Furthermore, since I have no other eReader to compare the Kindle to, reader beware. You should read Steve Nagata’s review, he has a Sony Reader to compare to. He also makes some important points about pricing that people in Japan should be aware of.

Overall, while not blown away by the device, I am satisfied with my purchase and look forward spending many hours with it. In closing, I would like to explain why I jumped on the Kindle bandwagon so fast, despite the fact that there are a number of slick looking eBook readers coming out within the next few months. My thinking is that even if the Kindle experience is not that great, someone will make a great eReader in the near future that is compatible with Amazon digital content. Amazon is not in the hardware business but in the “bits” business. The Kindle is just a long term play to jumpstart the digital books industry. I think that someday they will cede the actual physical bookreader market to other makers. Amazon will simply become the digital content provider that all the devices are connected too. Think if Apple opened up iTunes to any and all digital music players. Thus I am not too worried about lock-in with Amazon’s DRM.

I have made the title of this post a question to enable comments on this Tumblr post. If you have any questions or comments please do so below, or @ me on Twitter.

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