Reason why Kindle is winning and Nook isn't

Mike Cane at iPad Test has been a vocal detractor of the Kindle. More in the vein of the super intelligent Nicholson Baker than the brain-dead Press that cobble together ingredients like a cook at a cheap diner. 

He has, however, recently conceded that Amazon is pretty likely to win the eBook war – thanks in part to Kindle Apps. It’s a bit surprising since it doesn’t seem that clear-cut to me – especially since we’re waiting for The Settlement and for Google Editions.

Well, Mike Cane recently wrote a very interesting post about why Kindle is winning and Nook will lose. He based this on his experience with Kindle for PC. In particular he was very impressed by –

  1. Amazon letting users download a free book without entering credit card information.
  2. Amazon’s free copy of a Sherlock Holmes book having the sole italicized word in the entire series correctly italicized.

The first point is the one that’s critical since B&N demands credit card information before they will let a user download a free book.

Which brings us to the topic of this post – Is this an isolated incident or is there a pattern of Amazon consistently outpacing the Nook?

Reason Kindle is winning

Most of what we discuss here can be found in a past post covering Nook owners’ most requested features.

Consider some of the painfully obvious things Nook misses out on and Kindle doesn’t – Folders (though to be fair Kindle only got this recently), Landscape Mode, PDF resizing options, screen refresh to remove ghosting, there’s no way to move highlights and notes to your PC with Nook, store purchased documents and personal documents are in separate folders and have separate capabilities on Nook (no cover flow for personal documents, search is limited).

There are other things which highlight that B&N haven’t put in as much thought – Nook has page turns that are noticeably slower than the Kindle (it adds up when you have 400 page turns per book), there are no Nook owner reviews on the Nook product page, the synchronization across apps isn’t fully baked.

It’s not all Kindle – Nook does have some solid advantages over the Kindle. However, there’s a strong pattern in the disadvantages. B&N did not make an effort to make things easier for the user.

Nook doesn’t make things easy for users

This pattern is even more pronounced when you consider day-to-day usability – highlighting and taking notes on the Nook is torture, the Menus require too many steps for every function, page turns using the touchscreen are hard to do, and it’s easy to accidentally press the home button or the wrong button on the touchscreen.

There seems to be very little thought put into how users would actually use the Nook.

A single disadvantage by itself doesn’t seem much. However, add them all together and add on the occasional bug and the rare case of freezing and suddenly your experience with Nook is full of frustration.

Amazon makes the Kindle Store and the Kindle the path of least resistance

Consider what Mike Cane writes –

I can totally understand why new eBook users would turn to Amazon over everyone else now.

Amazon doesn’t throw up any speed bumps. The entire process is smooth and anxiety-free,

And when I found out I didn’t have to give up financial information for a free book, that turned the smooth experience into one that was outright delightful.

We’ve stumbled upon the reason Kindle is winning. Amazon has made the Kindle and the Kindle Store the path of least resistance. Customers get maximum value/satisfaction with minimum effort and close to zero friction. There is no ‘give us your credit card for the free book’ malarchy. There is no ‘press 27 buttons to change font size’ torture. There is no ‘buy our device or you can’t read the book you bought’ myopia.   

Amazon are making things so simple for users that it’s delightful and that makes for an unbeatable competitive advantage.

You can’t beat Easy + Valuable by piling up Features

A LCD screen sounds delightful. However, what use is it if it makes the interface and the device slow?

Would customers rather have an extra LCD screen or would they rather have an easier to use device? The correct answer is probably both – However, Nook’s LCD screen becomes a disadvantage because it makes everything slow.

B&N is thinking too much from the angle of – ‘What will sell more Nooks?’ without considering the perspective of – ‘What will create the easiest and most delightful experience for users?’

Kindle vs Nook is a study in contrasting philosophies

The philosophy on which Kindle seems to be built is – Add lots of value to users, build lots of channels, make things super easy for users.

The philosophy on which Nook seems to be built is – Add lots of features that will sell Nook, target gaps in the Kindle.

Yet, B&N is missing the fact that lots of the gaps in the Kindle are by design. It’s not that Amazon didn’t think of a LCD screen – its patent shows it did. Amazon probably realized that mixing an eInk screen with a LCD screen would be a disaster. It’s not that Kindle couldn’t have had an on-screen keyboard – it’s that it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that taking notes on a tiny on-screen keyboard is immensely painful.

At some level it’s easy to understand why the Kindle is so much easier to use – Amazon has put a lot of thought into the Kindle. It started working on the Kindle in 2004. Nook simply reacted to the Kindle and released the Nook in around a year. While the Nook is remarkably good for something cobbled together in a year the extra years of thought and effort put in to the Kindle are clearly apparent.

Thoughts on the Kindle's 5-way controller

There’s a very interesting thread at the official kindle forum talking about the 5-way controller –

there are so many things the 5-way must do over the lifetime of a Kindle: menu selections and highlighting happen many times per Kindle session.

Both of these involve multiple clicks per occasion. Has anyone found the 5-way to be an Achilles heel, wearing out and becoming sloppy?

The discussion focuses on whether the 5-way is ‘delicate’ and the Achilles Heel of the Kindle. There are actually a lot more aspects to the 5-way controller so let’s dive in.

5-way as the focus of the user experience

In a way the 5-way determines the user experience. Consider all these different actions –

  1. Moving to a book.
  2. Selecting a book.
  3. Using the Menus.
  4. Highlighting.
  5. Finding the meaning of a word.

The 5-way is the main element of the user experience for all of these and for countless other actions on the Kindle. Almost every dialog and menu requires using the 5-way controller multiple times.

The 5-way Controller’s Strengths

The 5-way conveniently provides directional movement and an ‘Enter’ button in one control. It’s placed relatively conveniently (more on this below). It’s soft and moves easily. It has some amount of ‘give’ to it so it’s very comfortable to use when it comes to the actual feel of it.

You can also use it while holding the Kindle with one hand.

It’s an elegant solution to a lot of different requirements. It’s obviously not as convenient as a touchscreen would be – However, given the limitations it does very well and it’s quicker to respond than most touchscreens.

If you consider the competition the Nook uses an awkward, separate touchscreen and actions involve way too many steps. The Sony’s touchscreen is on the eInk screen itself and is thus very convenient – However, actions again take a lot more steps than they should.

Flaws of the 5-way controller

There are obviously some downsides –

  1. The first flaw is that it’s easy to move it in the wrong direction or to go left or down instead of clicking.
  2. The second flaw is the placement. A Mirasol prototype had a layout with a 5-way type controller right next to the keyboard and that would be ideal. Currently, you have to move all the way from the keyboard to the 5-way and back. Also if you hold the Kindle so that the next page is conveniently at your thumb you have to actually move your hand a bit out-of-the-way when you use the 5-way.   
  3. The third flaw is that it’s a little too small and not raised enough – pressing the 5-way and moving using the 5-way are both intricate operations.

There’s obviously the possibility that perhaps there’s a more fundamental flaw i.e. the need for a touchscreen. Well, let’s consider whether a replacement is needed.

Is a replacement needed? Would it be ideal?

One possible replacement would be having 4 direction arrows (up, down, left, and right) and an enter button. This would eliminate the problem of pressing by mistake or moving in the wrong direction. However, this becomes a bit unwieldy. It needs more space and there isn’t much left given there is already a physical keyboard. It also requires more movement and would be slower.

So not only is the use of 5 separate buttons instead of the 5-way inelegant it might be impossible given the lack of available free space.

The other option that springs to mind is having a touchscreen instead of the 5-way and it’s worth considering. The biggest advantage with a touchscreen is that you can quickly jump to any place on the page. There’s also a certain coolness factor.

The downsides are that touch screens respond slower than physical buttons do and that you have to move your hand to the spot you want to touch. It’s a lot more physical effort to physically move your hand/finger to the spot where a word is on the screen (as compared to using the 5-way). A touchscreen without another form of movement also rules out one-handed reading. You simply couldn’t highlight while holding the device with one hand. With the 5-way you can.

We’re left in an interesting position – While the touchscreen is possibly better than the 5-way it also has its downsides.

The case for keeping the 5-way controller if/when the Kindle gets a touchscreen

If/when the Kindle gets a touchscreen there’s a strong case for leaving the 5-way as it is (and if possible moving it next to the keyboard) –

  1. The 5-way allows for one-handed reading.  
  2. The 5-way allows for shortcuts like ‘Left’ for delete, ‘Right’ for more information. 
  3. 5-way responds faster than a touchscreen would.  
  4. 5-way is a lot less effort. Consider using a Menu – Press the Menu button, then press the item you want on the screen. With a 5-way it’s right next to the Menu button and you don’t have to reposition your hand.
  5. You get a lot of functionality per square inch. It’s 5 buttons rolled into one.

Basically, the 5-way is the focus of the Kindle user experience for good reason. Hopefully, even if/when a touchscreen comes to the Kindle , it stays that way.

What sort of Notes App/Journal App would work on the Kindle?

There’s a post at talking about the qualities of Microsoft OneNote and EverNote (both are note taking applications) and he talks about how you can tell that a notes app is well thought out –

the simple acid test that works in Word, Outlook, and OneNote. It’s a sign that someone really groks “making note-taking simple” and this is how it’s supposed to go:

  1. Type in an asterisk
  2. Hit space
  3. Start typing
  4. Magically the asterisk is replaced by a bullet and you’re editing a bullet list.

He points out various other shortcuts and features that show a Notes app is well thought out –

  • Quick to-do checkboxes (Ctrl-Shift-C? OneNote: Ctrl-1)
  • Per-character Undo support (I don’t want to erase the last few sentences on Ctrl-Z)
  • Collapsible bullet trees
  • Quick table creation with tabs (genius OneNote feature)
  • All this got me wondering about what the equivalent would be on the Kindle – What would a really good Kindle Notes App look like?

    Building a good Notes App on the Kindle is pretty challenging

    The Kindle is primarily designed for reading and the minute we start looking at creating a Notes App that makes it good for writing we run into challenges –

    1. The keyboard has tiny keys and getting to symbols is painful and slow.
    2. There’s nothing like a mouse to jump around. There aren’t even direction keys. 
    3. Unless you can find a surface to keep the Kindle on, you’re typing with your thumbs.  
    4. How and where do you place your editing and file menus?

    It’s a little bit overwhelming at first. So let’s start with the user.

    What would you consider a good Kindle Notes/Journal App?

    Please leave a comment with your thoughts on what your ideal Notes/Journal App would look like –

    1. Is it just a simple notepad? Does it allow taking notes?  
    2. Would you like to-do lists and lists?
    3. Should it be a journal? Should it have entries per day?
    4. What shortcuts would you like?
    5. Would you want the entire screen to show what you’re writing?
    6. What export and printing options would you like?  

    A Kindle Notes App is one of the apps on my radar – if there’s enough interest and some good ideas it’d be worth doing.

    What would a very good Kindle Notes/Journal App look like?

    There are some features that instantly come to mind –

    1. Using some of the keys on the keyboard as direction keys.
    2. Adding in an easier way to get to symbols. Perhaps a button converts all the keys to symbols with an on-screen guide.
    3. Perhaps Predictive Text Input.
    4. Ability to change font sizes.  
    5. Themes. 
    6. Ability to add in photos and links.
    7. Clever use of the previous page and next page buttons to circle through notes and/or dates.
    8. Supporting the Back button. 
    9. Providing backups of what a user is typing.

    Then we start looking at other possible features –

    1. Perhaps additional fonts.  
    2. Perhaps a built-in planner.
    3. Do we support multiple formats?
    4. Do we support documents from other notes programs?
    5. Backup and Restore functionality.

    Obviously some of these features will not make it – Font support is a huge feature in itself. Adding backup and restore adds a ton of testing time.

    The real missing part – Well Thought Out Design

    The point that makes on turning ‘*’ into bullet points. That’s something that only comes up after a lot of deep thinking and figuring out customers’ needs. Simple design is another such feature – It’s going to take a lot of thought and effort to get something that is very simple to use.

    The obvious advantage lies with the team that created OneNote and the Evernote team and other companies that specialize in this area.

    Will they code a Notes app for the Kindle?

    5 most important features for a Notes App

    Here’s my first stab at the 5 most important features for a Notes App on the Kindle –

    1. Simple – Very easy to use and simple design.  
    2. Intuitive – Uses existing Kindle design concepts and sticks with design principles used by the currently popular notes applications (Notepad, Word, OneNote, etc.).
    3. The core notepad features – add notes, edit notes, go through notes, some basic form of arranging notes.  
    4. Stable – Keeps your notes safe and secure, doesn’t crash, doesn’t lose data, and is very dependable in general.  
    5. Friendly – Lets you email your notes out, save them as text, print them out, and lets you export/use your notes across all your other devices and computers.  

    What are the top 5 features you would like in a Kindle Notes/Journal App?