Why The Inventor Of eBooks Says Kindle Won’t Go

by Michael Hart on June 1, 2009

Kindle Won't Go

Many people have argue with me for years on the subject of dedicated eBook reader devices, with any number of reasons they like them, but it is really only that they can’t read small print or they still want “the look and feel” of the dead trees pulp bound up in dead animal skins.

I won’t even address the latter issues here but to say that the world always says it will stick with the old ways until a new generation comes, and then the car or the telephone or hairstyle, or whatever, becomes ubiquitous, then the story is closed, and the argument forgotten.

However, I will address the issue of font size.

This is an issue mainly of interest to Boomers, and to others born with limited vision, rather, sadly, than just from olde age.

However, the Boomers are losing power faster in all respects than the media are willing to show because the media is still controlled by Boomer and even older groups, who will not admit their time went, of even pretending to be middle age. I won’t argue right now that people born in ’65 were the last Boomers, how silly, those Boomers of the real kind were already having kids!!!

Even so, it should be obvious, and I tried this out on a 9 year old this week, new generations, those whose eyesight will not deteriorate for a long time to come, those people can read prints I can’t even read with my reading glasses, thus they could care less about the size of the font available in a Kindle, leaving the Kindle sadly to the declining Boomers, who are spending $500 on the average when they buy a Kindle, while an entirely new computer generation is buying this new crop of Netbooks that are full computers in pretty much all senses, but are even smaller in size than the Kindles, and smaller in price.

I just bought one for $278 that I can use every other hour from 9 to 5 and still have the power for a little extra work afterwards.

Yes, the keyboard is a bit too small for my big hand, much larger than average so I think I may look into an external keyboard for long usage.

However, I should add, I have always been quite satisfied with the little foldup keyboards with my Palm Pilots and Visors and the like.

But my values are not the ones that count here, it is world values, and I will be the world has no desire to spend more on a Kindle than on the full boat, or even full sized, laptops that are the best selling computers for years now. They replaced desktops as the primary around 2005…depending on whose reports you believe.

There are several reasons people will not buy a dedicated eBook reader, and some of them a very powerful reasons that cannot be argued with via any intelligent reasoning rationality.

First: the new generations are used to screens the size of Nintendo GameBoys, grew up on them.

Second: the new generations also think screens on cell phones are just fine, and most of those are now even larger.

Third: the new generations have always got the paperback editions as much as the hardbacks, so they don’t have the same nostalgia for Look And Feel of those as do people who stared reading a while before paperbacks became very acceptable.

Fourth, Fifth, etc. the alternatives. . . .

Fourth: most people don’t realize it, but many cell phones also come with WiFi built in so the unit is basically a small Kindle to start with! You don’t even have to have the phone activated to use the WiFi functions, which usually have a pretty normal browser, text reader, and such in them to start with, and also accept any numbers of third party programs most eBook readers have already heard of, no need for me to pitch them.

Fifth: many PDAs are also available that do an awful lot of the same things described above at a much lower cost than a Kindle, Sony, etc.

Sixth: if the largest cell phone screens would not do, even the iPhone, Curve, etc., there are all the new netbooks coming out that should get the job done in any number of ways as far as an eBook presentation goes, from reading out loud, dozens of programs to choose from to read or to listen via text to speech, etc.

Seventh: in all the history of electronics the dedicated products, those that do only one good thing, rather than the integrated products, are never known to sell very well.

It’s like buying a HiFi that has one box for FM and one for AM, another as a pre-amplifier, and another as an amplifier, another bass or treble controls box, etc., versus one box for all.

Why would someone spend the same amount of cash on a Kindle/Sony as on a netbook or a laptop?

The Kindle isn’t portable enough to be the more take along kind of item than a netbook/laptop.

It would appear that ONLY the person who has an awful time reading would want a Kindle, simply, and truly, just because of the variable fonts & and the new X2 being about to read out loud, or the kind of person who just wants to have a lot of the latest toys and doesn’t care about price to benefits ratios and the like.

Eighth: there are simply not enough Kindles to really change the eBook environment.

Just think about how many eBooks there are now, millions of eBooks given away in average months just from gutenberg.org.

iTunes had its first million selling tune about a year ago, really only ~1 year after getting a shakedown cruise over with.

If every person who has a Kindle or a Sony buys the same book, only by adding their combination of sales will they manage a million seller, and that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

How long before Amazon or Sony comes out with a new model that won’t read all the previous book entries on the old models?

How long before the first Kindle and first Sony are antique collector items rather than a real, live and well-used eBook reader?

This is NOT going to happen with eBooks from an assortment of other sources that have been here for much longer than Kindles or Sonys; the very first Project Gutenberg entry is still readable on any modern machine, the only thing is that a file from that era had only capitals if made on the normally available equipment of 1971 but it still works, and looks just the same now as the files downloaded on the first full day of eBook pioneering, July 5, 1971.

Is anyone even going to pretend that Kindle and Sony will even read their own proprietary files 38 years from 2009?

However, all those plain vanilla ASCII files on hundreds or thousands of sites around the world will still be readable 38 years from now. . . .

Anti-eBook people always make the point that CD lifespans, hard drive lifespans, etc., are very uncertain, but the fact is that not one of each and every Project Gutenberg title has ever died the kind of data death these people describe.

Furthermore, it is virtually impossible that it will ever happen, since so many people download each Project Gutenberg book the day of release.

With Sony, Kindle, and the others, you never do really know what books will be available on the next iteration of their book lists, they come & they go, even though they say no reason to ever delete an eBook, it happens all too frequently, so my recommendation is to always make backups. If they don’t allow backups try to make “IMAGE” backups such as “Ghost” and the like, that copy all the 1’s and 0’s directly without files, and file permissions, and all that jazz.

As always, if you can’t figure out how to do it just find your local teenage computer geeks and offer them a pizza and a couple liters of Coke, and they should be able to handle it. Make the effort to be sure you and get the data back any time you want by doing a practice recovery!!!

One benifit is, of course the practice, but the other benefit is that you have an extra copy in in the present time of NOW!!!

It never hurts to have an extra copy.

Terabytes are under $100, have been for a while and I have already managed to snag six of them!

When I taught computer classes here on the Univ of Illinois campus, the first thing I said was:






If this is the ONLY BENEFIT you ever get from a Project Gutenberg volunteer, it will be worth a fortune to you down the road….

Hard To Get Hard Numbers On Kindle/Sony Sales

Amazon and Sony are still BOTH refusing to tell how many eBook readers they have sold, which is a good indicator that sales are not as hoped.

However, perhaps at the end of this year we are going to hear one of them sold a million, given all the various versions as a grand total.

This, of course is stark contrast to 10 million iPhones sold per year, even more Curves at this very moment are going out, with the grand total of cell phones approaching 4.5 million now.

If 1/10 of iPhone users read eBooks, that’s new readers at the rate of a million per year, lots more than the total number of Kindles sold.

As of this time last year, August 1, 2008, just under 1/4 million Kindles had been sold. If we figure sales have doubled in the past year, the current total would be approaching 3/4 million, by August of 2009. . .or if tripled, they might be approaching a million. Amazon makes it hard to say, unless you get insider information as a report specifying the above figure did.


This same article says the total Kindles out in the world will just pass 2/3 million in 2009.

If 1/1000 of the 4.5 billion cell phones are in use as eBook readers, that is 4.5 million, many more than Kindle and Sony combined are thinking about for at least a couple more years.

If just 1% of the billion plus computers should be used as eBook readers, that’s 10 million.

So far, it would appear that eBook readers will not be a major factor in eBook reading, ever.

The reason is the same as always:

Dedicated products never sell as well as ones a company puts out that have multiple function.

Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg

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Mike Cane June 1, 2009 at 4:16 pm

1) It’s simply not true that Sony hasn’t released sales numbers. They are the first one to do so. They’ve sold over 300,000.

2) The small screen argument is spurious. Tell me how many of those people are buying similarly-sized *TVs*.

3) Although Gutenberg is preserving the *text*, it *strips the writer’s intent* because italics are not noted.

4) Dedicated vs multipurpose: That depends. iPods are still selling well.

Rene Hasekamp June 2, 2009 at 6:55 am

I started reading ebooks on my PDA. I have read dozens and dozens of Gutenberg books on it. I would still be doing this if there would have been no solution for the “screen too small” problem. It was quite comfortable already. Now there are the iRex readers, with a page-size screen. This is the ultimate reading comfort. I always carry more than hundred books with me, so there is always one to my taste within reach.
If these readers should ever disappear, I would go back to my PDA, but I would regret it. The iLiad reads like a real book. And paper books are so hard to carry!

John Wilker June 2, 2009 at 3:41 pm

I thought about commenting on all the terribly spurious and biased points, but figured my own blog post was better suited if anyone is interested.


Bill Hill June 2, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Michael seems to be missing the point here.

Books are the way they are – and reading is the way it is (font sizes and all) because they evolved over the 550 years since Gutenberg to optimize for the way that human vision actually works. The point is that the functionality of the most important hardware – our eyes, optic nerves and brain – and the most important software – Homo sapiens V.1.0 – has been around for at least 140,000 years, and will take longer to evolve than anything that can happen in my or Michael’s lifetimes.

People are always making these wild claims about how the new generation is different – but it takes longer than a decade or two to change a system that we inherited from our primate ancestors more than six million years ago.

Yes, you can read smaller text. But it’s not optimal.

Devices like Kindle and the Sony Reader are more comfortable because they’re closer to optimal. I do agree with Michael that people will always prefer a device that does more than one thing. For example, if Apple brought out an iPhone with a Kindle-sized screen, IMO that would be a killer reading device. Or someone brought out a netbook with a portrait display and a keyboard you could remove.

I wrote a paper about how text has optimized for human vision when I worked on Microsoft’s eBooks effort ten years ago. People might still find it worth reading at http://www.billhillsite.com/osprey.doc

We’ve been reading on screens for only about quarter of a century (post-1984 GUI). They still have some evolving to do. I like my Kindle a lot – but I don’t believe it’s the last word…

Greg M. Johnson June 2, 2009 at 11:46 pm

So tell us Boomers with fading eyesight what to do?! Lots of talk without a specific recommendation. What’s the best way to read the documents we download from your site?

Marco Gustafsson June 23, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Given sales results of the most popular ebook readers (Kindle – less than 500,000 units in its first year) it is obviously a niche product. But the situation will definitely change if:
1) e-readers will be given away at a throwaway price. Game console manufacturers have used this way successfully over the years.
2) either the pricing on e-book titles will go down drastically or e-readers manufacturers will develop and introduce a used eBook marketplace.
Both points are realistic enough and the reasons above will not be a big obstacle, especially that some of them are a matter of habit.

Mark July 15, 2009 at 5:20 pm

He completely missed the point. eBook Readers are called that because of their SCREEN technology. The paper like static e-ink that can keep running for several weeks on a single battery charge. Or the conformable trans-reflective LCDs are what make eBook readers a class of devices on its own.

Netbooks, PDAs, and other devices of the kind still don’t use this screen technology, but they’ll soon will. Until then eBook readers are the only solution for reading eBooks for a long period of time without any eye strain.

Another point that was completely off was the fact that eBook readers have the option to customize the font size. Font size is not an issue either.

eBook readers will take over this niche. PDF readers llike eSlick will completely replace books in a very short period of time.

I have an ebook reader and can tell that they make books completely obsolete.

Sy Whitehall July 16, 2009 at 3:04 pm

‘However, the Boomers are losing power faster in all respects than the media are willing to show because the media is still controlled by Boomer and even older groups, who will not admit their time went….’

Well said Michael. I get the distinct feeling we are in this together….

Sy Whitehall


George Cowan, Jr., M.D. July 29, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Recently bought the Kindle DX. It has a place particularly with my travels disencumbered of heavy books and audio files. I do have considerable empathy with Mr. Hart’s sense of this rigid, expensive, awkward, fragile fad. And, when a new one appears that is flexible, unbreakable (reasonably), roll-up-in-my-pocket-able, hopefully less expensive, I will also buy it. And, as a process of ebook-o-lution, a reasonably stable form of reader will become the “standard.” Certainly not a Kindle DX. Perhaps, however, did I detect a slight “essence of N.I.H.” however. The acronym translates as “Not Invented Here.” Understandably and forgiveable if so for this Innovator for the Ages (I.F.T.A.) who is building his literary Noah’s Ark for humanity. Thank you Mr. Hart, I.F.T.A., and don’t sweat the small, and larger size, kindlin’.
All the Best, George

Bill Jamison November 12, 2009 at 3:46 am

I disagree to a point about ebook readers never going to be competitive. In part I think its a craftsmanship issue.
Yes you can buy a multi tool that does many different jobs.
But sometimes the craftsman will actually pay more for a specific tool that does a specific job better.

And yes there are ebook readers out there that in my opinion, do it better. No I’m not talking about kindle or sony. Anything that is tied to a proprietary source has a cash cow for a customer. What are you going to do? You either pay the price or stop reading.

No I’m talking about Ebook Readers like the Jetbook.
Handy little devices with bigger screens, more options, that are simply much more enjoyable to use. Comes with a USB cable so you can transfer whatever books you’ve found from whatever source. And take them with you and read them wherever you choose to go.

Personally I have only a 512mb sd card in my Jetbook, it currently is loaded with over 500 books, with room for 300 more. Instead of a 2 or 3 inch screen it has a very crisp 5″ screen, with several font sizes.

Sometimes the craftsman who is truly into his craft will be willing to spend the extra money for a truly good tool. And how better could you describe those of us who not only read, but are engulfed by our passion?

After all up here in North Dakota, there is not much else to do in the winter time but read!

Project Gutenberg keep up the good work.
You’ve made many a long cold night or blizzard day go by much faster and much more enjoyable.

MatMan December 29, 2009 at 12:38 am

I’ve been reading ebook’s on my cell phone since about 2002 and can say that I don’t think that I’ll ever buy a dedicated ebook reader. Its not even a question of cost its more a question of convenience. Who really wants to carry another electronic device in your pocket and there is nothing that it can offer that my cell/software cant do.

I’ve been using a free application (TEQUILACAT , google it) that converts almost every book format to a format that any java compatible cell phone (most probably every color cell ever made) can handle and has many options such as custom font size’s, touch screen support, bookmarks, auto last place start-up and plenty more and I mean plenty more, I landed up spending about an hour to set it up just the way I wanted it and its battery usage is negligible.

Jennifer March 7, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Looks like this guy is wrong! I believe the kindle is catching on more now! I bought a kindle a few weeks ago because I am moving to another country and can’t take my fav books. I love it! It needs to be improved some, but at least Amazon is taking suggestions.
I know many people who have bought a kindle and many more who plan on buying one within the next year.
Seems like it is catching on!

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