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Amazon's Kindle surprise

27 November 2007

Amazon's launch of an ebook reader is a smart strategic move: beat the competition by becoming the competition. The company sells most things nowadays, but built its fortune on book retailing and has since used its technology expertise to branch into search engines, distributed processing and micropayments. The company has already built relationships with publishers and has an archive of scanned material, which presumably is ready to publish digitally the moment the copyright holder gives the nod. If anyone can make a go of the ebook, then Amazon can. Kindle reportedly sold out at launch, which shows there are enough gadget freaks to sustain this kind of thing.

People compare Kindle to the iPod. We never knew we'd want to carry all our music everywhere until we could, goes the logic. I have dozens of half-read books around me right now, but I'm not convinced I need to carry them everywhere. The reason they're half-read is that I can't usually be bothered to read them. I read my better books instead. There's a big difference between a song, which you consume in about three minutes, and a book, which you consume in about three weeks. What made the iPod popular was that it was backwards compatible with CDs (and arguably with pirated material). Filling an iPod would cost an absolute fortune if you had to buy all the content again, but that's what you'll have to do with Kindle.

Kindle could emulate the iPod by creating a market for digital content, though. Nobody was fussed about buying digital music (although the options were there) until the iPod made the ownership experience so smooth. Kindle should make it much easier to buy digital content - easier than buying printed content, even. It will also establish a going rate for an ebook. At the moment, non-fiction ebooks are sold on the value of the information, independent of the number of pages. That could all change once Kindle's knocking out virtual paperbacks for a similar price to their paper equivalents. For some authors, Kindle is a threat.

Apparently, Kindle will enable you to subscribe to magazines and newspapers. It's hard to square that with today's information economy, where newspapers are cheap if not free and heavily subsidised by advertising. You don't mind if there's an A5 advert on a page of the Guardian, but you'll certainly mind if there's a (smaller) full screen ad on your Kindle screen. I don't believe people will tolerate advertising on content they've paid for on an ebook reader. For the publishers, Kindle sales are probably a revenue stream that works as marginal income but stops working if everyone reads the digital version instead of the print version. At that point, they can't sell ads any more.

Are we ready to give up the humble paperback? My friend John has written a great analysis of how Kindle's ebooks differ from how we like to use real books. As John writes, you can't lend, give, borrow or sell Kindle ebooks. There are a couple of other things I like to do with books which John hasn't mentioned, including annotating them, cutting them up and scrapbooking excerpts, and reading more than one page at once by flicking between the pages (more for IT and reference books than fiction).

There are more philosophical issues as well: do we really want the printed word to be governed by digital rights management (DRM)? The British Library has already expressed concern about DRM being used to restrict the use of creative works after their copyright protection has expired. Are we sure it's the right thing to do to replace the printed word (which has never been cheaper) with a device that costs two hundred pounds? What legacy will we leave in fifty years' time, when all the Kindles are conked out and nobody can unlock the files any more? Of course, it's not the beginning of the end. Books won't die out any more than speech will, and even if they were going to, we couldn't do much about it without undermining the whole basis of the market economy.

This could be the finest ebook reader that's been released. The wireless buying mechanism is particularly good. But I'd still rather read a real book, for which nobody will mug me on the tube and I won't care too much if it falls in the bath or gets lost/stolen on the beach.

Anything that encourages more people to read and buy books must be a good thing, although I suspect it will just be the same people using a different channel. If Kindle succeeds it will put Amazon in a similar position in the books market to that which Apple has attained in the music market. Amazon already negotiates hard with authors (who are expected to provide wholesale discounts on retail quantities) and publishers. Since there's no backwards compatibility with print books, Amazon does need authors a lot more than Apple needed record labels, though. Maybe we'll see a softening of Amazon's attitude towards content creators following its heavy investment in the Kindle technology and e-commerce infrastructure.

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Thanks for the link, Sean.

I did think about annotation and page-flipping, but for the sake of the analysis, I decided not to question Amazon's usability claims. You can annotate using the keyboard, you can bookmark pages. Obviously this is unlikely to be as fast, flexible or intuitive as handling a real book and scribbling on it, but I don't have the hard experience to back up that instinct.

Features like full text search might compensate for this kind of thing -- swings and roundabouts.

Cutting up a book isn't something I suspect many people do, probably due to our cultural reverence for books (I bet a pile of smouldering Kindles isn't as satisfying as a good ol' down-home book-burnin'). Even at the height of my scrapbooking, I don't think I ever cut into a book - just magazines and newspapers. Still, Kindle wants to absorb those forms too -- and think how often people pin newspaper cuttings to school/office/club noticeboards. I wonder how well Amazon's e-ink photocopies...?
Yes, I did mean I cut up magazines and newspapers really but the sentence became too clumsy when I mentioned magazines explicitly. I don't often cut up books (although I have done occasionally).

It's hard to imagine it being as easy to flick between bookmarks as it is to put a pencil in a few pages back and hold two pages open at once. But the full text search would be really useful - I sometimes find myself wishing for that when I read a newspaper. That alone could justify the use of Kindle for some types of book.

Interesting thought about photocopying. It would be more useful if it could connect to a printer, and had decent drivers that would reflow copy to fit an A4 page. I don't know if it does that, but I suspect it would make it much harder to negotiate with rights holders because it's a back door in the DRM (print it out, give it away).
If it can photocopy, it can OCR.

I can imagine a jury-rigged system whereby a Kindle lies face down on a flatbed scanner, with a Lego Mindstorms contraption hooked up to the page turning button.

It wouldn't then take much to automate:

while (not finished) {
scan page
OCR page
turn page

Obviously a 'DVD Jon' will hack the DRM, probably quite soon, so you could do with 100% accuracy, faster, in software. But this would be a delightfully Heath-Robinson 'because you can' hack.
Or how about the ultimate hack to really screw up the system: you take the source files and create a giant machine that can print thousands of copies a day. Maybe even make a conveyor belt for them, and make the process glue the sheets together, maybe with protective paper on the outside, and even put the finished bundles into boxes with polystyrene squiggles. And then those boxed and bound print-outs could be sent to high streets all over the country and sold so that people don't even have to use a fancy device to read them. Oh, wait a minute...
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