A Kindle Tribute

An oversimplified, overly opinionated, non-affiliated commentary around the trade-offs between the reading experience of the Kindle e-readers versus the good old paper books.

Here’s the thing about the Kindle: it works. When you read a book on it, the hardware and software disappear. The content itself becomes the only thing. This is a product doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, and doing it without a fuss, without begging for my attention.

Reading these lines about Kindle’s virtues made me mull over the number of hours I spent using this device, while at the same time, how underappreciated it still goes when we think about “cutting-edge” technology or good product design in general.

Faced with a thought experiment in which you rank the devices you get to keep in an “I can’t live without them” basis, aside from the Mac (which is undoubted “my one and only”), the Kindle e-reader would arguably be the runner up in this list. Definitely ranking higher than the smartphone, and in a close call with the headphones.

Thus it is “not fair” that I never comment around this product and how remarkable it is from a product design perspective. Yet again, reading these lines from Jonathan Courtney left me with no excuse other than to jot down some thoughts around the Kindle — and in short, this is what this article is about.

The Kindle is an example of a product that thrives on technological and budgetary constraints. This forces its designers to keep their priorities straight and their focus sharp.

Within the realm of Product Management, the Kindle represents one of the pinnacles of clear, well-executed product priorities. Despite already being a mature product, focus and the courage to say “no” still, remains at its core. Over the long run, few products thrive under the premise of being great at just “one thing”. Most succumb to the glorified promises coming from capturing adjacent verticals or moving up-market. Often creating feature-bloated, unusable products that end up doing everything, but speaking to nobody.

Trade-offs and compromises are at the heart of every product design process. Some companies are very good at focusing on the core experience of a product (see Amazon, Apple). These are the companies that understand that a product doesn’t need to do everything, please everyone, all in one go. They add features and improve the product iteratively: after the core experience of the product has been established.

For the sake of the argument, let’s shift the discussion to an oversimplified (and opinionated) trade-off between the reading experience of the Kindle e-readers versus the good old paper books.

Paper books present three major flaws:

  • Weight and volume: paper books quickly fill up space and can’t be easily carried around in bulk. On top of that, if you are an avid reader, your apartment will quickly turn into a book storage facility.
  • Single source of notes: while it is a pleasure to annotate and highlight paper books, its notes remain isolated and not accessible or searchable from a single source. It makes collecting and connecting knowledge from different books really challenging.
  • Random styles: some books sport amazing fonts and page quality, its reading experience becomes almost “magic”. Unfortunately, others are, style and quality-wise, an unmitigated disaster. As a buyer of the book, not being able to control its “CSS” is something I find truly annoying.

Note these arguments come from a self-declared Kindle proponent. That being said though, one can’t cover up the fact that a paper books constitute a unique experience in themselves.

Although all three arguments presented above point to a rather suboptimal experience, it is hard to argue against the emotion a paper book can evoke to its reader. The smell, the contact with the paper, the turning of the pages, annotating them, even the sensation of walking into a second-hand library and picking up a random book. It is purely irrational, because its own flaws turn it into a delightful experience.

Yet finally, let’s leave our romantic views on paper books aside, so I can drop my Kindle cold, obliterating facts.

Starting with the ones pointing directly to the three flaws stated above, and ruling over any irrational experience a paper book could inspire:

  • Storage: virtually endless book-space within the device. Having a life-long library in such a tiny device represents a manifestation of minimalism that is difficult to match.
  • Unified notes: despite Amazon does not make it easier to export them, having all your (digital) annotations and highlights in a single place is a peace of mind.
  • Customizable styles: one of the most unspoken features of the Kindle e-reader is the fact that all books look the same. What’s more, not only they look the same, they look exactly how you want them to.

Aside from those, we can also enter a more ambiguous discussion where I’d argue the Kindle e-reader magnifies its dominance even more:

  • Better screen: leaving paper lovers aside, the fact that the screen has its own front light integrated is really handy. On top of that, pixel density for e-ink displays has already surpassed a threshold that far exceeds printed-quality material.
  • Waterproof: while I don’t advise to immerse the Kindle e-reader under water (no need to, actually) the tranquility that comes with knowing that a splash won’t ruin it, is priceless.
  • Unmatchable ecosystem: by far the number one user complaint around Kindle (the fact that Amazon keeps its own proprietary format and the ecosystem rather closed), makes of it one of its biggest strengths. An integrated store, where you will find all the titles, just one click and a handful of seconds away, is something that just a few years ago was, simply put, unimaginable.
  • It gets better over time: a paper book is a static product. Once you buy one, the best you can wish for it is to “age well”. But you know for sure they won’t improve. A Kindle e-reader, thanks to its regular software updates, keeps getting better.
  • Whispersync: this is not a feature I often use, but it is definitely one of the most praised gems of the Kindle experience — and something that can only be done because of its software-based nature. In short, Whispersync means seamless transition between devices (even switching to listening to the audiobook companion), and on some occasions, it can be extremely useful.

Wow… that was almost a love letter to the Kindle. Now I feel like I should drop an affiliate link or something 😂. Unfortunately, I don’t have one 😓. Yet I hope it has, at least, convinced some Kindle skeptics to give it a try.

First published on January 26, 2015