I wrote back in March 2009 about my hopes and dreams for a tablet from Apple, all of which came true on January 27, 2010 with the release of the new iPad. But in late fall 2009, I decided to get into ebook readers since I was reading a lot more books for some research. I ended up purchasing the Kindle DX, the largest of Amazon’s ebook reading devices. I also downloaded Kindle for PC to run in Parallels on my Mac, and also ran the Kindle for iPhone application. Here is a table that shows some of the key differences. And I’ve added in the iPad to begin comparing it to the three I have already been using now for many months. I thought that my own learning might be valuable to others looking at making the same decision.

I was asked, “what are you comparing though – the value of the device / software as a reader or as a multi-purpose tablet?” Another person asked me “is this a platform competition? What if I leave the “reading” app and go outside? Doesn’t that still count as using the device?”

I admit I struggled with that until I realized what I was actually trying to figure out was the following: which combination of stores and devices will let me do as much as possible in as few devices as possible while maximizing my access to great low-cost ebook content? So to that end, as I started to compare options, I shifted from “is it a good reader” to “is it a good device to let me see all the content I want to see, regardless of application or viewer?”

Let’s look at use cases:

Multi-day: On a multi-day business trip, I already take my laptop, Kindle, and iPhone. So the question I am really trying to answer is: can I use the iPad as a replacement for the DX I always carry on trips like that for reading on long flights, and since it can do more generally, will it become a full-on replacement?

Day trip: Currently I mostly head out on day trips with just my DX and my iPhone. It’s okay but honestly I don’t want to read a book on the iPhone, it’s too small. It’s okay for taking teensy-weensy notes but not much more. Typing notes on the DX is like poking sharp needles into your eyes. It’s really lame. And besides, those notes are only allowed in the books themselves. It also has no wifi and my US version doesn’t have cellular coverage in Canada. So all in all, it really just ends up being like carrying a novel around that I can read in between meetings. Could the iPad be the “tween” device that lets me take slightly longer notes if I want? Why not get a netbook so I don’t have to lug around my 7 pound MacBook Pro? Because, like Steve Jobs, I hate netbooks. I hate their tiny poor-quality screens and cramped little keyboards. And sure, you can hack them to make a Mac but I hate hacking things. I just want to unveil them out of the box and have them magically work.

Pure reading: I use the Kindle a lot for reading at home or at the cafe. I can toss it in my backpack, go for a coffee and sit and read and write notes and think. But the slow speed, clunky highlighting, and annoying clipping limits do grate me a bit. It was the best I had and it was a great luxury so I have certainly enjoyed it. And it has been nice to be able to have all my books with me. There is also a blissful simplicity in having a device that sucks at absolutely everything except reading a page of text. It acts as a constraint to let you focus better. But I really think that’s a bit of human post-hoc rationalization and reframing – the same thing we say about “the good old days when things were simpler” which is nowspeak for “we had no food or water or money and the war was on but life was still good.” B.S. that’s just wearing rose-coloured glasses to reframe your experience. The current Kindle if you look at it truthfully can’t “flip through pages” quickly. It’s a painful 3-5 second lag per page. The 5 way toggle is clunky. Everybody I hand the device to tries to “swipe” the pages and then looks confused. It’s SLOW. The PDF viewer is horrendous and unusable for powerpoint decks. It sucks at everything on earth except basic text pages.  So I love the books, I love reading on a tablet in a cafe or at home, but I hate the actual user experience of this particular Kindle DX. It’s a blessing and I’m not giving it away until I have a replacement but my iPhone Kindle app spoiled me. It’s so fast and smooth and elegant…just too darned small.

For my uses above, I want the iPad. It is a reader but it’s so much more. It has wifi and 3G so no matter where I am or which country I’m in, it will function without me having to worry about 3G coverage. And it’s just so lickable and fast and clean and iPod-like. I’m already sold. But it may not be the answer for you. Here is a table to help you examine it for your own needs. I’ve also added in the Kindle for iPhone application (which I’m hoping will be expanded to become the Kindle for iPad application) and the Kindle for PC application. The Kindle for Mac app is not out yet. Hopefully it will be better than the PC version which is poor.


Apple iPad
Amazon Kindle DX
Kindle for iPhone
Kindle for PC / Mac (coming soon)

Reader Price
$499-829 USD
$429-$489 USD
Free
Free
Screen size (diag)
9.7″
9.7″
3.5″
variable
Resolution
1024×768
@ thousands of colours
1200×824
@ 16 greys
480×320
@ thousands of colors
variable
Weight
about 1.6 lb
(5 iPods)
approx 1.2 lbs
(4 iPods)
approx 0.3 lb

Storage
16/32/64GB flash only (no hard drive!)
4GB internal hard drive (3500 books)
depends on model
n/a
Battery life:
Apple says 10 hours. I don’t buy it. Call it “a day”
Days. I often get 2-4 days of reading out of it
Ha. Don’t get me started. Google “iPhone Battery Life”
n/a
Screen type
LED backlit multi-touch IPS with wide viewing angle. Great for everything.
Non-backlit e-ink display that is easy on the eyes, and very energy efficient. e-ink is COOL. But slow and
standard iPhone screen
n/a
Readability
Demo looks good; looking forward to using it; unknown in bright light
Very easy on the eyes; EXCELLENT in bright light/sun.
Easy to read; just too damned small
depends on your screen
Application fit and finish and quality
Demo looks great. If it works as well as it demos, then Apple’s reader is pretty awesome.
Clunky app from Mac Plus circa 1990; home screen is an awful set of pages in a list. Reading once you’re in the book is great though.
Tight, clean application
Dog’s breakfast slapped together in an afternoon. Missing search field; wacky text line resizing; feels half-baked
Read Amazon store books
Yes, via Kindle for iPhone or iPad
Yes
Yes
Yes
Read iBook Store books
Yes, via iBook app
No
?
No
Total Paid Books available
Current:
400,000 Amazon
Uknown? Apple iBooks
Out of print:
1 Million+ Google
= 1.5M?+ books??
Current: 400,000+ Amazon books, magazines, and blogs. Can not be used to read Google’s books.
Current: 400,000+ Amazon books, magazines, and blogs. Can not be used to read Google’s books.
Current: 400,000+ Amazon books, magazines, and blogs. Can not be used to read Google’s books.
Read Text files
Yes, in other apps
Yes
Yes, in other apps
Yes, in other apps on the PC
Read PDFs
Yes, in the email app
Yes, but poorly. No pan or zoom. Rotate only works with some docs. Landscape PDFs from PPT are horrible and “2 paged” in landscape mode. Small print PDFs are illegible. Slow.
Yes, in the email app. Small but readable and zoomable.
Yes, in your PC PDF viewer
Read .doc files
Yes, in the email app
Yes, with conversion
Yes, in other apps
Not in the Kindle app
eNews?
Soon. NYT to start, others to follow.
Yes but it’s a horrible “news reading” experience, with limited graphics and horrendous indexing
No
No
Wifi
Included
n/a. I actually think this was clever of Amazon for their first move given the device’s limited complexity and UI.
Included
depends on PC
3G cellular
optional: requires higher end model starting at $629USD and $15-30/mo
included free in purchase price of books
Included in phone; Kindle app uses it
depends on PC
Screen rotation
Auto; no option to turn off
Auto or fixed
Auto
n/a
Hardware speed
freaking fast if the video demos are accurate
Mac Plus era painful (2-5 seconds per action – kill me)
fast; love it
depends on PC
Native book store DRM restrictions
Unknown; hopefully Steve will push for lenient or no DRM like with music before it
limits to # of downloads, # of clippings/highlights, number of devices, ALL of which are undocumented and set by individual publishers
see left
see left
Native bookstore eBook format
ePub format (same as the 1M+ old books Google is in the process of scanning)
Proprietary DRM’ed AZW file (.mobi based)
Proprietary DRM’ed AZW file (.mobi based) Proprietary DRM’ed AZW file (.mobi based)
Audio
Full iPod (woohoo!)
clunky beta audio book and mp3 player not worth using
n/a
n/a
Font
multiple to choose from
single font type
single font type
single font type
Font size
variable
variable
variable
variable
Interaction tool
Multi-touch
clunky 5 way toggle
Multi-touch
Mouse/Keyboard
Dictionary
Unknown
Included
n/a
n/a
Search library
Coming
Yes
No
NONE!
Search book
Coming
Yes
No
NONE!
Highlighting
Coming
Yes but limited in VERY stupid ways
multi-touch highlighting; nice!
NONE!
Annotations
Coming
Yes, with built-in keyboard that is horrible to use.
Yes, but there’s not much screen real estate left!
NONE!
Colour?
Yes
16 greys
black, white, sepia
16 greys
Video can be embedded in book
Yes
No
No
No
Web browser
Safari and it looks like it screams
Beta crappy test browser that barely loads pages
n/a
n/a
Best Use Cases
Apple fanatic who wants a multi-purpose tablet, browser, email, video, content watching thingamajig. Me. Fan-boys/girls. Kids. Gamers. Movie-lovers. Book-lovers. *Education. Web-surfers. The market for this thing is stinking huge. Edu
Book lover who just wants to read huge volumes of text on a super light, very easy to read reader that doesn’t have to be recharged all the time and who doesn’t want to fuss with complicated technology.
Good for catching up on your reading in those spare moments in between meetings.
Good for scanning books quickly on very large screens. I use it on a rotated 24″ screen in portrait mode and it’s great for that!
Summary (Device)
This multi-function mobile device is a game-changer and will add huge new revenues (and hopefully great margins) to Apple’s top and bottom lines. Best for people who don’t mind the added complexity (and weight) and shorter battery life to have a lot more functionality.
The world’s best ebook (only) reader with an excellent collection of current books that you can access quickly and easily in 100 countries with no fuss. This is a great device for book-lovers wanting a portable book.
good for 2nd or 3rd reader to supplement a primary reader.
Poor attempt at a PC app; should have been finished before being released.

As you can see there are really a few decisions that are sort of coupled and that depend on your own needs:

  • Which is the better reading device?
  • What are the best sources of content for my needs?
  • How many devices do I want?
  • What do I want to do with them?

The Device: iPad vs. DX

Amazon is not a hardware company. They only launched the Kindle because hell, they HAD to. Their hardware had some very specific design criteria (long battery life, easy on the eyes, and low cost) and the further (unfortunate) constraint that hardware is not in their DNA like it is at Apple. They’re a low margin high velocity retailer, not an Apple clone. Having said all that, I love Amazon. I love their service. I love their efficient systems. I love the fact that whenever I look up a book on their service, it’s almost always available for $9.99. I love that they make it so easy for me to read and because of them, I’m reading a LOT more. I love them despite the Kindle hardware, not because of it.

Apple is a hardware, software, services, content, engineering, design company and that shows up in this beautiful tablet. Unequivocally I would trade my Kindle DX in and use the iPad instead. Because then I could read but I could also do a lot more. Their device is hands down a better device. I do not buy the marketing messaging from Amazon that their e-ink screen is “easier on the eyes”. I doubt that’s been proven. They’re both operating at similar pixel densities (130-150 pixels per inch) and my understanding has always been that it’s pixel density plus good anti-aliasing that makes the difference, not “lack of backlight”. The second reason is that the Kindle feels like operating a painfully slow Mac Plus from twenty years ago in grey scale. It takes forever to flip pages, jump through chapters, highlight large sections of text or generally move at the speed of thought. You can’t think/do. You think, do……wait….wait….wait…..oh rats, I wanted to do something ELSE. It’s painful.

Winner for devices: iPad without question in my mind

eBook Store: Amazon.com vs. iBook Store

Interestingly the eBook Store is not as coupled to the device as you might initially think. The iPhone is the single largest ebook reading platform for Amazon.com’s titles because so many people have them in their pockets and have downloaded Amazon.com’s excellent little “Kindle for iPhone” application (which is much much better than their half-baked “Kindle for PC” application.)

Amazon has north of 400,000 titles in their own custom .azw file format but they’re the most popular and most current titles on earth and they’re adding to that list rapidly. Because I read current work, this is the most important source to me today. Barnes & Noble and Sony don’t come close so I never looked at them once I had figured that out. So as long as Apple let’s Amazon play nicely by letting them release “Kindle for iPad” that operates at full pixel density (and you don’t have to just run the “Kindle for iPhone” app in 2x double-pixel mode (which would make it awful), then my first preference probably for most of 2010 would be to read Amazon titles on my Kindle for iPad application on the iPad. Next, Google is scanning a million out of print books and making them available in ePub or PDF formats. This is great news for iPad users since it will use ePub and presumably will be able to access these books. I’ve looked at a couple (from the early 1700s actually) but they make up 0.1% of my reading so they’re almost not relevant. Great humanitarian project, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not the material I want as somebody on the bleeding edge of technology and business. Thirdly, Apple’s iBook store will take a while to get going, as it did with their iTunes catalog. But they have the money and the people and the will so I think it will happen and be great. So I think that at least for 2010 I’d end up reading books from both the Amazon store and the Apple iBook store on the iPad. Best of both worlds!

But in the long run, “defaults count”. The store that is shipped on board the device will have the greater network effect and will eventually overtake the Amazon store (which would require a separate download if Apple doesn’t block it entirely at some point.)

Winner: Apple & Amazon.com! (since I’d be buying titles from both) but with Apple pulling ahead in the long run (2-3 years)

What will Amazon do to counter the iPad?

They are trying to build a developer community around the Kindle. I think that with the current crappy hardware, that’s a non-starter. It’s just not an interesting device to build apps for. I think developers would build for anything BUT the Kindle. And that really blows up Amazon’s key message about it being a single-function device.

I think that they have the will and finances to build a next generation colour e-ink display and to keep pushing on the idea of faster, lighter, more energy efficient, and non-backlit. That’s their key set of design priorities. I think it remains to be seen how many people will be attracted to that vision vs. spending the same amount of money to get a device that not only looks better for books but also does everything else. I never think of these things as either/or. There will be room for Kindles and Nooks and all the other dedicated ebook readers. But I think the iPad will eat a major part of what would have been their market share, very quickly marginalizing them to the edges of the market. If they do continue to push the boundaries of the technology, it could be interesting. But good hardware is just not in their DNA (yet) so it could take a very long while.

Amazon seems to be best when they can build massive global systems that efficiently distribute “stuff” (virtual or physical) at low margins and huge volumes. They are the world’s largest e-tailer and they’re insanely great at that. I know they’ll continue doing that. The Kindle will hopefully just continue to be a set of applications that run on all devices.

Black Swans

Here is a perfect world scenario for me but it’s a bit of a black swan – a low probablility, high impact event. Apple and Amazon strike a deal and Apple can ingest all of Amazon’s content and ditch their proprietary DRM (just like Apple did with the music labels over a four year period) until eventually you can read all of Amazon’s, Apple’s, and Google’s ePub books in the iPad reader with minimal or no DRM. Please Steve, make it happen.

My final decision

I’ll order an iPad as soon as one is available, (not sure if it will be the wifi or I’ll wait for the 3G) and then if I can read all of my Kindle content on there it will probably become my tablet of choice and the Kindle may go away. I know that it will be a more effective device for carrying on day trips and for hanging at the cafe. I’ll just have to remember to bring a charger since I don’t believe Apple’s battery claims.

In the meantime, where is my DX so I can sit down and do some reading? Man this is slow, and clunky and OLD feeling today. Sigh. Makes me realize how true this Onion story is.