The joys and sorrows of special purpose devices

Amy puts her finger (so to speak) on the Kindle’s main weakness:

Being the owner of an iphone 4, I can’t imagine being okay with an arrow button to navigate.

The arrow button is a weakness, but one that is mitigated by the limited need to navigate on the Kindle. That is, the arrow button is used primarily to move a cursor up and down menus or lists of book names. You don’t do it often, and when you do it usually involves no more than four or five clicks of the button.

You can do other things with the Kindle cursor that require more precise pointing—look up the definition of a word, go to a footnote—and when I need to do those things I find the arrow button annoying. But I also find myself not doing those things at all. Would I do them more freely if I could directly touch the word or the footnote number? Maybe.

One thing I would do more of if it were easier is highlighting passages. I do this anyway, because on the Kindle it it easy to go directly to a passage you have highlighted before, but the highlighting itself is tedious. Touch would make it easier.

In general I think that touch will open up new possibilities for dealing with the text of an e-book. But I also think that those new possibilities will take time to develop, as people get used to reading electronic texts. It took a surprisingly long time for printed books to acquire indices, tables of contents, and even page numbers, even though these were all instantly possible once the printing press imposed mechanical uniformity on the layout of a book. So in general I’m happy to not have a touch screen e-reader as long as I’m not missing out on some useful function that currently exists.

I still haven’t taken the e-reader plunge, but as you know, plan to do so soon. I keep holding out for the next generation, wanting to make sure that when I buy, I won’t be let down that the next one is the really improved one. But I suppose that isn’t a solvable dilemma.

If I had an iPhone 4, I certainly wouldn’t trade it in for a Kindle, and the only reasons to also own a Kindle are minor—maybe the e-ink screen is easier on my eyes for extended reading, or I like the long battery life, or the slightly larger screen. Otherwise I’d just use the Kindle for PC app on the iPhone and save myself carrying around a second device.

In considering an e-reader, the most important thing to remember is that they are not competitive with tablet computers and smartphones. The main reason is that they are grossly underpowered, and deliberately so—it’s what gives them their light weight and exceptional battery life. The e-ink screen refreshes very slowly, making it unsuitable for the kinds of applications we expect on smartphones and tablet computers, but perfectly matched to the feeble capabilities of the tiny and inexpensive processors found in an e-book reader.

Because e-book readers are designed to perform a very limited task—display a static page of text that you will look at for a long time—they can be very crippled technically compared to a general purpose computer. As well as much cheaper than a general purpose computer. But if you already own a suitable general purpose computer (like an iPhone) this may make no difference to you.

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2 thoughts on “The joys and sorrows of special purpose devices

  1. Thanks for the reply. I never considered using the iPhone as a reader, simply because I can barely read my email on my phone. Reading a book that way wouldn’t be an enjoyable experience.

    I just really like the touchscreen functionality, and so, I was surprised that the Kindle had arrow buttons. Though, I might trade that cool functionality for a lower price. It does seem in their best interest to keep prices low (or take a loss) simply to cash in at the other end of the spectrum in the sale of ebooks.

    I can’t remember what I paid for my iPhone 4 but it wasn’t much. The cost is in the monthly service fee, something we’ve more than received in benefit if you count the ability to jump ahead of airline delays.

  2. Amy,

    In case you’re thinking iPad, here’s an interesting summary of one writer’s experiences with the different e-readers there.

    But it sounds like you should probably select a specialized e-reader, with an e-ink screen for readability and a touch screen for superior interaction. Sony and B&N have them now, so Amazon will surely have one in a few months.

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