by John Holbo on March 21, 2008

Apparently Amazon’s Kindle is selling well. So says their front page. I’ve always wanted an eBook reader I could really want. I think most academics feel the same; probably most people do, who spend any serious time reading onscreen. And, like most people, I have sized it up as a consumer confidence Catch-22. No confidence-inspiring device, however snazzy, until a critical mass of customers settles. No settling until there is a confidence-inspiring device. It sounded, at least initially, as though Kindle was sure to be born a clinker: speaking selfishly, it wouldn’t have the sorts of features that would make it a wonderful thing for academics, as any eReader has to be. You wouldn’t be able to read PDF’s. (Total deal-breaker for any academic.) I guess they’ve worked that out; quite a few customers seem to be reporting in, happy. I don’t really care if the thing looks a bit homely and of course the price will come down eventually. Could Kindle be it? The phrase ‘bestselling eBook reader’ hasn’t had much occasion for use before now. It’s been the tech phrase I’ve been waiting to hear. Please report, CT-reading Kindle-owners, especially academics. How does the PDF-importing feature work? Can you download any old thing from JSTOR and load it right up, easy as pie? Example: could you import those neat eBook PDF’s I’ve been making, and have it be readable? In general, do nicely formatted PDF’s stay neat and pretty?

I guess I could deal with some relatively non-inhumane DRM scheme if I had confidence that 1) DRM’ed stuff would be relatively cheap; 2) the system is going to last, i.e. I won’t be left holding a bag of locked books; 3) a rich exchange of free stuff won’t be interfered with by the DRM. Kindle seems to pass these tests, or be on the verge of doing so. No way I’m buying until the second or third generation (even if it comes to sunny Singapore). But I’m already curious.

{ 1 trackback }

WWVPD? § Unqualified Offerings
03.22.08 at 3:41 pm



rdb 03.21.08 at 12:01 pm

The eink displays are from This links to their development kits which give the various display dimensions. The Kindle and the Sony use a 6″ diag, 800×600 display. I don’t know if the 9.7″ 1200×825 is yet shipping in a product.

The iLiad 8″ display is smaller than A5, so that A4 PDF are displayed smaller than half size. The Sony reader will show A4 PDFs in landscape, not a full page, which seems to be quite functional.
The iLiad display is about 2mm shorter and about
1cm wider than a paperback – the Sony & Kindle are smaller.

I’d suggest cutting out some templates of the various sizes to get a feel, and read some of the iRex forums and the prior iLiad post.

Reading Stross’s Accelerando PDF on the iLiad was pleasant. Text sized for it is very comfortable, but that doesn’t describe A4 papers in PDF format – unless you have excellent eyesight.


eisegetes 03.21.08 at 12:03 pm

Reading SSRN drafts is quite comfortable. I think usability of PDFs depends largely on whether they were scanned or created from word files.

You would be surprised at how life-changing it is to have a few pleasure books, a few serious books, the NYT and WSJ, some journal articles and SSRN drafts, and the latest Supreme Court oral argument transcripts, all in a device that is the size of a small paperback. Seriously, I can’t imagine not having one, and I’ve only been using it for a month.

Reading on it is quite comfortable; you quickly stop noticing the device, and start seeing just the content.


John Holbo 03.21.08 at 12:41 pm

Thanks, rdb, I did remember Henry’s post. Probably I should have linked to it. It seems that the criticisms of the Kindle he mentions in that post – no PDF – have been gotten beyond.


X. Trapnel 03.21.08 at 12:55 pm

I have a librie with the same size screen; it’s too small for scanned (ie jstor) PDFs. You should probably go with the iLiad or wait for the next generation.


John Holbo 03.21.08 at 1:25 pm

I guess the sensible thing to do would be to learn to format PDF for eBooks – not just for Kindle, obviously. Smaller margins, larger type, I presume. But that still doesn’t help with JSTOR.


bryan 03.21.08 at 1:28 pm

well my understanding is that PDFs are handled by emailing them to your amazon account and paying $.10 for the service, per pdf.

I might go through ten or more PDFs to get an understanding of the research on a problem area, but the activity couldn’t really be described as reading them, it’s more like quick skimming. If I also have to pay for the pdfs elsewhere it does seem, given the price of the Kindle, like getting ripped off.


John Holbo 03.21.08 at 1:36 pm

Apparently there’s a way to do the PDF’s for free now.


HH 03.21.08 at 1:38 pm

For some reason, the fetish value of hand-held devices blinds buyers to the intrinsic limitations of their necessarily small displays.These devices are all dead-ends. The correct solution, which will arrive in a few more years, will rely on eyeglass-mounted displays that can use much more of the visual field. A bluetooth link to a multifunction phone device will enable display of arbitrary amounts of material at whatever size is convenient to the user.

The military made this transition a decade ago, moving from squinty little digital displays to heads-up cockpit glass and helmet-mounted digital displays. Academia will benefit when these swords are beaten into plowshares.


andrewska 03.21.08 at 2:13 pm

Eye-glass mounted displays? Maybe in the future when we all wear silver, metallic jumpsuits with matching boots.


stm 03.21.08 at 2:45 pm

Does the kindle somehow allow for easy underlining, annotating of the PDFs? Also what are its search functions like? Can you search for words and phrases across groups of documents? And also search the text of your own annotations accross documents? These would be pretty crucial features for me (and probably for a lot of academics).


Adam 03.21.08 at 2:55 pm

Don’t have too much time for a full review, but: I like my Kindle. I bought it primarily for reading pdfs, and it serves that purpose well, although I have found to my surprise that I really love the wireless service. Perhaps the best thing I can say for my Kindle is that I carry it with me everywhere, which is probably the ultimate proof point for a piece of consumer electronics.

Note that you can put pdfs on it directly for free, but…you probably won’t. The email feature is just insanely convenient, and I have a very hard time getting worked up about the $0.10 fee. Often people email docs to me, and I just forward them directly to my Kindle. It take about 2 seconds. I’ll pay $0.10 for that convenience.

Also note a major downside of automatically formatted pdfs. Tables and inline footnotes are horribly garbled. This is annoying, and probably all the more so for academics. Maybe there’s a solution to this if you do the pdf conversion yourself.

All in all, I like the device a lot. I could have waited for the next generation, but I read a lot for work and decided I was being penny-wise, pound-foolish to put off the purchase for a year. Don’t regret the decision.


Azad 03.21.08 at 3:00 pm

There are some good reviews and links posted on Lifehacker today: here. There are more review links in the comments of that page.


ScentOfViolets 03.21.08 at 3:00 pm

I’ve got a few of those fetish friends myself; all of them are to varying degrees disappointed with Kindle. The .pdf hack isn’t too bad, there are sites, apparently, where you can download it for free. But DJVU is also an important format for academics, and the ‘annotation’ feature, quite frankly, is, well, saying it’s rudimentary would be kind. Finally, the textbooks our school requires aren’t generally available on Amazon, it seems, or at any rate, it’s very difficult to acquire them.

My guess is that there is a lot of money to be made with a business model of the clearinghouse type: a separate entity who acquires the rights to publish books in any of a number of formats. On the one hand, it seems that such an independent would be impossible to establish, simply because of the perceived potential markets. On the other hand, it may be that because there are too many big players that this is the only way to get an ebook franchise off the ground. One could imagine such a franchise kicking back a specific percentage to the publishing entities for each copy sold; the costs would be structured so that there would be an initial license to distribute purchased from each publisher, a rental fee for each book purchased and converted to ebook format(renewable over some specific time frame), and a kickback for each ebook title sold.

The DRM issue will eventually go away, I think; too clunky. Better to have individual encryption keys wired into each ereader. Why not? Numbers are cheap, and so is memory.


jcamfield 03.21.08 at 3:53 pm

I think in the long run eBook readers will be subsumed by the up-and-coming ultra-portable tablet laptops like the Fujitsu LifeBook and the OLPC (and eventually I’m sure the Eee will also make a tablet)

I think it’ll be a bottom-up exercise with people wanting to read PDFs, documents, and RSS newsfeeds offline but digitally, and grow to also accommodate ebook formats (though hopefully sans-DRM — another academic requirement, if I have to manually re-type copy a sentence or paragraph out to cite in a paper, I’ll get very upset very quickly)

I bought an OLPC which I’m sure I’ll get one day, and hope to use that as my pdf reader; and continue my habit of taking notes in mediawiki markup and saving them to my private wiki later.


JLundell 03.21.08 at 5:25 pm

PDF has support for accessibility tagging (see the Advanced->Accessibility submenu in Acrobat Pro) that greatly facilitates the conversion of pdf to html (which is how I understand pdfs are converted for Kindle). Unfortunately, most pdfs are not so tagged, and complex documents are hard to guess at. You can manually adjust the tagging, but it’s a clumsy process at best.

The problem of scanned (eg JSTOR) pdfs is of course even worse. OCR is a possibility, but it can be an awfully big job. An easy partial fix would be for a reader like Kindle to offer a 90-degree rotation, a la iPhone, for reading such documents. It’s far from ideal, especially for multicolumn text, but it’s at least readable.


loren 03.21.08 at 6:57 pm

jcamfield: “I think in the long run eBook readers will be subsumed by the up-and-coming ultra-portable tablet laptops like the Fujitsu LifeBook”

I two of the smallest Fujitsu’s (the P1510 and the U810 or some such number). I have tonnes of articles and a couple of ebooks stored on the P1510, and I also use it as my home computer with a basestation and an external LCD screen and keybord. I find myself reading off it a bit when around the house, but unlike some I do find the active LCD screen strains my eyes after a while, especially in some light settings.

The U810 really is sleek and compact, but the screen is very small – a fantastic toughscreen for its size, and it’s fine for reading in tablet-format in a dim and relatively intimate setting (in a seat on an overnight train or flight, or in a library or the den), but in general the damn thing is just too small for anything other than a portable wireless webbrowser and occasional pdf article reader. The keyboard is a remarkable feat of engineering, but it isn’t quite usable (I can type on it if I have to, and I’m accustomed to small keyboards, yet even for me it’s tight, and the doubling up of key functions is far too clumsy to be useful for anything but occasional data entry or emails. What’s more, I find myself ending up really hunched over trying to read the screen while typing). The battery life is impressive, especially when the wireless/bluetooth is turned off.

The P1510 is just the right size for writing/reading around the house, or on a train, or in the airport, or the library or cafe, and while it looks and feels a bit clunky for something that size (it’s still pretty thick as a tablet, and by looking at it’s dimensions you just think it ought to feel far more sleek and less blocky), it is reasonably portable – about the size of a medium-thickness hardcover book (just looking at my shelf, it’s a little thinner and comparable size as Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, and slightly bulkier overall than Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, in case anyone who cares has either of those books lying about). But the power demands are not inconsiderable, and even with the screen brightness turned way down, no wifi, and pretty much nothing but winedt and the OS running, I can never get more than 3hrs from the standard battery.

Finally, getting Linux or BSD on these things has turned out to be nontrivial for me. I’m no guru, but I am a longtime linux hobbyist, and getting the wifi and touchscreens running is a real exercise.

Thus I’d still like a much thinner, passive eink-type thing with incredible battery life and lots of memory-related i/o slots, and wifi, just for storing and reading papers.

“though hopefully sans-DRM—another academic requirement, if I have to manually re-type copy a sentence or paragraph out to cite in a paper, I’ll get very upset very quickly”



Jon H 03.21.08 at 8:02 pm

“Apparently there’s a way to do the PDF’s for free now.”

What you do is email the PDF to an address similar to the one for the $.10 conversions. The converted file is emailed back to you, and then you have to get it on the device via USB or whatever.

The PDF situation would be a lot better if people created Kindle-friendly PDFs using a custom paper size that matches the screen dimensions.


Scott Hughes 03.21.08 at 8:39 pm

Is it easier on the eyes than a computer screen? I never considered getting a hand-held PDF reader instead of just using my computer.


loren 03.21.08 at 9:03 pm

jcamfield: “I think in the long run eBook readers will be subsumed by the up-and-coming ultra-portable tablet laptops like the Fujitsu LifeBook”

I’m not sure if my last post is still in the queue, but I’ll repost regardless.

I have two of the smallest of the fujitsu’s (the P1510 and the U810) and while they are good machines, they aren’t quite what I’d really like for extended reading.

The P1510 is a great little subnotebook, although unlike some I do find the active LCD is a serious strain on my eyes after a while. Also, the machine is still pretty thick when in tablet mode.

Nonethless, I have a huge library of pdf articles on it, and I use it at home as my desktop with a basestation and bigger screen and keyboard. The battery life is an issue: even with wifi off, brightness down, and little software running, I rarely get much more than two hours off the standard battery, and frankly didn’t do a whole lot better than that with the extended battery (which adds a bit of bulk).

The U810 is crazy wacky small, and the screen is remarkable for the size, but it really is small! I am used to small keyboards, but even so, this one is just too small for any significant use beyond a bit of data entry and the odd email (it’s small and a bit flimsy, but the primary problem is the doubling up of various keys, which makes effective touchtyping pretty unlikely for all but the most committed and nimble-fingered users who want to relearn a keyboard).

Also, I’m no guru, but I am a longtime linux hobbyist, and getting linux or bsd on these machines continues to be a challenge for me, especially getting the wifi and touchscreens up and running (granted I haven’t devoted a tonne of energy to it, but still).

So, I like the fujitsus, but I’m not sure they’re yet all that great for reading onscreen, and it isn’t clear the tech could get much better on that front without going the route of the Irex Iliad and the like.

As a laptop the P1510 is great, but I cannot see that functional laptops could get much smaller (although they could get a lot thinner), and again, for folks like me, the active LCD screen is a real issue when reading for any length of time.

Thus I’d still like a very thin reader with heaps of memory, eink-style touchscreen, decent annotation and modest web-browsing capabilities, no proprietary silliness, wifi, oodles of memory and network-related slots, and extraordinary battery life.


Danny Yee 03.21.08 at 10:56 pm

My understanding is that the Kindle is only available in the United States. But even if I could use one in Australia, I’d be very reluctant to invest time or effort in any proprietary system..

A limited screen, functionality, etc. I can live with, working on the assumption that they will get better with new versions. But unless it’s an open system, I’m not sure it’s going to stay around.


Adam 03.22.08 at 4:25 pm

I think in the long run eBook readers will be subsumed by the up-and-coming ultra-portable tablet laptops like the Fujitsu LifeBook

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a criticism of the Kindle, but…who cares? Ultimately the Kindle may die. Apple may come out with an iPod reader application that kills it. Laptops might become so thin and cheap that a dedicated reading device is superfluous.

The question is: are you willing to pay $400 today for the best thing going, knowing full well that in two years it will be a hopelessly antiquated piece of junk. For me, the answer was yes.

(Also, the e-Ink electronic paper really is much easier on my eyes than an LCD screen, so I’m not quite as sanguine as others on the notion of portable computers becoming general purpose reading devices.)


Fuzzy 03.22.08 at 4:52 pm

All I know is whenever I see the link to buy a book for the Kindle I’m sorely tempted. Fed Ex feels really slow when you know that you could have the book now.


Megan 03.23.08 at 9:36 am

My biggest interest is in some format for adding annotations. Underlining and commenting keeps me engaged in readings (and allows me to come back and revisit important passages later), and I’d hate to give that up by switching to an electronic device.

The particularly successful reader would have some feature where you could switch those annotations to endnote-style comments, then import them through your PC or Mac to Word or another word processor.

One day!


Hattie 03.23.08 at 6:22 pm

I love my Sony e-reader. I use it only to download uncopyrighted material from Project Gutenberg. It’s my backup of “reads.”


Chris Newman 03.23.08 at 8:20 pm

Re 24:

The Kindle does allow highlighting and commenting, and you can use your PC to import that text to another word processor. It’s still a good deal clunkier than making notes on a hard copy, but does allow you to achieve the “keeping engaged” effect. You can also get a quick list of links that lets you jump to any of the places you’ve highlighted or annotated, which is nice. The thing I find most annoying about the highlighting feature is that because of the page-based display of the Kindle (i.e., you can’t scroll line by line, you can only turn the page), I often have passages I want to highlight that span the page break. This leads to two separate highlight entries rather than a single continuous one.

I think the biggest design blunder of the Kindle is the lack of any ability to organize your library into the equivalent of folders or playlists. I can’t understand why they didn’t provide something so obvious, when they tout the device as holding the equivalent of 200 books. Yes, you can list the books in alphabetical order by title or author, and jump to particular letters (or use the search function), so if you know what you’re looking for it’s not difficult to get to it. But bibliophiles like to browse their libraries and want to be able to see a list, say, of all the novels in their collection, or all the law review articles, etc.

The wireless feature is great. Any time you get an email with an attachment you can simply forward it to a dedicated email address and it shows up wirelessly on your Kindle, usually quite quickly. Pdfs that were created from electronic documents tend to work fine, ones that were scanned are more of a problem. The best conversion in my view is from Word files. If you download cases or law review articles from Westlaw in Word and send them to your Kindle, they come through perfectly, with functioning hyperlinks to footnotes and headnotes.

I haven’t used any other eBook reading device, so can’t compare. But I do find the Kindle very useful. There are still respects in which dead tree technology is superior, but the ability to carry around and have accessible this much reading material is huge.


John Holbo 03.24.08 at 3:31 am

“The particularly successful reader would have some feature where you could switch those annotations to endnote-style comments, then import them through your PC or Mac to Word or another word processor.

One day!”

I agree. I should have mentioned this in the post. I have a bad habit of putting lots of post-its in my books, then never going back and actually taking notes on what I posted. If I could quickly cut&paste little bits – I could even endure some annoying DRM thing that stopped me at 300 words, so no one can just rip a whole book – my scholarly life would be significantly improved.


a very public sociologist 03.24.08 at 8:54 am

Geeky desires for new gadgets aside, when I’m waiting at my bus stop in the windy cold I’d be loathe to get out my latest piece of kit for a crafty read. And I like the cultural capital I accumulate from my well stocked and wide ranging book shelf, thank you very much :)


markm 03.24.08 at 3:25 pm

“Is it easier on the eyes than a computer screen?”

Scott, I haven’t seen an e-paper screen for myself, but since it functions by actually shifting the pigment in and out of view, in theory the technology should be capable of matching ink on paper for viewability. How well they’ve implemented it is another question…

Comments on this entry are closed.