While you are reading this, Amazon is silently rolling out Kindle Format X (KFX) to supplant the previous KF8 formatting. You may have noticed the little “Enhanced Typesetting” entry on their Kindle book pages, which, when set to Enabled, indicates that the new format is in place for that particular book. Naturally, the new features will be visible only on devices that actually support the new KFX format, and as in the past, Amazon will deliver a downgraded format to all other devices to match their respective capabilities.
Right now, it’s still all hush-hush with no official information or documentation available, so everything I am pointing out here may still change going forward, but given Amazon’s track record in that respect, this is highly unlikely.
The actual implementation of KFX is being handled on Amazon’s server backend, which means no extra formatting is required in actual eBooks and not tools are currently required, though that is most definitely likely to change because it makes the creation and evaluation of content a tedium at best and a nightmare at worst. See, currently, only a small portion of books actually supports the feature, each of them picked at Amazon’s sole discretion. See, KFX is not something you actually author, as it is rather some conversion that Amazon is doing on their end to tweak the eBooks on their servers before they are delivered. This means that in order to evaluate KFX currently as a developer, not only do you need to have access to a book that Amazon has deemed worthy and that is offered with Enhanced Typogaphy, but every time you make a change you ill also have to upload the new test-version and wait about 24 hours until the new version goes live and you can see how the formatting behaves under the new KFX engine. It is, quite frankly, a nightmare and a tremendous time sink.
The Kindle eBook format could use some improvements, there can be no question although, with KF8, Amazon has brought the format so close to the ePub specs that one really has to wonder why they did not go it all the way and eliminate the majority of problems that plague the platform once and for all.
Four years ago I wrote a blog post called “10 Things Amazon should correct in the Kindle” and in retrospect it is frightening just how little the problems mentioned there have ever been addressed. As Amazon moved forward with the KF8 format, there were plenty of improvements but in many ways the new format was also a step that made things worse, as outlined in my blog post “Amazon introduces new Kindle eBook format and makes a major misstep“. Once again, nothing was done to resolve the serious problems underlying the format. With that in mind, it is clear that Amazon does not care about existing flaws and all the issues we see emerging right now will plague the format for years and device generations to come.
Naturally, I was curious to find out what would await us with the migration to KFX. Boy, do I wish I had never opened that can of worms.
The problem with Amazon’s Kindle platform has always been that it has been designed and maintained by people who, quite evidently, do not understand books. The device and its firmware has been designed by Lab126, a company that specializes in handheld devices, and the name, Lab126, could not be more fitting, because everything about the Kindle has felt like something put together by lab rats, from day one; people with no sense of the real-world application of their devices. I would not be surprised to hear that the engineers at Lab123 have never really read a book on a Kindle or tried to format one, for that matter.
So, what’s the problem with KFX, you wonder? Let’s start with what is, perhaps, the biggest whopper. The Kindle no longer supports non-breaking spaces. This means all those instances where you made sure your text units will remain together and won’t be broken apart, will all be ignored. Line wraps will wreak havoc with your finely crafted “Mr. Smith,” “5 minutes,” “November 5,” “3 p.m.” or the “1964 Mustang,” as they will all potentially be butchered by rampant line breaks, splitting the units into non-sensical individual words. To find this in a device that is designed specifically to display books is like selling a car without a steering wheel.
But the fun doesn’t end there just yet. Amazon has also fiddled with the hyphenation rules, but instead of making them smarter and more real-world-like, they have gone backwards and implemented an algorithm that conjures up memories of 8-bit computers. Imagine, an algorithm that treats every period as a point where lines can wrap. Suddenly you will find that “FM 99.8” becomes a garbled mess where the number 8 ends up on its own line. Forget about scientific texts with decimal notation or website names with a dot-something extension. They all can now be brutally butchered beyond comprehension. What an awesome improvement… what an “enhanced typography.”
Another such issue can be found when it comes to em- and en-dashes. The new KFX implementation is suddenly teaching the Kindle layout engine to do line wraps before the dash, as well as after. If I didn’t know any better, I would almost believe that Amazon wants to rewrite typography rules with botched features such as this. These problems clearly show a lack of understanding of the subject matter and a wholesome disregard for everything relating to book design.
The list goes on, and as we will be exposed to an increasing number of KFX-formatted and rendered books, I have no doubt that more problems will emerge and we are only but scratching the surface. It makes you wonder, where exactly are the “enhanced typography” features that Amazon is touting?
Well, nowhere, really. Text flow has not been improved from what I can tell, and word spacing issues have still not been addressed, while tables still remain unusable. While it can finally hyphenate, in a kind-of sorta way, when justifying text, the Kindle will still only expand word spacing and it will never ever reduce spacing the way you would do in a print book. As I said, the layout engine operates on the level of a Commodore 64 8-bit computer. This is incomprehensible because handheld devices are so powerful these days that highly sophisticated algorithms could be put to use that would properly evaluate line widths and adjustments to them to create visually pleasing layouts. Instead, the Kindle is still simply dumping text on the screen without any regard for typography.
Simply introducing a new typeface and a few ligatures does not make for enhanced typography. The Kindle still suffers endlessly from widowed words, orphaned lines, inaccurate spacing, ignorant kerning and other problems galore.
And then there are the images… For the longest time, Amazon has ignored image transparency in PNG files and in recent years they have given us a completely borked 8-bit PNG implementation that resulted in nothing but black blocks. With KFX we can now celebrate the arrival of their new JPG format, JPG XR. In and of itself, JPG XR is a wonderful development, a useful enhancement to the standard JPG format that results in smaller images with less loss in definition. With this new image support in place, Amazon is now converting all images in an eBook into JPG XR format, including all GIF and PNG images, as well as SVGs. Like they did with the KF8 format, Amazon is also creating dedicated versions of a book for devices of varying capabilities. As a result, they will now convert images to grayscale for delivery to monochrome Kindle devices, once again a step to curb in bandwidth – and thus, reducing the cost of delivery fees for you.
But there is an inherent danger in doing this and given their shoddy track record, I am not entirely sure Amazon or Lab126 have gotten the memo how to properly utilize JPG XR. Normally you would not want to convert a line art image, like a PNG, to a JPG format, but since JPG XR features a mode with lossless compression, this may no longer be true. At this time I am not entirely convinced, however, if the KFX backend is taking this into consideration, or if PNG images are simply converted to regularly compressed JPGs. As more samples emerging over the coming months, I am sure we’ll find out soon enough. Regardless of compression issues, however, at this time it is clear that Amazon is once again completely forgoing all image transparency, completely ignoring the alpha-channel support that the JPG XR format offers. So even in 2015, the use of images in eBooks appears like a clunky, broken relic of – yeah, you guessed it, the 8-bit era.
When you want to create a format that lauds itself with “enhanced typography,” the first thing you need is to have people on board who understand typography, and to Amazon’s shame this has evidently never been the case in the Kindle department, ever. The company and Kindle-developer Lab126 are stumbling from one mistake to the next, making things worse with each incarnation. Rather than finally investing some time and actual experience in the platform to hammer out a “real” eBook format, really useful eBook features, and real eBook-ready firmware, the companies still seem to leave the job to code jockeys.
With each iteration, it gets harder to explain away the ineptitude displayed by the people creating these implementations. The shortcomings of the first-generation Kindle could still be attributed to weak processing power, limited display technology, and the journey into completely uncharted waters, but in today’s market, Kindle users should expect a device that has been honed to perfection, not a tinker toy gadget that continues to miss its marks and its core audience by a mile or two.
If you thought Smashwords’ Meat Grinder was a monstrosity, welcome to Monster X and the abominable new world of Kindle!