Monday, March 15, 2010

Kindle Textbooks

I've had a couple of people point out to me that Probability and Computing: Randomized Algorithms and Probabilistic Analysis (my book) is now available on Kindle.  I looked around and saw that several other standard texts are now available that way as well:  Algorithm Design, Algorithms, Approximation Algorithms, Computational Complexity: A Modern Approach, and Introduction to the Theory of Computation.  (Even the omnibus The Princeton Companion to Mathematics is available on Kindle.)  Strangely, several other texts apparently aren't:  Introduction to Algorithms, Third Edition, Randomized Algorithms, Algorithmic Game Theory, and Concentration of Measure for the Analysis of Randomized Algorithms.  While I can understand that older texts might not be easily moved to a Kindle format, the Concentration of Measure book is new, so I'm not sure what it is that is separating Kindle-ized books from unKindled peers.  Anyone out there have any insights?

I suppose I'll see in my next book sales statement if any Kindle copies were sold.  In general, the Kindle version seem to go for just a few dollars less;  Algorithm Design is a big exception, with the Kindle edition going for over $25. less than the hardback counterpart.  Sometimes, it looks like you can buy new copies of the book less than the Kindle price (usually from Amazon third party dealers).  I don't own a Kindle (yet), and I wonder how they would be for textbooks.  The textbooks I've listed above I'm happy to have on my shelves for reference.  I suppose if I had them in a universal, pdf-like format that I could access and make use of essentially anywhere, I'd be happy with that too.  Particularly if I had capabilities like search available.  But I wouldn't want my copies of the book tied to a particular piece of hardware.  If I lose my Kindle, do I lose my books?  That's fine for disposable books -- and probably for many students many textbooks fall into that category.  (Use them for a semester, then forget about them.)  It wouldn't be fine for me for these books.

Can anyone comment on the Kindle textbook experience?  I'm interested generally, and in the particular issue of the "permanence" of books that might be references one wants to keep.  Someday soon, I'll be getting one of these (or another e-reader), and it would be useful to know whether it's currently worth moving to a system where I try to keep important texts in an electronic, rather than paper, format.        


Unknown said...

I have a Kindle and you can download content again to another device if you lose it. Actually, my wife got it for me as a birthday present, and now uses it almost exclusively. I use the Kindle iPhone app instead and we often buy books that she reads on the Kindle and I read on my iPhone at the same time.

There is a limit on the number of devices that can simultaneously have a particular book (4 I think), but you can deregister a device if you lose it.

Anonymous said...

I looked at the sample of your book and found a math formula broken.

Paul Beame said...

I am teaching a course this quarter using Algorithm Design and as a pilot most of the students in the class have Kindles and free access to the Kindle version. There are only a couple who have chosen to use it regularly. There are some funky things related to annotation - problem numbers disappearing for example - but that is not the major issue. The Kindle is great for linear access to content but typical textbooks are used in a random access non-linear fashion and this is simply not one of the Kindle's strengths at this time.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Paul --

That sounds really interesting! I'd love to hear more about your/the students' experiences after the quarter is over, if you think it's appropriate to discuss it. It's always more interesting to hear about real experiences in the field.

Daniel Lemire said...

I guess that for teaching purposes, where you do want students to follow the textbook page by page, the Kindle approach is fine.

Otherwise, the kindle is just not powerful enough for random access. And it is not great at displaying graphs. It cannot do animations.

And the price needs to come down dramatically before this is a good option for students. Otherwise, they will keep buying hard-copies.

I would love to get Communications of the ACM through my Kindle though (*instead* of the paper version).

Anyhow, I think that the kindle is too crude yet.

Disclaimer: I do own a kindle, but I don't use it for "serious" reading, just novels and biographies. I have not used it for teaching nor do I plan to.

Matt said...

Having downloaded many sample texbooks on my 6" kindle, I have to say that it's a terrible choice as a text book replacement. While I adore my kindle for newspapers, and I certainly don't mind it for novels, I've yet to see a textbook done justice. Sadly, more often than not I find that the Kindle edition of a textbook is something the author should be ashamed, not proud of. Combine that with the lack of a convincing savings between buying the paper-edition over the kindle edition, and you have a poor deal.

Having downloaded the sample of your book, Probability and Computing, I have to say that it is easily one of the better I've seen. The kindle's weaknesses are generally revealed in formula setting, and diagrams. Whomever did the "kindle-ization" of your book did an excellent job with the formulas; They work just as one would expect, and look just as one would expect. The diagrams however suffer from the standard kindle-itis, whereby they suffer from a bad case of low-resolution fuzzing (at all sizes strangely enough). The lack of screen real-estate nullifies many of the advantages of a kindle in this use.

Textbooks stretch the limits of Amazon's ebook format in the worst of ways. I would only ever recommend them as a last resort, or if you're in the middle of nowhere and want to buy the book wirelessly. The problems of annotation and quick reference nullify most of the kindle's advantages.

Jonathan Katz said...

As I posted a while ago, I have been disappointed in trying to use the Kindle for technical content. My comments, however, apply to reading technical papers in pdf, not to textbooks that are presumably in native Kindle format.

Dan said...

I'm a CS grad student with a Kindle. I got a sample of your book (Prob&Comp) on the device with the intention of getting the full version.

I decided to get the paper version instead, since the Kindle is a not a good device for textbooks at this point. I find myself browsing a lot through textbooks, just until I find some useful formula, analysis etc. This is really cumbersome if you have to push a button and wait for > 0.5 seconds every time you want to turn a page (try it with a real book :) ).

The Kindle still works reasonably well for conference
papers though, provided you have the patience to get them in the right format.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as the publisher of Probability and Computing:

As those of you who own Kindles probably know, it's an XML-based system and TeX-to-XML conversion is fraught with problems. Amazon does the conversion, with permission from the publisher. Because they are paying for the conversion, they choose what books they will convert. Textbooks are clearly higher on their list than other academic books (despite the random access problem). Until the new Kindle came out we discouraged them from converting technical books, which is why Probability and Computing has only recently become available on Kindle.

As far as I can tell, the "Digital List Price" is a fiction, presumably based on what they pay us for each Kindle copy.


Unknown said...

I have the small Kindle. After I got it, I bought Proofs from the Book, which was created via OCR and thus has (a lot of) significant typos. (Amazon should seriously implement a "free upgrade" policy in this regard, not unlike the iPhone app store). Of course more recent textbooks (and really Proofs from the Book isn't even a textbook, it's just a math book) wouldn't suffer from this problem.

I'm very optimistic about e-readers, but forgetting the fact that the screen is too small for serious textbook reading, the page navigation system is a huge draw back. Being able to do a text search is great, but when you're actually reading through a section of the textbook, flipping a back and forth between multiple pages is extremely slow. Going back say, five pages, to review how something was defined, is quite awkward. Plus, since the pages are small, going back 5 pages isn't actually very far at all (particularly if figures are involved).

I'm fairly confident that in two more years, reading textbooks (and pdfs, and everything else) on e-readers will be a big win (cheaper textbooks, full-text search, very little weight/volume to carry around) but for now I wouldn't consider it a serious option for students (let alone stogy professor types). Certainly reading the PDF of said textbook on a newly purchased iPad would be a far more appealing prospect. By next year, when large touchscreen e-readers are available, the situation will likely have changed.

Geoff Knauth said...

My brother has a Kindle and loves it, but he only uses it to read general fiction. I have gigabytes of CS-related PDFs on my computers which are very faithful to their printed counterparts, including graphics and color. I have little desire to use any device that will not handle PDFs without compromise. On a Mac, Skim is my favorite reader. If I had a device that does what Skim does, I'd be pretty happy.

Anonymous said...

Kindle should not be confused with Kindle DX. Some criticism here ("I have little desire to use any device that will not handle PDFs without compromise") is only relevant to the Kindle. Kindle DX reproduces PDFs faithfully and has a big enough screen to comfortably fit a letter size page. While there's a positive difference in PDF handling, I doubt content in eBooks would render differently in DX (screen size would be left as the only benefit).

In my experience, Kindle DX works very well for conference papers and any other PDFs used for classes. In fact, that's all I use it for. Scrolling is indeed slow, but a few pages seem to be cached, so it is actually fairly fast to go back and forth between a pair of pages.

Other drawbacks that weren't mentioned include: (1) lack of folders -- have to include classification in the name of each file and rely on search using the small keyboard, (2) the free 3G is nice, but the browser is so raw that you can't rely on this connectivity because it is likely to not be able to handle the website you need.

Phil said...

The Kindle is not ready for primetime textbook reading but I think the iPad introduction and iPad textbooks may offer a boost to Kindle textbooks.

narayan said...

I have a kindle DX. I would say that it works well for conference/ journal papers, lecture notes in pdfs, textbooks. The size of the screen for reading pdfs is perfect, as well as panning/zooming ability for pdfs. What is lacking as others have mentioned is a more sophisticated manner for organizing personal documents. This is a software issue and hopefully future firmware updates will support better methods. I would definitely recommend for grad students and think it will soon be reasonable for undergrads as well. I'm waiting for more e-textbooks in my area to be available in kindle/mobi formats.

Anonymous said...

It has a serious problem with textbooks for labs -- pages cannot be printed. So if you have a lab to do & results to fill in, you're pretty much SOL.