Despite its prohibitive cost structure, crippling DRM, and content limitations, e-book readers like Amazon’s new Kindle (pictured below) have great potential to capture the hearts and minds of tech-savvy educators and students. To accomplish this, however, a number of improvements are clearly needed.
Lower the Cost
Special pricing programs and incentives should be arranged for e-book readers intended for educational use. Currently, the Kindle sells for $399 plus: $9.99 for most books; 5.99-14.99/mo. for most newspapers; $1.25-3.49/mo. for most magazines; and a $0.10 fee when sending yourself documents. This cost structure is simply too high for most schools, teachers, and students. The $0.10 fee to upload documents that you already own to a device that you already paid for is absurd and should be eliminated outright.
Remove the DRM
The DRM on the Kindle is onerous by any measure. Even Apple, that provides iPod owners with DRM-encoded music through their iTunes store, still allows users to upload virtually any kind of audio file onto their iPods. The Kindle, on the other hand, supports a limited number of text formats, and its main source of content, the Amazon store, uses a proprietary format (AZW) that will only display on a Kindle and no other device. This prohibits content sharing among users for e-books that they purchased and supposedly “own.” It also means that students may not transfer content onto a laptop or PC with a word processor, making it impossible to cut/paste passages and citations from Kindle e-books directly into course papers.
Expand Support for Content
A “scholarly” Kindle would also need to broaden its compatibility with formats commonly used by researchers and instructors, especially PDFs, PowerPoint documents, and Excel files. Amazon’s device currently only supports Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion. The lack of PDF support is perhaps the most glaring omission. Yes, it is possible to use Mobi creator to convert PDF’s to MOBI format and then upload them to the Kindle via USB, but this is an inefficient, multi-step process that should be unnecessary. PDFs should run natively on these devices.
A blog post on Wesleying exclaims, “I hate dealing with all the pdfs I get assigned for reading and that I use for research, but if I could download them all onto something like this [the Kindle], it’d be pretty cool and over the course of 4 years of college would likely pay for itself in printing costs alone.”
Provide Cheap, Searchable Kindle-Formatted Textbooks
E-book developers like Amazon should aggressively negotiate with textbook publishers to make eductional materials available in e-book format at a substantial discount for students. Christopher Dawson, a high school teacher and IT administrator, writes in his Kindle blog post: “At anywhere from $50-$200 a pop, textbooks are a huge expense; if substantial discounts could accompany the downloadable content and the content could be easily moved among Kindles based on course offerings, I’d be pitching these things like crazy to the school committee.” Universities and colleges should also make it easy for students to download course packs or sourcebooks to handheld readers.
Kindle RSS & Document Delivery
Just as owners of the Kindle currently have the option of subscribing to daily editions of newspapers, simple tools should be developed that would allow anyone to “push” content to an e-book device by creating their own “subscription” service or RSS feed. Teachers would be able to automatically send their students (even those who are absent) readings, problem sets, homework assignments, and handouts. Libraries would be able to automatically lend users e-books based on particular subjects or keyword searches.
Compatibility with Licensed E-Resources & Bibliographic Managers
If researchers could configure their devices to automatically search for and download the full text of scholarly articles from licensed e-resources directly onto their e-book readers, as well as generate an Endnote/RefWorks-compatible bibliography of the books/articles on their handhelds, Kindle-like devices would take academia by storm. Much of this compatibility, of course, depends as much upon the publishers/developers of the databases as the e-book reader manufacturers themselves.
Despite these gripes, we must give the Kindle its due. The fact that it is generating so much discussion and excitement means that it did get a lot of things right, especially in terms of its form factor, readability, EVDO connectivity (although WiFi would also be nice!), and battery life. I, like many of my library and academic colleagues, are eagerly anticipating version 2.0, hoping that it might address some of the issues that would make it an indispensible tool for teachers, researchers, and students. Naturally, we’ll also be watching for Kindle-clones and competitors who might adopt a more open platform at a more reasonable price point.