is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
For obvious reasons, I’m an iPad partisan, but I do want to see the tablet market get more competitive. For that reason, I was excited about the Amazon Kindle when it was announced and so I pre-ordered it immediately.
When it arrived, I had an out-of-the-box experience that, as it turns out, would be indicative of my feeling about the device in general: good, not great. As I powered it up for the first time, the Fire spent about five or ten minutes downloading and installing a software update, leaving me unable to even use it. Not great. But it installed the update just fine, and thereafter it was mostly a glitch-free experience. Good.
I’ve been using — trying to use — the Fire regularly since. I carry it on the subway during my commute and read books on it, rather than on Apple’s iBooks, which is my preferred reading software. I also keep up with weekly issues of The New Yorker on it rather than reading it in print form, which I’ve always preferred for that publication. All told, I’ve made a concerted effort to really get to know the Kindle.
Here’s what I found: it’s a good reading device, which is to be expected, but what I expected was a fantastic reading device. That just seems like what the Kindle platform should be: the world’s premier electronic reading experience, bar none.
Unfortunately it’s not that, by any means. The 7-inch form factor is marginally easier to hold than an iPad while standing in a subway car, but the size and contours leave me continually feeling like I can’t get a good grip on it. For on-the-go reading, which I do a lot, the justly lambasted positioning of the power button — on the bottom edge of the device — makes it very hard to quickly power back up after alighting trains.
The Kindle software itself is a lousy reading experience; the justified, un-hyphenated typography is an eyesore, the font selection is depressingly homely, and the line-spacing is visually erratic. The net effect is that it feels like I’m consuming a pirated version of whatever book I’m reading, a sensation which might have been fine on earlier versions of Kindle hardware, but seems lazy on a device capable of producing beautiful results. I’m not saying that iBooks is perfect, but Amazon’s focus and head start on the reading experience should have put them in a much better position than this.
Reading aside, there’s little else that the Fire does that excites me, though I admit I’m probably not the target user, since I already own an iPad and am invested in that platform. Even if I weren’t though, I find the Fire’s focus on consumption — an even more extreme focus on that than the iPad — to be disappointing. There are so many things you can do with a portable, touch-based computing device, and the Fire hardly seems interested in any of them.
Amazon has gotten a lot of praise for not flagrantly emulating the iPad with the Kindle Fire, and I concur with that a little bit. However, it should get no praise for its utter lack of imagination. After several weeks of using it, there’s almost nothing about the Kindle that inspires me in any way, whether as a user, as a consumer or as a developer.
In fact, the Fire reminds me a lot of the so-called ‘electronic typewriters’ that came into the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At a time when personal computers were getting cheaper and more capable, and word processing software looked poised to take over the typing market, typewriter manufacturers responded by producing a bizarre class of hardware that incorporated a minimal amount of silicon into a traditional typewriter form factor. These machines had a one- or two-line digital display, a marginal amount of memory, and complex modes of editing, formatting and storage. They were weird, but at the time they must have seemed like a reasonable counter-balance to the PC tidal wave: for folks not yet ready for the full power of a personal computer, these awkward beasts could be had for a noticeably reduced price — you just had to be convinced that you could make do with the reduced feature set and the utter lack of imagination. They didn’t last long, of course, and eventually everyone bought a ‘real’ computer. To me, that’s the Kindle Fire.+