What a Kindle is…and isn’t

What a Kindle is…and isn’t

“What’s that?”

Have you ever been reading your Kindle in public and gotten that question?

I used to get that quite a bit, although now it’s more likely to be, “Is that a Kindle?” or “Do you like your Kindle?”

It does still happen, though.  If I say “It’s a Kindle,” and I still get a blank look, my canned answer is “It’s an electronic book reader.”

That’s not really all it is, though.  I see quite a few questions that indicate confusion about the Kindle and its relationship to both the reader and Amazon.

For people who don’t own a Kindle, they often aren’t sure about how books get on there, and sometimes, even if you have more than one book.  Some people seem to think you buy it with books on there, and that’s it.

I also see questions from people who are worried about running out of space on the Kindle for all the books they want to get in the future.

Others  worry about what would happen if their Kindles were lost, stolen, or broken: would they lose all those books they paid Amazon to get?

Of course, there are also people who want it to work like a laptop: display animation, enter into spreadsheets, that sort of thing.

So, what is a Kindle?  Is it a book?  Is it a library?  Is it a computer?

In this first part, I’m going to only talk about your Kindle, books you buy from the Kindle store, and Amazon.  In other posts, I’ll discuss other items from Amazon and items from other sources.    For simplicity’s sake, I’m also going to largely omit the iPhone and the iPod touch from this post.

Is the Kindle a Book?

It certainly seems like a book.  When you are reading War and Peace (again?  I am impressed 🙂 ), the Kindle is what you are holding in your hands and where the words appear.   In the old days, that would definitely have been called a book.

However, it’s a bit different with the Kindle.  When you get a book from the Kindle store, you are getting a license to read that book.  You get a file from Amazon (either wirelessly directly to the Kindle, or by downloading it to your computer and transferring it).   The Kindle then displays the book to you.

What you bought, though, isn’t that file.  If that file happens to be corrupted, or you delete it accidentally, you can just download it again to that Kindle, as many times as you want.

That wasn’t true with paperbooks (or p-books, as I prefer to call them).  What you got there was a copy of the book.  You could do what you wanted with it (sell it, tear the pages out), but if that copy was lost, damaged, or destroyed, the publisher wouldn’t replace it for you.

That license says you get to read it on that specific Kindle.  Typically, you get six “device licenses” for one purchase price (although the actual number of licenses is up to the publisher) for a book you get from the Kindle store.   Each file you get is keyed for one specific device (Kindle, iPhone, iPod touch), but you most commonly can get files keyed for up to six different devices.   That’s also six devices simultaneously.  If you had registered six devices as having licenses for a file, and then had to replace one of them, you could deregister the old device to release that license.  Amazon discusses that here:


The Kindle isn’t a book.  It is a device that displays copies of books.

Is the Kindle a library?

Amazon makes a point about how many books you can put on your Kindle.  Of course, that is really an estimate of the number of the book files you could put on your Kindle, based on an average file size.

Amazon even says on the product pages

“Now you can always have your entire library with you.”

This is how Amazon breaks it down:

Kindle | 200 books | 180 megabytes for the user

Kindle 2 | 1500 books | 1.4 gigabytes for the user

Kindle DX | 3500 books | 3.3 gigabytes for the user

(A gigabyte is about 1000 megabytes, so you could read those as about 1400 megabytes and about 3300 megabytes)

Those numbers are all approximate, but they give you an idea.  Amazon figures about .9 megs (about 900 kilobytes) average per book.

Since Amazon says you carry your entire library, does that mean you only own 200 books at a time with a Kindle 1?  Not at all!  That’s how many books you can have on the Kindle at a time: you could have tens of thousands more in your Amazon archives.

When you buy a Kindle from Amazon, you don’t just get the device: you get a service.  The service includes keeping your book purchases from the Kindle store for you where you can easily retrieve them.  One of Amazon’s businesses is data storage, and they are letting Kindle owners use it.  That’s great!  You don’t need to have more books on your Kindle than the ones you want to be able to access right away.

I have a floor to ceiling library of p-books (paperbooks) in my house.  It holds thousands of titles.  Before the Kindle, when I would go out, I’d take a couple of books with me (I didn’t want to have the horror of finishing a book on an errand and not having another book with me).  I didn’t carry thousands of books with me, and wouldn’t have wanted to do that, usually.  Hey, I have friends who have jokingly said they will never help us move again, because of all the boxes of books.

The equivalent of that library isn’t the Kindle, it’s my archives at Amazon.  The Kindle is more like my backpack or briefcase or suitcase: it’s where you carry the books you want to have with you on this trip.   I do carry more books in my Kindle than I would in a suitcase, but that’s partially because I like to have some reference books with me.

If I want a book that’s in my archives and I’m on the road, how hard is it to get it?  On the Kindle 2, I’ve been able to demonstrate getting a book from the archives, putting it on the Kindle, and putting it back in the archives…all in less than a minute.  That assumes you have Whispernet (the Kindle’s wireless internet connection), which I have had pretty much everywhere I’ve gone (and there’s not charge for using it this way).   If not, you transfer from a computer to your Kindle’s documents folder using the USB cord that comes with it.  If you were on vacation and had internet access in your hotel room, you could put ten books on there every morning if you wanted.

So, the Kindle isn’t a library: the archives are the library.

Is the Kindle a Computer?

Well, a computer manipulates data and displays the result.   The Kindle definitely does that:  it takes the book file and displays the document (including a header).  It calculates the location (and the percentage on the K2 and KDX), and shows you the time, takes you to Fandango, and more.

However, one common part of the definition of a computer is that it should be programmable.  A Kindle isn’t really (supposed to be) programmable by the owner.  Amazon can program it: that’s basically what they do when they send it an update.   It isn’t really a programmable computer for the consumer.

“A Kindle?  What’s that?”

So, next time I get asked that, I guess I could answer:

“It’s a computerized device that displays book files for which I have a license, provides access to my library, lets me do limited web-browsing, and…”

You know what?  I’m going to stick with “electronic book reader“.  😉

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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