Usability vs. Nostalgia : The Amazon Kindle Debate

Many years ago when I was but a wee college student I was interviewed for CNN about a debate that was going around about textbooks becoming available online. The theory was that instead of printing expensive text books, students would be able to download the entire text in .pdf form and read it on their (required) laptop computers.

As a college student, I was greatly opposed to this idea. True, you could search through an eBook much easier by just using find, and you could also annotate them quite easily, but as I said on CNN (which is my one claim to TV “fame”), “It’s not the same sensory experience as reading a book”. Our class at the time, back in 2002, was split about 70/30 between those who didn’t want eBook’s and those who did. The primary argument among those who did was the lowering of the cost.

Fast forward a few years to the present day, and you find that the idea of an eBook to read on your laptop has finally come true. But instead of a laptop, it’s a handy little gadget called an eBook reader; in this case, the Amazon Kindle.

What’s So Great About the Kindle?

The Kindle is pretty darn brilliant. It’s the size of a book, the width of a pencil, lighter than a magazine and if you don’t use it’s built in wireless, it has a battery life of about two weeks. Not to mention, it holds over 1,500 books. It’s an entire library packed into one little thing. You can get a new book from anywhere at any time at the touch of a button.

So this is great! It’s portable, it’s easy to use, it’s revolutionary. So what’s the downside?
Well among other things, it’s just not the same as a book. There is no feel of the paper between your fingers, no sense of wear and tear on the spine of a well loved tome. You can’t dog ear the pages or make notes in the margin. You can’t lend it to a friend when you are done. You can’t lovingly pick it out of a book store and drop it in the mail because you think your niece would really dig the unicorns on the cover.

So here is the big question, the big debate. Are those who are buying the Kindle (and using it instead of “real” books) sacrificing nostalgia in favor of usability? Are we letting convenience get in the way of a tradition of paper books that has been around for thousands of years?

Or is it as black and white as that? Lets weigh some pros and cons of books and Kindle’s.

Kindle Usability Pros and Cons

I asked a Kindle user what they thought was good and bad about the Kindle.

It’s Usable

  • Instant Books Download: No more having to make a trip to the bookstore
  • Free Starter Book Chapters: Get a chapter in before you have to commit to buy anything
  • Instant access to Wikipedia or ways to define words: No need to check out a dictionary or grab a computer to check something online
  • Light as a Book: Easy to transport and sometimes, lighter than a hardcover or lengthy novel

It’s Unusable

  • Poor keyboard design: Hard to type with to find new books online.
  • Books are too expensive: The average price seems to be $10 a book, when you can buy a used paperback for less than $5, or a new book for $15 but then resell it.
  • Display not as high contrast: Not the same as reading from a page, though it’s close.
  • Would rather a touchscreen to actually flip pages: The page turn buttons don’t feel as intuitive as they maybe should.

Now, when I go to think about books, I agree that in some aspects the Kindle is pretty nifty, but in several ways I think that a trusty book would be better
.

Why Books are More Awesome

Longevity

A single book can be around pleasing generations for years to come. Books can be several hundred years old, filled with rich history and the marks of a lifetime of use. Kindle’s eBooks can be deleted and vanish into the ether.

Books are Tangible

There is a sensory experience when reading a book that I believe makes the reader engage more with the volume. They get the feel of the pages, they hear the paper rustle as they turn them over. It’s an added sensation to the whole experience of reading.

Bookstores Create Jobs

In a rough economy, bookstores are a big retail sector. They are not only large corporate chains, but they are also small retail stores run by real and passionate people. These people have jobs and livelihoods, and they need to actually be able to sell real books each year.

Is Amazon putting itself out of business?

Simplly stated: no. Because Amazon’s eBooks inventory make up only a small fraction of Amazon’s business, the introduction of the Kindle won’t cannibalize Amazon’s book sales. In some ways, it helps that eBooks lower overheads (staff and storage space) and that Amazon can still sell the Kindle for $350 and then the eBooks themselves for $10. The Kindle is a very valuable tool for them, because it can be incredibly lucrative.

Yet, Barnes and Noble sells approximately 300 million books a year. Take away a big chunk of their book sales, and you are cutting in to their revenue and cutting in to peoples’ jobs and livelihoods. This is a great business model for Amazon, but could effect their competition strongly if the Kindle catches on to a point where it dominates the market like MP3′s to CD’s.

So with all of these pros, cons, and other impacts of the Amazon Kindle, is it really a usable product? Well, yes, but it comes with a sacrifice. You sacrifice nostalgia and sensory experience for the sake of convenience. For some, this is a fair trade and completely understandable. For me, well, I have a reading nook in my house surrounded by bookshelves, each filled with my favorites books. Some books I haven’t read, and some were loaned to me by friends that knew I would love them.

Tell me, what are you willing to give up for the sake of convenience, nay, greater usability?

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Comments

  1. This reminds me of record enthusiasts. Even though, from a usability standpoint, cd’s and mp3′s are much easier to use, play, and store there are still people that like the nostalgia and warmth of records.

    As for me, I say nostalgia be damned :) If I have to move my paperback collection one more time I am ditching them for an ebook reader.

  2. mazyjane April 30, 2009

    How about use the Kindle for your transitory, throwaway books and have a revival of the artisan skills of the bookbinder and scribe, who could create the really important texts you want to own and keep as beautiful objects? There are many types of books I don’t need to own – outdated travel guides and software books to name but two which would be perfect contenders for digital delivery. Whereas a classic novel, beautifully illustrated, or a timeless reference book would suit being physical objects. This could potentially save resources, bring more texts to more people and re-ignite some creative skills which might provide fulfilling work for people (way more than retail – trust me, I’ve been there!)

  3. Times are changing, and the publishing industry is tanking as print news is. The publishing industry is trying to avoid the problems that the record industry is going through. I applaud Amazon for trying out the Kindle. So far it’s been great for them. The behaviour around books and reading will need to change. Those who insist on sticking with hard copy books will fail. Barnes and Noble will suffer if they don’t start looking for solutions like the Kindle.

    One last thing to remember, books are not going away, the paper is.

    Good article.

  4. Why bring books into the equation? Kindle’s best use is to replace newspapers and magazines. You can get updates on the fly, see ads and take action, along with deleting them when you’re done (very green).
    As far as jobs go, that’s a ridiculous argument. The automobile put the horse out of work too. Does anybody want to go back to riding horses to work? (OK, that might be awesome, but still.)
    There will always be a place for paper, and book stores. You will always want to go to a comfortable place and relax, socialize, get suggestions from people you trust. The dimensions of the product will evolve, but the experience is what will stay more steady.
    Even though I have some contrasting opinions, I think that this is a great article, because it inspired me to think and respond.
    Great Work!

  5. As a book lover with very little living space, I love my sony reader. Yes there’s a certain nostalgia that comes with reading a bound book but you can’t beat having a library of hundreds of books in one tiny device.

  6. Great article, Redd! I think that the Kindle is an incredibly easy to use device given to what it’s trying to replace. Because reading books is one of the first things we learn in school, it’s also one of those things we take for granted. I’ve used the kindle for about a week now and the thing I miss the most is the tactile feedback.

    With that said, I think there is a whole host of interface issues taking place that interaction designers should scrutinize. For example, I’d love for the Kindle to use a touch-screen. This would give me (something akin to) the feeling of flipping through a book as I read.

    Also, animated content is completely plausible inside eBooks. While it transcends the traditional idea of a book, our notion of readable and digestible content has completely changed with the internet. I certainly can’t wait until reading a book is a true multi-sensory experience.

  7. This might be a good debate, but your pro-books arguments are pretty fallacious.

    Books can easily burn or be destroyed while an eletronic version of a text can live on forever in “the cloud”.
    You also get a sensory experience from using a Kindle, just a different one. Some people might become attached to the feeling of those plastic buttons or whatever beep they make. Plus 99% of the interest in reading a book is the content, not the feeling of turning the pages.
    And the jobs argument has already been invalidated by the previous poster.

    And think about it, if you had written this in a book I’d have no way to tell you how wrong you are… (now this might actually be a good argument for books :p )

  8. Awesome article Redd. Great to see that a) Amazon is taking a further step into bringing all of our media experiences into the future, and b) people actually appreciate the tactile experience of reading a book. This article actually made me want to leave work (not hard to do), grab my Penguin Classics and write today off.
    I do however diverge from your line of thought on a few points:
    First & foremost is the issue of social responsibility. I, for one, think this is a great opportunity to lower our consumption and our carbon footprint. These eBook readers allow us to do away with the tonnes of paper and ink that are wasted on maps, travel guides, trashy novels and worst-sellers that don’t need to be printed. Sure, by and large these items get recycled and turned into something else, but even the process of pulping and repressing has its inherent carbon footprint.
    Secondly, I’d like to agree with everyone who has said that the eBook will NEVER replace the book. If anything, it only serves to enhance the experience of reading. Yes, the eBook reader makes it much easier to study and search through your massive uni textbook, but when I sit down with my Marquez I’m not thinking about convenience – plus, it’s much harder on the eyes to read a digital screen than print on a page.
    And finally, I just want to bring home how expensive some books can be. Yes, you CAN buy a book for $15 and resell, but if you’re arguing for the tactile experience you’ll probably want to spend a bit more and get the nicely illustrated, nicely printed hardbacks – these retail for about $45AUD. And if you’re saying that you can get a uni textbook for $15, then I’m moving to THAT country! I’m in my third year of uni and I’ve spent about $700-800 on textbooks, and if luckily the subject keeps that same textbook for longer than a semester, I can usually only resell for half RRP.
    I love reading a gritty yellowed page as much as the next guy, but I’m all for mass adoption of the digital reader!

  9. Chuck C. April 30, 2009

    Funny. I was in the middle of listing a bunch of books on Amazon that I hadn’t looked at in years. Several of these were print design books – from my former life. As I looked at the queue to make sure that I had made no mistakes, I realized that I really, really wanted to keep some of these. I really surprised myself. I probably won’t look at (most) of them for a while yet, but for some reason I would like to, some day.

    The programming books did not make me feel this way :)

  10. I think ultimately the Kindle and the traditional book will become complementary. The Kindle just doesn’t have the same attraction in terms of reading purely for pleasure. Nor does it have some of the convenience of books – the ability to pick one up and instantly open it at a page without time to turn on or reload, you can’t read it in the bath. Reading is a tacticle and sensory pleasure as well as in terms of the content, and when it comes to the visual experience, regardless of the screen quality it’s still not the same as the physical object of a book.

    Where the Kindle is going to have a huge impact is in terms of reference materials, books that need to be searched, or in terms of magazines and newspapers. Even some unexpected options – think about your D&D roleplayer with a shelf of eighty books, all of which might come up for reference in a game session. They’ll gain great advantage from that library being on the Kindle, and that’s actually a potentially huge market.

  11. I love books for all the reasons you spoke of, but here’s the deal. I don’t love *all* books the same. There are some I simple *must* have in hardback. Others… I’d rather have digital.

    I have a stack of decade old technology books in my basement that I do not use today, but still need to keep around in case I get called back to an old gig. Maintenance programming on outdated systems is a lucrative business, but I can’t remember the grocery list my wife gave me this morning, let alone every detail of an antiquated technology I used for a 6 month period in 1998. I would be in heaven if I could keep all those old books on my Kindle.

    I think comparing ebooks to paper books is like comparing the printed 8×10 photograph on my wall to the JPG I’m using as a background. One does not replace the other. Mediocre photos stay in digital form. The exceptional ones get printed professionally and displayed proudly in my home.

    My books are no different.

    peace|dewde

  12. And to your point about lend-ability, this is something I take seriously. You will know which books I cherish in my house because on my bookshelves you will see an old, tagged, scribbled, worn-in version and directly next to it you will see at minimum one new, never been used version of the same book.

    You cannot borrow books from me, but you can take them home permanently. If it is a mediocre book, by all means take it. If it is exceptional, you get the crisp copy.

    The Kindle makes it cheaper for my initial investment, my first-time read. From there I know how many to order. Zero, or 2-plus.

    peace|dewde

  13. Thanks all for the comments and for keeping up the debate! I love how many different opinions there are on this subject!
    I think using the Kindle for things like Magazines is definitely not a bad thought, since so many of those are printed and trashed.

  14. Thore May 1, 2009

    I would never swap my books for an eReader. I love the feel of real paper under my fingertips, and I like books that are nicely illustrated, preferably bound in linen, have an artistic cover and are best read with soft candle light casting shadows onto the pages. When it comes to books, I’m all in for nostalgia. I would really like to have more artistic looking books, but unfortunately, many of today’s books are looking rather ugly.

  15. While I doubt paper bound books will become obsolete, I agree with the others who noted a general trend toward readers. “Old friends” – those books I use as reference (thesaurus, dictionary) or read again and again (classics) I’ll definitely still prefer to have as traditional books. “One hit wonders” – reads that are great at the time but otherwise forgettable – will definitely go to Kindle. There’s a large gray area in between – books that are relevant for a number of years and then are either updated (and thus obsolete) or eclipsed by technological innovation (and thus obsolete) . What happens with these will remain a matter of personal preference… for now.

    One wonders what the generation of children who grow up not knowing a time before Kindle will prefer. Can they adapt their habits to be fully electronic, never having the pleasure of moving 30+ boxes of books from one home to the next? The mind swims at the possibility!

  16. Brian Smith May 4, 2009

    I prefer books, but I don’t consider the “books create jobs” as a reason for their awsomeness. That books create jobs is a side effect of their awesomeness, not the cause. Bringing back wired telegraphs would create jobs too. Breaking glass windows everywhere we go would create jobs too ;-)

  17. You’d have to say the same thing about iTunes then, does that kill FYE or whomever’s CD sales?

    I’d say your comparison to MP3′s / MP3 players is pretty fair. I know people who still buy CD’s, they’re the same people who will always buy books. I don’t think things like the Kindle will ever take over books entirely, I love aged books myself, and I love the tactile experience. But my wife for example carries 3-4 books in her purse at any given time, for her to be able to condense that into a smaller space could be a great help.

    On a side note, getting rid of Textbooks would be the greatest thing to ever happen, they are a ridiculous expense. Granted this is coming from someone who never studied or bought the books, but even for you studying types, being able to search through and annotate, and organize your notes digitally…Shouldn’t you guys be all about that?! Hehe, I think that was pretty ridiculous. Voting to keep textbooks? The only way I could see someone doing that is if they never had to pay for them out of their own pocket.

  18. Very interesting article. I was discussing with a friend who is a fellow book lover. She owns a Kindle, and can see the middle ground with eBooks and hard copies.

    I analogize this divide to the debate over film vs. digital photography. I wrote a piece on my blog about this very issue. I was one of those who held on firmly to my film. I took a rather ‘purist,’ or nostalgic POV, and see the parallels here. Now, I shot almost exclusively with digital, but still have a longing for developing black & white film in the darkroom.

    In the end, I don’t think it has to be an either or proposition. There will always be people (myself included) who cherish the look, feel, and even the smell, of books. Just like going into the camera shop, no electronic format can substitute for the bookstore experience.

    At the same time, the trend to electronic media has its benefits. In fact, I tend to think that the transition to electronic media will allow many more voices to be heard. Voices that were previously incapable of garnering attention from publishing houses. I’d also like to think there’s an environmental benefit to electronic books and media. As some others have suggested, so many printed materials are viewed once and tossed. Receiving material in electronic format would at least lessen the need for more paper and toxic inks.

    Wherever one comes down on this issue, I love the discussion. I don’t necessarily think there’s a right or wrong answer.

  19. Isn’t this kind of an apples v oranges comparison? You’re comparing the medium (kindle v book), the experience (reading, browsing), and also the media marketplace (ebook distribution v the permanence of print).

    I personally hope we get to have both — ebooks, which won’t simply be digital books but soon be full-on computers and communication tools for the convenience, interaction, and sharing possible in the digital age. But also print — a medium that is still higher res, which is sentimental, but also easily browsed and flipped through.

    I can’t see books going away any time soon. Perhaps because we experience them directly. Perhaps because they have simply been around for so long. The cd replaced the record, and is being replaced by digital files, more easily because we don’t experience the cd — it’s simply a storage medium (I’m disregarding the packaging here). But the book is directly experienced.

    I reckon that unless we somehow learn to read differently, we’ll be using books for a long time to come!

  20. Dan Passey January 6, 2011

    Once a book has been read, regardless of the form it has been read in, it is in a place where it cannot be lost; the mind.

    I suspect the blog writer’s opinion is based in thoughts of habit and ownership, rather than practicality.

    In terms of experience, I have found the user experience of a kindle to be more useful than the traditional book -in terms of accessing reviews, making notes on my perception of a chapter or verse, cross- referencing, ease of access to dictionary definitions in terms of coming fully to grips with author intention in relation to use of language. My only fear would be that some landmark literature is currently not available in e-book format (including a fantastic number of nobel prize winning writer’s and works of philosophy). Examples include; ‘Herzog’ Saul Bellow,’The Stranger’ Albert Camus, but to name two. This is why we will still struggle through masses of books in libaries when undertaking research, or visiting a bookshop when in search of niche title.

    A better question to ask would be; is Amazon in danger of reducing the freedom of choice available in paperback, to meet demand and streamline the effectiveness of sale conversions? If so, how will this effect the reader and what they read?

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