By Jason Snell
August 29, 2019 12:17 PM PT
The Kindle is fine. It could’ve been much more than that.
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
I’ve written extensively about how much I love my Kindle. I prefer to read on it than to read on an iPad or iPhone, which is why I keep buying Kindles even though I could definitely read on an iOS device without any trouble. The reflective E-Ink screen is more pleasant for long reading sessions, and the fact that my Kindle isn’t full of push notifications and Twitter apps helps it be a distraction-free reading environment.
That all said, I also agree with this tweet from Dan Frommer—that the Kindle, for all that I still love about it, has been a disappointment.
Amazon’s approach to the Kindle product remains befuddling. Talk about entering a market, quickly achieving dominance, and then coasting with feet up for more than a decade — random, bizarre updates and bracingly mediocre software. via @qz https://t.co/tiXAfKwC9F
— Dan Frommer (@fromedome) June 19, 2019
Frommer expanded on his comments in a post on his (subscription-only) New Consumer website and newsletter, damning it with faint praise:
It’s not that the Kindle is bad — it’s not bad, it’s fine. And it’s not that on paper, it’s a failure or flop — Amazon thoroughly dominates the ebook and reader markets, however niche they have become… It’s that the Kindle isn’t nearly the product or platform it could have been, and hasn’t profoundly furthered the concept of reading or books. It’s boring and has no soul. And readers — and books — deserve better.
I couldn’t agree more. I find myself reading on my iPad a lot more these days, but not books—my books still remain on the Kindle. But over the years I’ve accumulated all of these other reading items that are simply not available on the Kindle, like newsletters and subscription-only websites (newspapers and others) with their own custom iOS reader apps. First thing in the morning I am reading on my iPad, using those apps to get up to date on the stuff I’m interested in.
The Kindle, meanwhile, is the land that that app revolution forgot. If I want to read a newspaper on the Kindle, I can—but there’s only a daily delivery of static newspaper text, so if something happens after the issue is delivered, I will have to wait a day to see it. I can channel newsletters to my Kindle, but only if I use an email gateway or a third-party forwarding service, and the experience is poor to say the least. I can send articles from webpages to Instapaper and get them on my Kindle, but the reading experience is not particularly great. And as for personalized websites like The Athletic? Forget it.
Frommer says the Kindle is mediocre, and that’s absolutely true. Amazon’s approach to Kindle software updates has been erratic at best and absent at worst, and he’s right that using a Kindle “feels like trudging through soft sand.” The interface is inelegant and in so many ways unchanged from its original release in 2007, just months after the iPhone arrived on the scene. Typography on the Kindle is still mediocre, despite minor advances like support for custom fonts and (in limited cases) the elimination of force-justified text. Even support for library borrowing is hidden, because Amazon really wants you to buy books.
It’s the lack of a proper app story that stings the most, I think. I’d love a version of the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Athletic for my Kindle—the real apps, with the ability to read the latest stories. I know that my E-Ink Kindle screen isn’t going to give me vibrant color or animation, but it could certainly show me the text, which is what the Kindle excels at.
The Kindle can’t even display web pages well! Its browser is slow and bad, though if you do manage to navigate to a page with an article on it, you can enter “Article Mode” and have a mediocre reading experience.
Perhaps the problem is that Amazon won the ereader war so quickly that nobody else has bothered to challenge them. The Kindle’s only real competition is smartphones and tablets, not other ereaders. Nobody thinks about the Kindle when they’re launching new subscription-only content services. It’s irrelevant. Book publishers have to publish to the Kindle in order to gain access to Amazon’s customers across Kindles and phones and tablets.
Writing this has just made me even more dubious about the future of the Kindle. For all I love about it, it seems unlikely to ever progress beyond its current role as a pleasant book reader largely disconnected from all other sources of content. My Kindle could’ve been a hub for all of my reading, from newsletters to newspapers to subscription sites to books. Instead, it’s a thin electronic paperback book, and that’s all. That’s not nothing—but it could’ve been so much more.
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