Usability vs. Nostalgia : The Amazon Kindle Debate

April 30th, 2009
Published on
April 30th, 2009

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?