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In an iPhone-enlightened world, Kindle has an obvious flaw
Craig Hunter
November 21, 2007

Amazon's Kindle reading device looks to hold a lot of promise. Though the media format and rights are being debated quite of bit, I think it's a lot more interesting to talk about the hardware. I mean, any device that aims to replace a book, which has undergone thousands of years of design and evolution, had better get it right with the hardware. Unfortunately, this is where I see a big shortfall.

Forget the debate over whether Kindle looks good or ugly -- that is so subjective it's hard to write about in a reasonable fashion. Let's focus on usability and the user interface. I see one big problem with Kindle, and that is the fixed keyboard. We might not have given it a second thought a year ago, but in a world enlightened by the iPhone, having a fixed keyboard on a device carries some big questions nowadays.

For instance, on a device that is so obviously focused and marketed as a reader, why do I want a keyboard taking up 30% of the front of the device all the time? It's not going to help me read, but it is going to get in the way. Wouldn't it be great if I could get that space back and use it to display more text on a larger page? Or make the device smaller? For what is ostensibly a small part of the device's capabilities, Kindle carries that keyboard around all the time. It would be like having a big chunk of empty space at the bottom of every page in a real book -- a margin that ate up 30% of the page.

It's interesting to point out a difference between the iPhone, Kindle, and other devices. The iPhone makes the most of a touchscreen keyboard because it is a multi-mission device, with many capabilities and no particular strengths. Indeed, I would have a hard time pointing out one thing the iPhone is exceptional at, but I would need to make a list if I were to talk about the many things it does well. This is the situation where a touchscreen, with its reconfigurable interface and keyboard, works well. Multi-misson devices are a natural fit for a touchscreen interface. A keyboard can be there when you need it, and gone the rest of the time.

Traditionally, single-mission (or primary mission with secondary capability) devices have a fixed interface, which in many cases means a fixed keyboard. This makes perfect sense if the keyboard is tied to the main mission of the device. In fact, if entering text and data is the primary mission of the device, the keyboard should be the prominent feature (for instance, a typewriter or word processor of the old days).

And then we get into the category of devices with fixed keyboards and multiple missions, like the traditional smart phone. We could argue all day whether it's better to have a fixed keyboard on these devices, but I won't because some people simply prefer having a fixed keyboard, for many reasons (one of which is that they feel it's more efficient for typing). If you want a fixed keyboard and are OK with it eating up 30-50% of the front of the device, hey, go for it. These phones have been pretty successful using this recipe.

Interestingly, Kindle doesn't really fit into any of these categories. It is a device with a primary mission and some lesser, secondary capabilities, but the primary mission does *not* need a keyboard, and what's more, the keyboard detracts from the primary mission. Kindle defies all of these categories in a sense; and I can't really peg it. That's why the keyboard jumps out at me as just plain wrong. It's just too much of an obvious, questionable departure from a real book and doesn't seem like the way to make a 'better' book.

But what about a better Kindle? Say one that ditched the fixed keyboard, the goofy pointing device, and the page turn buttons in exchange for a touchscreen a la iPhone. Wouldn't that be cool? Imagine having the ability to flick from page to page, point at individual words with a finger tip, or use pinch gestures to change text size. Everybody is talking about how Kindle is the 'iPod of Books' or something like that, but the iPod is so yesterday (even Apple knows it). If Amazon really wanted a breakthrough, they should have aimed for the 'iPhone of Books'. That's a better way to out-book a book.