Last week my Kindle 2 e-reader from Amazon arrived. I swore to my brother a couple of years ago I’d never buy 1.0 of anything ever again — and I’m glad I waited. I played briefly with a friend’s first-edition Kindle last year and was intrigued. The new version has a better display, better form factor, and better usability.
This device is far from perfect, but it’s impressive. It’s pricey ($359) — but I still think even the most cash-strapped newsroom should acquire one and make it available so journalists, editors, designers, and news technologists can play with it. If you can’t or won’t buy one and you’re in the online news biz, go buy a Kindle 2 owner a beer and play with theirs for an hour or two at least.
Why? Because I seriously suspect devices like this could become game-changers for online and mobile news — perhaps surprisingly fast. That is, if online news operations start taking e-reader technology seriously and work with Amazon and other e-reader makers to improve e-reader news delivery. We still have a way to go, but I see significant’s potential.
Currently Kindle is mainly intended for reading books. But Amazon has always sold newspapers and magazines (one-offs and subscriptions) since it launched the Kindle Store. Yes, that’s right: sold. As in: revenue.
This week I bought a couple of issues of Technology Review, and I even subscribed to the San Francisco Chronicle. (Yep, subscribed. Paid for it. Me. $5.99 per month. Imagine that.) Generally, I like getting news via Kindle, but there are some glitches.
My observations so far…
1. Kindle Store needs more news providers
Currently just under 100 newspapers and under 50 magazines and journals are available in Kindle format. As far as I can tell, that’s up even from last week. If your news isn’t sold in the Kindle Store yet, check into this option. If it isn’t too hard to do and the business deal is acceptable (see point 5 below), this might be free money. (I’d love to hear from people who have done this about what’s involved with creating and distributing a Kindle version of a publication.)
2. Better news navigation needed
Right now, when I go to the home page of a newspaper or magazine on my Kindle, I’m presented with the main story and a small “section list” navigation item at the bottom. When I click on that, I see a list of sections: just sections. Which isn’t very helpful — since I then must choose a section and click through the stories one by one.
It appears that there might be at least some flexibility with the current Kindle 2 to improve news navigation at least slightly. Over on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, Jim Romenesko commented to me: “Amy: It took me a few days to find them, but the Wall Street Journal on Kindle 2 has headlines and blurbs for each section. To get them, you click on the number that indicates how many articles are in each section. The heads then come up.”
This makes me wonder: Is it possible to present a Kindle 2 news venue home page that has a Google-News-style list of headlines and blurbs that I can quickly scan and possibly customize? Then once I choose a story of interest, I’d like to see the full Kindle layout — which is pretty nice, I think.
I don’t know how much the Kindle 2 news navigation limitations are a function of how the Kindle works, or of how news organizations have been packaging and delivering content for Kindle distribution so far. But it’s definitely a huge usability issue that could put people off from this news consumption experience.
3. Search needs work to increase revenue potential
Right now you can only search within one document at a time on the Kindle. Which means that I can’t search for a keyword across all the books, PDFs, newspapers, and magazines I have stored there — just within one document at a time.
So, for instance, if I see an interesting article in Technology Review on the power grid, I can’t quickly look up related articles from previous issues of that magazine. If I could, I would love to preview them. And maybe buy some. See that’s the thing: Search can promote purchasing as well as build brand. All kinds of publishers — including news publishers — should work with Amazon on this issue. Everyone could benefit.
4. The display rocks
No, it’s not color (yet). No, it’s not huge (yet). No, it’s not a touchscreen (yet). I don’t care. This electronic ink display is crisp, easily readable, and quite attractive. I quickly grew accustomed to clicking a button to turn a page, make a note, or navigate among documents. Once that became automatic, I was blown away by the quality of the rendering. It’s the same reason why I prefer watching video podcasts and YouTube videos on my iPhone: the display is just that good, much better than my laptop. And I have a nice laptop.
5. Check the revenue-splitting deal
Right now, many authors’ groups are angry with Amazon over what they see as a grossly unfair deal for content providers in the Kindle Store’s book contract. (Author Dan Sawyer pointed me to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Alliance’s critical annotation of the Kindle Store contract.)
I haven’t yet investigated whether news publishers are getting a fair deal from the Kindle Store — but given this precedent, it’s worth looking into. If it’s a bad deal now, that just means there’s room to negotiate. (If you have information on how the revenue split and rights are handled for news publishers, please comment below or e-mail me.)
6. Kindle iPhone application needs news
This week Amazon also launched a free Kindle iPhone application. This is not meant to duplicate the Kindle e-reader experience on the iPhone, but rather complement what the Kindle does. Specifically, if you’re reading a Kindle book but get stuck in line at the DMV and don’t have your Kindle with you, you can whip out your iPhone and read for a while.
I tried this, and it works well. However, so far this app only delivers to your iPhone the e-books you’ve purchased via the Kindle Store — not any newspapers or magazines you may have bought there, nor any pdf files you might have converted for Kindle reading. This is disappointing. Many news orgs still have lousy mobile sites, or no mobile-friendly version of their site at all, or (as Barb Iverson and I complained last summer) they don’t default to the mobile version when accessed by a mobile browser — you need to enter a special mobile URL.
A Kindle version accessible via this iPhone app might be a good halfway step for news orgs that want to be more mobile. It might even be attractive to iPhone owners who don’t own a Kindle.
Meanwhile, Rob Weir has published a review comparing the Kindle iPhone e-reader app to Stanza, another popular iPhone e-reader app. Bottom line: Stanza wins on all major counts except the average price of e-books.
…I’ll be writing more about the Kindle. In the meantime, what’s your experience? Please comment below.
NOTE: I originally published this article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.