Friday, November 23, 2007

More Thoughts on the Kindle

Some insights after reading a book and a couple Journals on The Kindle:

  • The next/previous page buttons are really useful; I can get into this rhythm where I press the next button by flexing my hand as it holds the device.
  • The next/previous page buttons, being so large, make it difficult to change your grip on the device (including pick it up) without clicking one or both.
  • Next buttons adorn both sides of the device; I can hold The Kindle with either hand, in varying positions, and still turn the page, a feat impossible with paper books.
  • The device does inline lookups for back-matter and other notes, which makes reading them much easier than with a paper book.
  • I have seen minor ghosting on a few occasions, which Amazon acknowledges. The artifacts are not annoying, but I expect better.
  • When connected via USB, The Kindle appears as a USB mass storage device.
  • Battery life is impressive. The battery is at 50% after several days with wireless turned on. I do not even turn the device off; rather, I just let it go into its sleep mode (wherein it paints a pretty picture to the screen before turning off).
  • There is no inline Wikipedia lookup, which is disappointing. You can, however, search the collaborative encyclopedia using the built-in search tool.
  • Newspaper are more enjoyable than on first pass. The metaphor is still rough, and requires too much clicking and scrolling, but it works. I might keep my subscription after all.
  • Likely my most flattering comment: Books on The Kindle are a pleasure. The device fades out, the text consumes all, and you are easily lost in the words.

A few intrepid readers wrote in to point out that iRex's iLiad sports a stylus over its e-paper and the result is lackluster—as with the iPhone, input is prone to errors. I still believe that typing is so limited a task (at least with the more-focused Kindle) that a compromise on input device is acceptable, but their poor experience renders my previous suggestion less obvious.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review of the Amazon Kindle

My Amazon Kindle is here, unpacked, charged, and sporting a couple books.

First off, let's address my most scathing comments: the "thing is hideous" and "horrid in appearance." After face time with the device, I still find it unattractive, although its not as 1980s as it looks in photos. The biggest issue is the keys; they consume nearly a third of the device, when ideally the screen should occupy 95% of the face. Nor is the white color appealing. It worked for the iPod, which was small, but not for the Kindle—white is not a flattering color for those of size. It is also going to get very dirty.

The goal, I suspect, was usability over elegance. For all its ugliness, the device fits comfortably in your hands. The color helps it blend in, ensuring that the focus is on the text and not the contraption. The shape mimics a book and common book operations—such as turning the page—are natural. The tradeoff was intentional.

Even given this design decision, the keyboard is still a problem. Large and obtrusive, the keyboard steals precious real-estate that should go to the screen. Worse, the device's common use case is not even typing. For most of your interactions with the Kindle, you never touch the keyboard. That is a poor compromise. For the next revision, Amazon needs to ditch the keyboard altogether, increasing the screen size (or shrinking the device) to match. I don't see any technical reason why you could not couple E Ink technology with a touchscreen—anything but this monstrosity. Adding salt to the wound, the keyboard is not even very good: with an unusual layout and angle, typing is weird, although I can type with two hands. Odder still, due to the E Ink there is a discomforting lag between your keystrokes and the resulting letters showing up on the screen. The delay is in the sub-second range, minimal and not a real burden, but unnatural compared to modern machines.

Amazon Kindle

I bought two books, one directly from the device, one from my laptop. In both cases, the book was automatically sent to the device within a minute. Buying over the EVDO connection is fast and easy. The marketplace is intuitive to navigate and the system uses Amazon's patented 1-Click technology to make the purchase literally a single click (Kindles are linked to your amazon.com account at time of purchase). Its very cool to click a button and seemingly instantaneously have a copy of a book on the device, sans wires.

The device is clearly optimized for the bookworm (as opposed to the aesthete or the geek). The previous/next page buttons are well-placed and, although E Ink has perceptible page transitions, page flips are faster than turning paper pages. The inline dictionary lookup is useful, although I could not find the advertised Wikipedia lookup. The text is quite readable and is eerily similar to ink on paper. I have seen Sony's Reader (but not the just-released version) and, although the screen should be the same, the Kindle looks better. I am not going to dwell on what E Ink offers—persistent display, low power draw, no flicker, no need for backlight—except to say that the Kindle seems as good an exemplar of electrophoretic display technology as anything else. Given the readable text and usable interface, I am cautiously optimistic that the Kindle can replace physical books.

I am less sure of newspapers. I speculated that the newspaper and magazine subscription service was the Kindle's killer feature. A device that is automatically pushed the day's paper every morning is the future, right up there with flying cars and an insolvent social security. So I subscribed to The Journal. To be sure, its neat having a copy of the day's paper always on hand, and the $9.99/month price is fair. But, while the Kindle successfully captures the book metaphor, it is not so good with newspapers. Although basic book navigation is a pleasure, more complex interactions are less fun. The Kindle's unique scrollbar and scroll/clickwheel are nice, but moving through menus and other hierarchies require too much scrolling and clicking. Unfortunately, that is largely what a newspaper is—a series of sections and subsections, each containing a bunch of articles. Navigating articles is time consuming and it is hard to get a grasp on what is left to read. I also cannot glean sufficient information from the headlines to decide whether to read the article; thus the headline list is nearly worthless and I have to jump into and start reading every piece. I do this with the dead tree version of The Journal as well, of course, but the physical form makes that sort of article skimming easy.

Amazon Kindle

So whereas my initial reaction to the Kindle vis-á-vis books is positive, my first-pass experience with newspapers suggests I might not renew the Journal subscription. Alternatively, you can buy individual dailies for $0.75, which sounds incredibly useful right before a flight. Stocked up on a couple newspapers, I am one happy flyer.

The system—Linux 2.6.10 and firmware 1.0 (build 121380292)—boots quick, from off to on and usable in under ten seconds. But the runtime power management seems good enough that you do not need to regularly turn the device off. Instead, I would just disable the wireless, for which there is a convenient switch right next to the power. But even that may be unnecessary, as the device appears capable of turning the wireless off when not in use, although I presume it turns it back on at regular intervals to check for pending pushes. Folks who use the subscription functionality to push a newspaper to their device every morning will need to get into the habit of keeping the Kindle plugged in overnight; everyone else can be fairly relaxed. I do not yet have any longer term battery measurements, but I played with my device all of yesterday and again this morning after a single quick charge and the battery level is still 100%.

The Kindle has a couple of experimental features, including a web browser, which does not seem to have any restrictions on what you can access. Obviously text content renders best, but even complex HTML and images came out okay. In fact, given the large screen and fast EVDO interface, the experience was pretty good. I suspect this functionality won't be enabled forever, or at least won't be free, given the freeriding potential.

Amazon Kindle

Another experimental feature is Ask Kindle NowNow, which is a free crowdsourcing Q&A market implemented using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. I asked, "what is the rarest variant of cheetah?" A couple of minutes later, my Kindle had a new entry in its content list, containing three answers: two votes for the rare King Cheetah—a decidedly rare mutant—and one reply going with the albino cheetah. Given my unscientific use of "variant," I don't know what the right answer is, but I was expecting the King. As with web browsing, I suspect this functionality will not remain free indefinitely.

One of the most significant trends the Kindle could fuel is downward pressure on book prices. With hardcovers clocking in at $20 or $25, Kindle's $9.99 is a huge change that will substitute physical for virtual book purchases. The question is, to what degree? The current rigamarole that publishers dance through does not help prices; deciding how many books to print in each run and managing the publisher-bookseller relationship is a real mess. A distribution mechanism with less risk and no supply chain hassle is a big win.

I have not mentioned the Kindle's restrictive terms of use or the inability to easily modify the device. Why? Because I am placing pragmatism before ideology. More importantly, consumers don't care. The book market is not the same as cellular, the Kindle is not the same as Android—there is no unabashed rent seeking, no inefficient industry, no lack of innovation despite so many possibilities. (The EVDO connection on the Kindle is actually a great example of the sort of innovation I hope Android to spur. Why aren't all of our devices on the network?) Longer-term, we need open standards and open devices to ensure price competition and foster innovation, but let's be practical and take an iterative approach. The Kindle is, after all, just a damn screen for reading text and I buy all my books from Amazon anyhow.

What we do have, however, is a specific want: Get lots of books on a small, lightweight device that is enjoyable to read in varied environments. The Kindle satisfies that want. As Jeff wrote, "our top design objective was for the Kindle to disappear in your hands—to get out of your way—so you can enjoy your reading." And the Kindle meets that objective. For specific users—the heavy reader, the frequent flyer, the geek—the Kindle is a home run. But you will have to wait, as the device is already on backorder.

See also: My initial thoughts and my discovery and analysis of the device's use of Linux.

Update: Miguel asks if I confirmed my suspicion that the device lacks PDF support. Indeed, the Kindle cannot read PDF. You are not even able to use the conversion user@kindle.com mechanism to rejigger them into AZW files. Given that so many PDFs are images (from scans) and not text, it is easy to overestimate the utility of this feature, but its absence is still lame.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Microsoft, Innovation Engine

Funny post over at Google Blogoscoped: What If Gmail Had Been Designed by Microsoft?

Joking the other day, I mused on how bad it would be to work at Microsoft: I would have to give up Linux for Vista, Android for Windows Embedded, iPod for Zune, Google for Live, Firefox for Internet Explorer, Gmail for Exchange.

In all seriousness, I do not even know what to say to that record. They have an answer for everything, and it is the wrong one.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Kindle Powered by Linux

My Amazon Kindle is not yet here, but I came across the device's source code notice, which reveals the book reader's OS: The Amazon Kindle is powered by Linux, specifically a 2.6.10 kernel and an assortment of familiar user-space bits1.

On initial study, nothing particularly brow-raising jumps out among the kernel changes: some driver modifications, XIP on MTD, a backport of kstrdup and kzalloc, squashfs, Samsung's RFS, and a procfs interface for forcing the reset of TCP connections.

Most notable is a power-saving infrastructure named fpow, which provides device-level power management and aggressive system suspend functionality that is responsible for the device's excellent battery life. The architecture, which is based around an Intel PXA250 chip, is alternatingly labeled Fiona and Lab126 in the source. The former is the codename for the Kindle as a whole (some amazon.com URLs leak the name). The latter, interestingly, is apparently an Amazon subsidiary that is "an innovative consumer-focused startup company" who "design[s] and develop[s] easy-to-use, highly integrated consumer products to serve Amazon customers" including the Kindle.

I generated a diff against 2.6.10.

If curious, Kindle users can download the complete tarball.

1 Source posted includes alsa-lib-1.0.6, alsa-utils-1.0.6, binutils-2.16.1, bsdiff-4.3, busybox-1.01, bzip2-1.0.3, dosfstools-2.11, e2fsprogs-1.38, freetype-2.1.10, gcc-3.4.2, jpeg-6b, libpng-1.2.8, linux-2.6.10-lab126, module-init-tools-3.1, ncurses-5.4, ppp-2.4.4b1, procps-3.2.7, taglib-1.4, u-boot-1.1.2, uClibc-0.9.27, util-linux-2.12, and zlib-1.2.3.

Firewood

Amazon's Kindle is out and available for purchase. I ordered a device and it will arrive tomorrow at Google Boston (we are hiring, by the by). I make that early sacrifice so you do not have to.

Amazon Kindle atop a book

Initial thoughts:

  • The thing is hideous. Absolutely horrid in appearance. Much of this is due to the fact it is white, but the bar set by Apple is not even grazed. Joey, aghast at "all those buttons," remarks that "it looks like it was designed in 1989."
  • As speculated, the EVDO connection powers a mobile marketplace—service is free and transparent with a Kindle purchase—called Whispernet. You can browse the book catalogue, purchase content via your Amazon account, and download, all directly from the device and over the highspeed cellular network. No computer required.
  • It seems to only support Amazon's proprietary AZW format—you can't even read unencumbered PDFs.
  • Purchase includes a foo@kindle.com email address, which you can use to email yourself "Microsoft Word (.DOC), HTML, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP and TXT files" for $0.10 a document (presumably to cover the cellular access). You can also upload (for free) these files to the device via USB (cable included). But no PDF?
  • Unlike the situation with iTunes, it appears that Amazon will manage and allow later retrieval of your books: "Your Kindle content is stored in Your Media Library in case you want to re-download [it] at a later date."
  • Inline dictionary and Wikipedia look up of any word over EVDO is hot, although the term used in the demonstrative video, profligate, was poorly selected.
  • Display specs: 6" diagonal, 600x800 at 167 ppi, 4-level gray scale, powered by Cambridge's own E Ink.
  • Battery life looks good. Lasts "a week or more" with wireless off. Recharges in two hours.
  • The killer feature, for me: Newspaper subscriptions, automatically pushed to the device every morning, for $5.99 ~ $13.99 a month. Available dailies include The Times, The Journal, and The Post.

Technology pundits are likely to fall into one of two extremes, this is the iPod of books or no one wants to read books on a screen, a function of whether they were included in the launch and are under 40. Without pause, the open source crowd is going to say it is too closed. The target market won't appreciate whether the format is open, or the OS is Linux, but they will care if the device is too limited or costly for practical use. Indeed, the iPod played MP3s, after all, even if the ultimate experience with that device is iTunes-based.

A key user is the frequent flyer. I routinely travel with several books and a stack of magazines. Both my back and my overstuffed bag would appreciate replacing the dead trees with a single 10.3oz Kindle. I've also been burned on enough trips with a new book that I realize all-too-late I have no interest in reading that the ability to slurp down a text or two right from the gate is incredibly appealing.

I will pen an update once I have some face time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Dozen Years Later

When I first compiled a Linux kernel—version 1.1 or 1.2 I believe—the ordeal took well over an hour.

Working on the preemptive kernel, with some sort of Pentium III, I spent about 20 minutes on each fresh build. Hacking on inotify—I am recalling the different projects were I rebuilt the kernel a hundred times a day—the time spent was under ten minutes.

Somewhere since then recompiles dropped to several minutes, and then a minute or two. I don't know when I actually crossed the chasm, but today I noticed my first sub-minute kernel compile: 48 seconds. And this is with gcc 4.2 and gnome-terminal, no friends of the cause.

Just as titillating, with my 2400 "baud" modem, it took me two hours to download all of 1.2's whooping two megabytes. Today, I can download all 43MB of 2.6.23 in 15 seconds at almost 3MB/s. As a comparison, it would take two days to download a modern kernel with my old modem.

This is a 150x increase in compilation speeda and 11,500x speed up in network performance in about a dozen years. From then to now, memory and storage have increased in capacity 2,000x and 3,000x, respectively. In fact, I have 64x more video RAM now than I did physical RAM then.

Despite all this, my hard disk's seek time is essentially the same.

The thesis of my 2005 GUADEC talk: Going to disk is 25 million times slower than hitting a general purpose register. Design accordingly.

a Given the use of gnome-terminal versus a raw console, the fact that gcc has grown slower in compilation, the huge increase in size of the kernel tree, and the enlargement of the resulting kernel image, this number is much smaller than it would be in any sort of scientific test.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Android SDK

Android

Watch the video, get the SDK, take the challenge, change an industry.

And kick-start your developer knowledge with the Androidology video series: Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Over at O'Reilly ONlamp, an excellent technical discussion of the Android architecture and SDK.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Questions and Questions

Why aren't dual layer DVD's layer transitions done during scene transitions—that is, why is the pause always at the worst possible frame, and not after a fade to black?

Musharraf Declares Martial Law is News with a capital n, but you would not know it from watching, you know, the news.