Thursday, March 05, 2009

I'll update my software when I'm good and ready - thank you

Not since I got my first iPhone (after waiting in line for a few hours) have I been as excited to get a new gadget as I was last week when my new Amazon Kindle 2 arrived. It did not disappoint. The screen resolution, using the new e-ink technology, is absolutely stunning. You have to see it to believe it. I immediately purchased the book that I've been reading in hard cover, Ken Follet's World Without End, and I put the heavy volume on the bookshelf for good. I also downloaded samples of Barak Obama's book about his father and of course, of my book Brave New Ballot, so I could show it to people. The books download in under a minute. I read in the instructions that the battery lasts much longer when the wireless modem is off, so once I downloaded my books, I turned off the modem.

Yesterday, Amazon released the Kindle for iPhone app - another exciting development. I installed the app, and the iPhone automatically downloaded the books that I had purchased on my Kindle. I checked out World Without End, and the book opened to the spot that I was reading on the Kindle a couple of days ago when I turned off the wireless modem. Very nice! Amazon's Whisper Sync technology kept the iPhone version and the Kindle version at the same spot. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to keep the Kindle modem on if I wanted the iPhone to know where I was. That was okay. I could either remember to turn on the modem for a short while when I finished reading on the Kindle, or just keep it on and remember to charge it.

I wanted my iPhone to know where I was in the book, so I turned on the kindle modem. That's when I discovered a "feature" in the Kindle that I did not like. The Kindle suddenly went blank and a progress bar came on, along with the words "Software is updating" or something like that. I don't remember the exact words. The Kindle had a software upgrade, and without any prompting, it performed the update. Presumably, this was the update that disabled text to speech on some of the books (see this article).

Now, I am a gadget freak. I am an early adopter of almost every cool new gadget that comes out. I can barely count the numbers of items in my house that udpate their own software. My Blu-Ray DVD player, my DVR, my Apple TV, my computers, my iPhone, my digital camera, and even my refrigerator (just kidding) - they all get software updates all the time. But first, they ASK ME. It is only civilized. Amazon has decided that it is not a users' choice whether or not to update the Kindle software. This is downright rude.

When I first studied the idea of software updates on common devices, back when I worked at AT&T Labs, and we were designing security protocols for cable modems, I was very concerned. But, proper use of digital signatures and public key cryptography can greatly reduce the security risks. However, software updates are disruptive. They can break things, and they might come at a very inconvenient time. The user owns his devices, and it should be his choice whether or not to update the software. I do not like the auto software update on the Kindle one bit. I hope that the next software update that happens to me while I'm in the middle of reading will change the software update process so that the user can decide whether or not to update.

Other than that, I love my Kindle. I read a lot, and now the experience is that much better. Now, I wait for Kindle 3. What will it have? Color? Touchscreen? Virtual Display in my contact lenses? It will be exciting, and hopefully, it will let me control software updates.