Kindle vs. iPad: Reading Between the Lines

Jul 08, 2010

Being the owner of two of the most important e-readers on the market puts me in a unique position to speak to the best and the worst of what e-readers have to offer. In my view, the Kindle - iPad comparisons I have read are usually based on a rather arrogant assumption: that reading books is, somehow, a more worthwhile intellectual pursuit than magazines, newspapers, or other content sources. My own reading time is split between online and traditional sources. So when the merits of a book-only e-reader are touted, I'm not impressed.

I jumped into the e-reader market in 2008, and bought the first version of the Kindle. At first I was thrilled with it, but the more often I used it, the more my feelings changed.

Things started to change after I finished reading my first purchase, Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers. It dawned on me that I could not loan it to my daughter, Heather, who would greatly enjoy it. Next, I discovered that the content of my Kindle subscription to The Atlantic Monthly fell far short of the printed magazine. Some material was simply missing.

In addition to the other issues, I grew to dislike the drab, grayish screen. It is not, as some would claim, like reading a newspaper or magazine. For me, it's an inferior viewing experience. And the idea that users should prefer it to reading on a good color screen is, in my opinion false. My wife, Jenny, after reading one book on my Kindle, (because it was all she could get on a cross-country flight) refuses to ever touch the Kindle again. Kindle's alleged strong point is that you can read it outdoors in the sun. Few people, I believe, actually read their Kindle in blazing sunshine. They're smart; they read in the shade when outdoors - where an iPad blows it away.

Last, but not least -- and this is a point that applies to most ebooks, regardless of reading platform -- I think the $9.99 price point, when considered in light of the non-loanability of the product, is way too high. I would consider $5.99 as my personal "no-brainer" price point.

Let me frame ebook pricing, in general, from our family's viewpoint. Jenny is an avid reader, and hardcover buyer, of action-adventure and suspense books by authors such as Dan Brown, Lee Child, and James Patterson. She often buys them at Borders with her discount card, which, I believe, costs $25 per year. With her discount, she pays around $17 per title. Every month, she gets a $5 special discount, so she pays $12 for that book - less than Apple charges for an ebook! All books are passed on to one or both our daughters, Heather and Holly, who pass them on to their husbands and then to friends. Their half-life is long, indeed.

Moreover, Jenny often buys remaindered, year-old hardcover titles for $5.95 - while Amazon is still charging $9.99. To me, the idea held by many hardcover publishers, that ebook buyers will pay even more than $9.99 is a pipedream. (Clive Cussler's new book, The Spy, is $14.99 at Apple's iBook store.)  That's getting close to the $17 hardcover price Jenny pays at Borders.

My iPad, in contrast to my Kindle experience, has definitely changed the way I read. Even though I have been using my laptop for current events reading for years, I didn't use it for reading books -- too hot, too heavy. The iPad changed that, in ways the Kindle never could. Now, if I'm reading a book and come across a topic I want to explore on the spot, I just take a minute and Google it. The iPad is heavier than the Kindle, but it rests comfortably on my belly -- not a problem. 

What happened to the books I bought for my Kindle? Well, "there's an app for that," as they say. I can read Kindle books on both my iPad and iPhone. In fact, it is Amazon's stated policy to make Kindle books readable on as many platforms as possible.

Unlike my MacBook, my iPad is an "arm's-reach" device. That accessibility is a big deal for me - especially for "impulse research." It is also a "hand-over" device. (When I find an item of interest, I hand the iPad over to Jenny.) Consider the following example:

Jenny and I are watching The Today Show. On that particular day, as a novelty, all NBC live personalities did not wear makeup. The older folks did not fare well. I wondered aloud whether Kathie Lee Gifford might be in her sixties. Jenny argued for fifties. So I reached for the iPad, and Googled Kathie Lee. She is 56. Time? About 20 seconds. A trivial search? Sure. But it represents a change in habits that, for me, is indeed profound. One impulse lookup begets another...and another. And so on. 

There are reports that Amazon has plans for a color touch screen device with Wi-Fi capabilities -- obviously going well beyond the limited searching of present-day Kindles. The idea is that this will be an "iPad killer," with Amazon offering free "WhisperNet" service on AT&T. (But with the recent elimination of unlimited data transfer for the iPhone, it remains to be seen whether AT&T will still be on board with WhisperNet's pricing when the device finally materializes.)

Amazon is also said to be planning a wide variety of apps, some of which will compete with Apple and Google. In February, Amazon acquired a small startup called Touchco, which has a patent-pending new technology for touch screens said to be much lighter than conventional screens and, possibly, with superior color.

Most recently, Amazon lowered its prices for Kindles and incorporated new higher contrast screens. Clearly, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, thinks Amazon can afford to see the contest through to the end - unless Wall Street says otherwise by punishing its stock, as it did to Barnes & Noble for spending too much on its Nook e-reader. What a fascinating technology battle.