Kindle: Not Ready To Burn My Books Just Yet

The launch of the Kindle is the stuff of technology pundits’ nightmares. It’s not that Amazon has done anything too aggravating with their initial marketing, because they pretty much went by the defacto protocol for glitzy new devices (summoning up every media outlet, declaring a watershed milestone has been achieved for humanity, celebrities delivering tearful thanks for such a perfect device, etc.) and it was more or less a success. Mind you, Steve Jobs is legendary for creating these kinds of reality distortion fields that permeate every aspect of his Apple launches with an overwhelming perfume of delicious mystery and lust. But at the Kindle event Jeff Bezos was less Mesmero! and more like a self-praising high school valedictorian. There wasn’t enough magic, or rejoicing fanboys, to mask the concern a lot of us are feeling.

Before Bezos had an opportunity to work his charm and share his vision, I was already wary. My first gut response was that it won’t be too long until someone has hacked the Kindle to use the EVDO service for other purposes, stealing the “free” data service from Sprint. It was also another E-Ink based device without a backlight. And the fact that the Kindle has a keyboard seems less interesting once you factor in that E-Ink conserves its battery life by screen refresh limitations that don’t coopertae well with keyboard usage: slow page refreshes for every keystroke (typing a 200 word email on the Kindle would probably take more patience and battery power than you’d like).

Jeff Bezos at the launch of Kindle

Then the air went out of the balloon as soon as all the hidden-cost caveats were revealed.

The Kindle is actually an ebook and RSS pay-for-content service that’s only available for the Kindle. And if it were a service offered for other devices, like the iPhone, I still don’t think it’s what consumers want. But like it or not, this is how the road forward is being paved.

The logic, like most digital media sales, continues to be dumbfounding. Other than recently-published books, most of the content you can get for the Kindle is arguably text you can either read for free or get cheaper through other channels. And any content you buy for Kindle can’t be read on anything but the Kindle. So, let me ask you to forget about the device for a moment and to consider just the service: Are you the type of person who likes to pay for every document you want to read, regardless of whether it was offered to you free or even that you wrote it yourself?

Because it’s unable to support the common document formats of .doc, .rtf, and pdf, you’ll need to email any of those files to Amazon’s Kindle service to have them converted to a proprietary format at 10ยข a pop. Let me say that again in more simple terms. You have to pay to read your own stuff on the Kindle. The Sony Reader doesn’t have that mentality, neither does the Blackberry or the iPhone. Second, if you want to subscribe to certain websites’ RSS feeds, or one of Kindle’s many pre-formatted newspapers and magazines, you’ll have to pay a monthly fee.

The Kindle is a DRM experiment created as the test-tube baby from the DNA of intellectual property laws and the success of the iTunes Music Store. Most of us have been getting used to paying for content that we can’t share anymore, but eventually the ramifications of those restrictions are going to be more severe. The DRM world of the future is a place where parents won’t have music collections or home libraries they can easily share with their own kids without paying for them again and again. What happens to lending books to friends and the flow of cultural learning when every document and every format requires a service fee?

The Kindle formula seems predicated on the logic that if you’re the type of person who wants to read on the Kindle, you’re probably the kind of person who can afford the pay for content service. In contrast, the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) XO computer is being designed for people who can afford neither. It’s been designed for children so that it can foster learning and sharing information in a humanitarian world that most science fiction readers are familiar with. It’s that world where we build new devices to help each other, not to siphon off nickels and dimes. What we’ve talked about in this office is how cool the XO computer would be as the real “iPod of reading,” and it could be. It’s the sort of device that could actually get kids back into pleasure reading if there was a socially conscious book service for it.

Unlike Richard, who invoked King Gillette earlier, I don’t feel Amazon is going about things the wrong way by pricing the device too high and the books too low. Books should always be made as affordable as possible. In my mind, pricing books too high is one of the reasons there’s a pandemic of youth and young adults preferring console gaming and the internet to reading. It’s actually less expensive to buy a Harry Potter XBox game than it is to buy the hardcover book. Based on the successful model of selling an expensive console that you buy new games for, it’s not out to lunch to assume there are millions of people out there who will invest in a platform if attractive content is there for it. On the surface, the Kindle costs $2,000 less than an iPhone after you factor in the iPhone’s nearly mandatory contract for 2 year’s worth of monthly AT&T data and phone service, so, relatively speaking, it’s a moderately affordable platform. And for the Kindle’s $399, you’re buying a platform for which Amazon seems very committed to consistently delivering a wide selection of new and backlist content.

So, the Kindle does have a good chance of success, as long as Amazon is willing to keep tweaking their formula the way that Apple did for the iPod. Remember, the iPod’s success wasn’t overnight. When it was first released, it was not a huge seller. There was no Windows compatibility. The touch surface was still a physical wheel. There was no iTunes Music Store. But under the cloak of Steve’s reality distortion field, Apple kept refreshing the product with new ideas for 2 full years until they got it right and it took off as a phenomenon for the history books.

The Kindle has a lot going for it because of Amazon’s weight in the retail marketplace, but it has to be ready to evolve quickly based on user response. They need to open the platform up for free content. It needs to be ready for user generated .Pub files. They need to make the EVDO service more useful. They need a more polished, premium design that looks less like a snowspeeder. They need to get E-Ink’s latest color screens. And I think Amazon is probably already planning for that. Even though they took their sweet time getting all their ducks in a row for the launch, I think that they’re not going to shrink back from this vision even if the device sells like a stinker this Christmas (it won’t: it’s already sold out its initial inventory). The Kindle is going to be with us for a while.

– Michael Gaudet

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