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On e-Reader Tech News we track down the latest e-Reader news. We will keep you up to date with whats hot in the bestsellers section, including books, ebooks and blogs... and we will also bring you great e-reader tips and tricks along with reviews for the latest devices and accessories.

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October 2009
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Why there will be fewer Kindle firmware updates in the future

Personally I’m used to updating software. Pretty much every week one or another piece of software on my PC updates – be it Windows itself, the antivirus, iTunes or whatever. I’ve subconsciously come to expect the same from Kindle. And at first Kindle firmware did update quite frequently:

As you can see it seems that Kindle 2 got several updates soon after release and then there was silence.

Early update rush was caused by bugs in the new software. One or two updates were caused by law suit (Text-to-speech, and Orwell book deletion). However, note that none of the updates introduced new features. I guess Amazon sticks to the policy – don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.

Kindle DX and Kindle international share most of the software with original Kindle so there is little room for new critical bugs.

But most importantly, the number of Kindles in operation has exploded since the beginning of 2009. And this is probably the most important reason why we will not see many Kindle updates in the future and probably none of them will be feature driven. Amazon pays Sprint 12 cents per megabyte transferred. It would be safe to assume that Amazon gets similar pricing from AT&T for domestic traffic and a much higher price for data roaming. Average Kindle update is 2 megabytes in size. Because of the way Amazon structures the update packages, this accumulates as each subsequent update includes all previous updates as well. So first update was 2 megs, second one was 4, third – 6, etc.

6 megabytes times 12 cents is $0.72 per device updated. By some estimates there may be 2..3 million Kindle devices in operation. Let’s assume that 80% of devices are within wireless coverage (although in reality this number can be much higher). This adds up to $1,440,000 to $2,160,000 per software update deployment and increasing with every update version. And this is just to update domestic Kindles. I wouldn’t even want to think about the pricing to worldwide distribution. Also I wouldn’t want to be the software developer who makes a critical bug that causes an update or that software developer’s boss for that matter…

Given these numbers I don’t believe that Amazon would release update unless they have a very strong reason to do so. Strong reason being a court order or something else of this sort. This more or less addresses they questions of where Amazon will add folders, PDF support for Kindle 2 or official Unicode fonts for that matter via an update. The answer is a definite NO.

On the issue of fonts I’m most sure since Unicode fonts in the updates that I use (that add only partial support without all of the font styles) are 1.5..3 megabytes. Proper Unicode support can easily add up to 10 megabytes. So this would mean millions of dollars spent with potential to spend more millions in the future and near zero return of investment since although many people would like to have this feature, for most of them it’s not a deal-breaker (especially since on Kindle DX you can have any kind of fonts via PDF files). The few books that have non-Latin characters that Amazon sells use Topaz format to embed the extra glyphs that they need. So adding Unicode fonts would help customers read books that Amazon doesn’t sell. In this light the question about Unicode fonts via an update for existing devices is a no-brainer.

It is possible that this support would be included in Kindle 3 or whatever else the next generation Kindle will be called since in this case the cost for Amazon is just licencing fee for the fonts.

Unicode Font Hack v0.2, now for Kindle International too!

kindle-international-unicode-font-hackI’ve create Unicode Font Hack that also works on Kindle 2 International. I’ve also reorganized the files to minimize download times. Each device/font combination can now be downloaded as separate file. That file would contain only update binaries. Source code for all binaries can be downloaded separately. I’ve updated the hack page accordingly. You can find instructions as well as more detailed information there.

I’ve made the following changes to the hack:

  • Removed browser only hack since it didn’t add much value – if you still want it you’ll need to build it from the sources yourself.
  • Changed the uninstaller so that it removes extra font files completely as some of you have requested this feature.
  • Since droid hack uses the same font, rather than making multiple copies I’m using symlinks now so the hack uses less disk space on Kindle.

Here are installation instructions:

  1. Download one of the following files:
    1. Droid fonts: this is an open-source font that comes from Android Google OS. This font looks quite nice and supports Asian characters. However it only comes in sans serif style:
    2. Liberation fonts. These fonts come from RedHat linux and are open-source. Personally I don’t find them as nice as droid. It doesn’t support Asian characters. However it does support all 3 font styles – serif, sans serif and mono-spaced.
  2. If you have international version of Kindle 2 you need to jailbreak it first:
    1. Connect your Kindle to PC via the USB cable.
    2. Download this file: update_freekindle-k2i.bin
    3. Copy it to the root directory of your Kindle.
    4. Press Home. Press Menu. Select Settings. Press Menu. Select Update Your Kindle. Select OK.
    5. The update WILL fail. This is expected. However from now on you will be able to install custom Kindle updates.
  3. Connect your Kindle to PC via the USB cable.
  4. Copy update package that corresponds to your device to to the root directory of your Kindle.
  5. Press Home. Press Menu. Select Settings. Press Menu. Select Update Your Kindle. Select OK.
  6. The update will install, Kindle will restart and when it does – new fonts are going to be in effect. Please not that for International Kindle it will take some time before the installation progress bar moves as font files are large and it takes a long time for Kindle to verify the update signature.

To uninstall:

  1. Connect your Kindle to PC via the USB cable.
  2. Download  and copy uninstall package that corresponds to your device to to the root directory of your Kindle.
  3. Press Home. Press Menu. Select Settings. Press Menu. Select Update Your Kindle. Select OK.
  4. The update will install, Kindle will restart and when it does – old fonts will be used and there will be no trace of the hack in the Kindle file system. So official updates will install once again.

If you would like to customize the fonts – you can do so by downloading the hack sources and modifying them. I have to warn you that this is risky business though. It may be a good idea to install the antibrick hack before you proceed.

Kindle anti-brick hack

When I was first working on Unicode Font Hack for Kindle 2 I bricked mine by messing up the fonts configuration. This prevented Java GUI from starting up so I had to way to install an update that would reverse the change.

While this hack will not fix your already bricked Kindle it will give you a chance to unbrick yours in the future. All it does is it installs a startup script that would scan check system directory for exec.sh and execute commands that are in there. File is then renamed to exec.sh.done to avoid infinite executions. This will give you a chance to run some commands even if Java GUI doesn’t start for one reason or another. It will also give you ability to run commands on your Kindle without having to roll updates for every command, use serial console or USB networking hack.

Since this gives you the ability to run any commands on your Kindle this surely gives you the ability to irreversibly brick it as well. So if you don’t know your way around Linux I don’t recommend you install it at all.

That being said, the hack can be downloaded here: kindle_antibrick.zip

All you need to do is copy appropriate  (update_antibrick-k2.bin for Kindle 2, update_antibrick-kdx for Kindle DX and update_antibrick-k2i for Kindle International) file into root directory of Kindle USB drive just like any other hack. It will also copy small sample exec.sh into system directory. Upon successful installation this script will create a file antibrick-success.txt in the root folder.

If you are doing this on Kindle 2 international you need to jailbreak your Kindle first.

Since it doesn’t change any existing files it is not intrusive in regard to official Amazon updates and will not prevent them from being installed.

update_antibrick_remove-*.bin files remove the hack. Once again you should use the file that corresponds to your device version.

I’ve decided to publish this before I publish the updated Unicode Fonts hack so that people who would want to modify the hack may install this first.

Jailbreaking the International Kindle

I was quite close to publishing similar findings myself but Jean-Yves Avenard beat me to it. It is now possible to create custom updates for International Kindle that runs firmware 2.2.* Fortunately there is no need for hardware changes

A little background information first. A while back Igor Skochinsky found serial console connector on Kindle 1 and reverse engineered scripts that Kindle uses to update it’s firmware. Since Amazon is paying for it’s wireless traffic they don’t push full firmware dumps as updates but rather compressed linux patches that only change the things that need to be changed and are relatively small. In Kindle 2 same scripts were used. The only thing that changed was device ID. This was to safeguard against installing update for wrong Kindle device rather than to prevent custom update installation altogether. Kindle DX was a similar story.

However it all changed when Kindle 2 International came out. There was a device ID change as well but updates still failed to install. Using debug commands that still worked (you need to type then in the home screen search box – they are quite harmless will not break your Kindle):

  • ;debugOn
  • ;dumpMessages

Amonng other housekeeping messages it returned the folloing lines:

091021:102422 EXT3 FS on mmcblk0p1, internal journal
091021:102422 system: I _otaupexec:def:processing update /mnt/us/update_tool.bin
091021:102422 system: I _otaupexec:def:version is “FC02”
091021:102422 system: I _otaupexec:def:update image checksum OK
091021:102422 system: E _otaupexec:def:signature does not exist for “tool.sh”
091021:102422 system: E _otaupexec:def:signature verification failed

So it looked like Amazon was signing update packages now. Worst case scenario would have been usage of asymmetric encryption keys like RSA that would be impossible to break until we have working full-scale quantum computers. Best case would be Amazon using something simple – like tar file scrambling that they are using to “encrypt” the whole update file.

I was trying to break into the Kindle via serial console that can be exposed by sliding the top plastic cover off the device but fried my Kindle in the process.

While I was waiting for the new device to arrive, mobileread.com member clarknova suggested using a tarbomb to break into the new Kindle. He assumed that new Kindle would still use the old code to extract files from the update before verifying the signatures. It proved to be true. A tarbomb exploits the fact that linux tar would extract anything that is given to it and might put it somewhere where package receiver didn’t intent it to go. For example older versions would honor relative paths, so if tarball contained file ../../etc/rc5.d/S00kill-code and most likely user would try to unpack the file in /home/username, the malicious file would go into /etc/rc5.d/ and get executed on the startup. While version of tar that is installed on Kindle discards parent directory references, it allows to unpack a symlink that points anywhere in the filesystem. This allowed to craft an update that would still fail to install but in the process would deposit a startup script that would unlock further access to Kindle internals.

Unfortunately Amazon did use the asymmetric encryption to sign the packages. Fortunately there is a very nice way around. Kindle doesn’t use just one key to verify the signature – it enumerates all key files in /etc/uks directory and if any of the keys yields a positive signature validation – the file passes the test. So Jean-Yves Avenard created a tarbomb that would add extra public key to that directory. He also modified Igor’s script to use corresponding private key to sign all the files in the package.

Nice thing about this mod is that it doesn’t change any files in Kindle filesystem, it just adds. So it will not cause checksum conflicts when installing official Amazon updates in the future. However if you use this jailbreak mod to install other updates like Unicode Font Hack, screensaver, savory, etc that DO change files then standard rules apply – official updates will fail and you’ll need to revert the hacks, install official update manually and then reinstall the hacks. Although I doubt that we’ll see many official Amazon updates anytime soon. I’ll make a separate post on this topic at some other time.

I’m pretty sure that in the next version of the device (International Kindle DX perhaps or whatever comes next), Amazon will fix this vulnerability and serial console might be required to install things on Kindle or perhaps some other security exploit. But for now here are specifics:

You can download the “jailbreak” update here. I’ve tested it on my Kindle and it works perfectly. It also contains the updated script to create your own packages. However I would strongly advise you to do it only if you really-really need to, really-really know that you are doing and are willing to brick your device. Several people were known to irreversible brick their Kindle eBook readers by experimenting with them. I bricked two so far trying to create unicode font hack – one US Kindle 2 a while back another Kindle 2 International recently.

So if you are not sure about what are you doing – stick to pre-canned hacks from verified sources that have been tested to work and have uninstallers available. These are relatively safe though again there is always a chance of something going wrong and hacking the Kindle absolutely does void the warranty.

I’ve tested the pre-canned screensaver hack that can be downloaded here and it does work perfectly.

To avoid having to jailbreak Kindle multiple times and creating potentially conflicting hacks I recommend to all Kindle modders out there to use Jean-Yves Avenard’s packager and private/public key pair for creating Internaional Kindle hacks. I’m going to use it for Unicode Font Hack myself.

Right after publishing this post I’m going to reorganize the Unicode Font Hack a bit and release a new version for all Kindle versions including the international one. Stay tuned!

Hacking the International Kindle – First Attempt

RS-232 to TTL converter for Kindle

RS-232 to TTL converter for Kindle

If you were wondering why there were no posts lately – I’ve been busy trying to come up with a way to install Unicode Font Hack on Kindle 2 International. Rather than ordering ready-made USB-RS232-TTL converter I’ve decided to have some fun with little hardware project and create one myself.

Unfortunately I’ve short-circuited something within Kindle when connecting wires to the serial console and pretty much bricked the unit. This is yet another reminder to people that you shouldn’t try to hack something like Kindle unless you are willing to brick it.

Right now I’m waiting for the next specimen to arrive as I’m determined to make Unicode Font Hack to work and make International Kindle truly international.

I bricked one Kindle a while back when I was creating the original Unicode Font Hack and succeeded on the second attempt. I hope that with international Kindle this will also be the case…

Kindle for PC Application coming soon

Today, during the Windows 7 launch event, Amazon and Microsoft demonstrated “Kindle For PC”, desktop eBook reader application that will run on Windows XP/Vista/7. This application allows anyone with a PC and Internet connection to shop in Amazon eBook store that currently has 360,000+ books. The software is free to download and offers all of the functionality of Amazon Kindle device minus slow eInk refresh rate and lack of color, plus all of the multi-touch coolness of Windows 7 (Microsoft’s latest operating system). It can download books, synchronize reading positions, notes and bookmarks. In one of the videos it looked like the cover was in color and of better image quality than what is sent to Kindle devices over Whispernet.

I wonder if magazine and newspaper subscriptions would be available…

Here are several hands on videos about the application:

As competition is heating up in the eReader/eBook market, Amazon and other companies are trying every possible way to stay competitive. I believe that Amazon could have released this app years ago. After all there is no rocket science in it – it’s just a eBook reader. Something that existed for years by companies such as Microsoft, Sony, B&N. However this didn’t happen. Partially because it was hard to convince publishers to put their valuable content on something as easily hackable as home PC, but mostly because there was little point to it. Computer screens are not meant for book reading. However this holiday season anything goes if it helps you stay competitive.

I don’t think that people would actually read a lot on this desktop app, even with modern tablets and netbooks. However the app will act as free advertising. People will download it, get a couple of books. They might like the concept of eBook and Amazon book store but not reading from the computer screen in particular. Some of them will end up buying a Kindle, especially since you can now get one as cheap as $149.00.

For me personally, I don’t see much use for PC eReader other than finding relevant data and I want to reference or quote quickly. It would be nice if the app supported at least limited amount of copy-paste (unlike the Sony app) but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The app is due to be released in November. Apple Mac OS version will follow several months later.

With eBooks finding their way from dedicated reading devices to multipurpose computers, the next logical step would be an online eBook reader. And I bet at least one company will come up with one in 2010.

Meanwhile this move is almost free for Amazon since desktop application doesn’t incur high cost of wireless access (users have to provide the Internet) which is substantial for Amazon. It also signifies an alliance between Amazon and Microsoft and it’s pretty obvious that they are allied against Google. Since Microsoft is trying to compete with Google in web search for years and Google is about enter eBook business.

BTW I’ve just installed Windows 7 myself and it does totally rock!

International Kindle Price Drop

Only 3 days after the release of Kindle 2 International, Amazon has slashed $20.00 off the price. If you purchased it for $279.00 you will get a refund along with the following email:

Hello,

Good news! Due to strong customer demand for our newest Kindle with U.S. and international wireless, we are consolidating our family of 6″ Kindles. As part of this consolidation, we are lowering the price of the Kindle you just purchased from $279 down to $259. You don’t need to do anything to get the lower price–we are automatically issuing you a $20 refund. This refund should be processed in the next few days and will appear as a credit on your next billing statement.

We’ll also send you a follow-up e-mail to confirm the refund once it has been completed.
We hope you enjoy your new Kindle. Please send us your feedback at: [email protected]

US version of Kindle is now available only as refurbished merchandise.

Wikipedia works on International Kindles in the UK

Kindle UK Wikipedia

Kindle UK Wikipedia

One of the blog subscribers, Ilya who has recently purchased an Kindle 2 International in the UK has confirmed that despite the Amazon statement that experimental browser and blog subscriptions don’t work in the UK, Wikipedia access actually works. However pictures do not load and all other websites are blocked.
Since Amazon has announced that web browsing will not be available worldwide it was natural to assume that Wikipedia access will not work either. It looks like Amazon is treating Wikipedia as a separate feature.
It would be interesting to hear from K2i owners in other countries about their Wikipedia experience. Either if it works or it doesn’t – please drop a comment.

Update: It has been confirmed by several people that pictures in wikipedia now load.

International Kindle 2 First Impressions

FedEx has just delivered my Kindle 2 International. On the exterior it looks exactly the same as Kindle 2 with US wireless. However there seem to be some changes in the software. First of all the device reports software version to be 2.2 (375490138). What is interesting is that this version can’t be found on Amazon Kindle source code web-page.

Kindle 2 International 2.2

Kindle 2 International 2.2

Poking around the settings and easter eggs I found that 411 and 611 pages look different.

I’ve also found a new hidden setting: if you type 311 while on the settings page you will be able to manually switch wireless networks just like on any other GSM phone.

Kindle 2 International Choosing GSM network

Kindle 2 International Choosing GSM network

Kindle 2 International seems to have several new screensaver images.

I can confirm that despite the change in software number the fonts are still not Unicode. Unicode font hack for US Kindle 2 doesn’t install on the international version. At first it wouldn’t even recognize the update. I’ve played around with Igor’s script and was able to tweak it to produce .BIN files that are recognized as updates by Kindle. However these updates still fail during the installation. Right now I’m trying to figure out why that is and how to fix it. If anyone would like to beat me to it – the updated version of Igor’s script can be downloaded here: kindle_update_tool. You’ll need to have Python installed in order to run it. To build update packages for Kindle 2.2 you need to use -k4 switch. Good luck! Let me know if you figure it out.

Kindle International starts shipping today! Yay!

Kindle International starts shipping out today! Yay! Hopefully I”ll get mine tomorrow.