I am probably the last person in the blogosphere to write about Amazon’s launch of its e-book device, the Kindle. It’s described as “a wireless reading device” and in the initial wave of publicity Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has taken care to position it as complementary to the book. But even with Amazon’s strengths as an e-commerce retailer chances of success seem poor, for the moment.

These are the details: the Kindle is currently available only in the US, it weighs about 300 grams which is a little less than as a paperback, it can store the equivalent of 200 books, it costs $399 (though this will fall), and has its own wireless connection (through Sprint). The books (and selected newspaper and blog subscriptions) are accessed through the wireless connection, which means that it is PC-independent, and as part of the deal Amazon says it will hold titles you’ve bought but don’t currently have space for, so you can download them later (“like having a box in the attic that you can get down”). Books are $9.99. Battery life is reasonable and they’ve used a screen technology which improves the experience of reading on a device. The design is on the clunky side (detailed critique here). At time of writing, it’s sold out.

In the Newsweek article Jeff Bezos says “Music and video have been digital for a long time, and short-form reading has been digitized, beginning with the early Web. But long-form reading really hasn’t.” Comparisons with the iPod haven’t been discounted. So it’s worth rehearsing what digital devices bring to media content, and therfore the benefits of them.

  • portability: they make the content easier to carry around (and the devices)
  • searchability: they make it easier to find material
  • personalisation: you can put what you want on to it.

Obviously the Kindle is searchable, and Amazon has talked about the benefits of portability. But books are pretty portable, and most people don’t feel the need to carry lots at the same time (although there are obviously some niche markets – people who travel a lot, for example). Some professions have to carry books as well – lawyers, accountants, students – but the only the latter seem likely to benefit without some fairly specialist titles. And on personalisation, the Kindle doesn’t have a PDF reader, so no opportunity to upload relevant reports or articles or to access open content published in open formats. Which raises another question.

Bezos has been quoted as saying “This isn’t a book, it’s a service”, which is as Jason Kottke points out,

“CEO-speak for “yay, we can charge you for buying this gadget again and again”. That emphasis makes it seem like the Kindle is less of a “read any text you want on the go” device and more of an interface for purchasing Amazon’s e-books, e-magazines, and blogs (yes, they’re charging for blogs somehow…).”

The wireless connection, and PC-independence, which is positioned as a benefit in much of the early coverage, actually locks the user into a dependent relationship with Amazon. (I have an iPod and a Mac, but I don’t buy from iTunes, and I don’t have to). The related issue about ‘service’ is that the Kindle content has DRM [Digital Rights Management] all over it, as Cory Doctorow points out at Boing Boing:

Mark Pilgrim has a great, incisive post about the Amazon Kindle e-reader that sums up almost all of the reasons I won’t be buying it — it spies on you, it has DRM (which means that it has to be designed to prevent you from modding it, lest you mod it to remove the DRM), it prevents you from selling or lending your books, and the terms of service are nearly as abusive as the Amazon Unbox terms.

It’s worth spelling this out. If I own a book, I can lend it to you, sell it to you, give it away, even photocopy parts of it. Jeff Bezos knows all of this, as Pilgrim points out (he does run a huge second-hand books business, after all). But the Kindle’s terms of service – this from Mark Pilgrim’s blog, which cuts to the heart of the issue, and is worth checking – are typical of digital content:

“You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content.”

It’s worth spelling it out because customers hate all of this, and sooner or later it causes problems, as Sony discovered a while back. It’s also one of the most fiercely contested areas of law concerning content and digitisation. The law academic James Boyle, for example, has called the use of intellectual property law to tighten ownership, of which DRM is a significant part, the “second enclosure movement“. Amazon could come unstuck here – with wider consequences for their broader e-commerce business.

And Nicholas Carr at Rough Type is dismissive of the iPod analogy, not because of any Apple magic but because of the different stages of the evolution of the two markets. When the iPod was launched, there were already quite a lot of digital music players around, the marketplace was awash with (mostly free) digital music content, and the market was primed. (I’d add that it had also been ‘pre-primed’ for twenty years by the Walkman). In contrast, the Kindle is trying to make the market.

My best guess is that the Kindle will attract a niche group of users who are also committed customers for whom Amazon can do no wrong. This may be enough to give Amazon a platform to develop the product (reduce price, increase utility, make it more open etc). But I don’t think that this market will start to develop until e-paper starts being commercially viable, thereby increasing product functionality dramatically. And despite rapid strides this is still several years away, according to the estimates I’ve heard, most recently in the MIT Technology Review..

Finally, the Kindle was apparently named for the “crackling ignition of knowledge”, according to the Newsweek article. Maybe it’s just me, but given that the burning of books is one of the great taboos (rightly) of open liberal societies, with shades of Ray Bradbury’s great novel Fahrenheit 451, maybe the brand and naming consultants should have worked just a little harder for their money.

Related posts: Radiohead – really, it’s up to you , The slow death of long-format music, and Apple and the ’strategic moment’.