Kindle 2 as a New Electronic Medium

I do an awful lot of reading that isn’t on “books”[1] and Amazon Kindle has quickly become where I send PDFs by default – just like audio and video files get sent to iTunes by default.

And, after a couple weeks with the Kindle, I’m confident it is a new medium requiring a new interaction model [2]. An easy measure of this – I’m dusting off my Marshall McLuhan collection.

On McLuhan’s Hot & Cool Media spectrum, the Kindle 2 is cool (biasing maximum participation) where the iPhone is hot (biasing minimal participation). Meaning the Kindle makes it easy to get swallowed up for hours where as the iPhone is better for short engagements [3]. This is why Amazon’s Kindle iPhone App is only a win for selling more Kindle-formatted books – the iPhone’s brightness and glare makes it a horrid reading device.

Jakob Nielsen just published his thoughts on the Kindle.

I agree with two of his points:

“UI is not up to managing the realistic-sized book collection” – Jakob Neilsen

My Kindle currently contains 75 titles. That’s 60 more than the interface would prefer [4]. The page-based title management interface is clumsier than the iPhone’s page-based app navigation – simply because the Kindle doesn’t allow arbitrary grouping or support scrolling, so there’s no way to arbitrarily organize your electronic publications for easier navigation.

“For good Kindle usability, you have to design for the Kindle.” – Jakob Neilsen

Yes, as I mentioned up top, the Kindle is a unique device with a unique interaction model – for publications to communicate effectively within the Kindle – they should be designed for it. Until publications are designed for the Kindle, the best experience will be reading publications that are not typographically significant, e.g. straight paragraphs of text.

I disagree with Neilsen’s argument that the Kindle doesn’t work for non-fiction [5]. While it may not work for the conventional back-n-forth pagination he describes, that’s no reason to dismiss an entire category of writing. Especially, when we already agree that the most usable publication on the Kindle is one that takes advantages of the Kindle’s strengths – search, hyperlinks, etc. Additionally, non-fiction books have a greater chance of becoming obsolete than fiction books – making the easy updating feature of electronic distribution to the Kindle very attractive (Pragmatic Programmers, call me and let’s talk about your Beta book program).

For example, after my initial reading of them, the bulk of my interaction with physical non-fiction books is scanning the index for the topic I’m looking for and turning to the corresponding pages. The Kindle searches across its entire library, easily saving quite a bit of time.

The Kindle 2 feels very much like the early days of podcasting – or even web design – where we’re all figuring out how to maximize this new medium. I like it.

UPDATE 20 March 2009:
I just realized telephones were never designed for long periods of use. In fact, early telephone carriers wanting their service to be used for emergencies only – actually discouraged long term use. One more way the Kindle is more like television, less like iPod.

1. More than anything, I think the Kindle will force us to redefine ‘what a book is’ as much as HTML did (concidently the .mobi format the Kindle recognized can be written in HTML).

2. The iPhone/iPod Touch are new extensions of the existing mobile communicator models – not new mediums themselves.

3. Makes the Kindle more like television and the iPhone more like film, intriguing given Steve Jobs’ ownership in Pixar.

4. The traditional iPod navigation has the exact same problem – finding any individual track becomes difficult and time-consuming within even a modest library.

5. 85% of my Kindle library is non-fiction, technical PDFs.