Amazon's Kindle: Much needed revolution or book industry power play?

Amazon's Kindle: Much needed revolution or book industry power play?

Summary: Like Apple's iPods and the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) from which they can so effortlessly acquire their content, the transparency of the automation and infrastructure that makes Amazon's Kindle work so effortlessly with the Amazon.com Web site is a marvel in terms of the user experience.

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Like Apple's iPods and the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) from which they can so effortlessly acquire their content, the transparency of the automation and infrastructure that makes Amazon's Kindle work so effortlessly with the Amazon.com Web site is a marvel in terms of the user experience. But the same technology under the hood that makes the iPod's seamless connection to the iTMS so convenient is also the one that keeps competitors at bay and the one that has been a significant leverage point for Apple over not just the portable digital media player market, but also over the music industry. In other words, in recent years, that proprietary connection between client and server has also become the source of much consternation.

With the Kindle, it only takes a few book purchases to notice the same degree of convenience. In fact, it's even more convenient than the way Apple's technologies work. With an iPod, you need a Windows machine or Mac running the iTunes software to act as an intermediary for gathering content from the iTMS and loading it into the iPod. It's up to you to set that PC up and get it networked. With the Kindle (which, given Amazon's participation in the digital music and video business, could easily be a harbinger of an Amazon-built iPod-competitor to come), the only thing you have to do is establish an account on Amazon.com, enable it for one-click purchases, and turn the Kindle on. There's no intermediary required and the networking element of it isn't even remotely your problem. It's all built-in. Just turn on the Kindle and start shopping for books.

Nothwithstanding problems with its industrial design (the "Next Page" button is too inadvertently depressed, causing indigestion for many), from a user's point of view, the Kindle's turnkey lack of friction is something to behold. It works better than Apple's approach (although we could argue that, compared to ebooks, multimedia is far more demanding on a device's battery and therefore, excluding a wireless radio from iPods was a good design decision). To Apple's competitors, not only do certain Apple technologies (like its FairPlay Digital Rights Management [DRM] system) lock them out, all that whizbang under-the-hood integration represents an impenetrable enigma. In the Kindle, not only does Amazon's flavor of DRM play a role, given the built-in networking, the whizbang under-the-hood integration is even more of an impenetrable enigma than what Apple has to offer.

So, naturally, the next question is whether or not the Kindle's iPod-like rise to stardom (the $399 devices are already sold-out at Amazon.com) will also result in an iPod-like ecosystem where the Kindle becomes a defacto e-book standard and Amazon becomes the the power that the rest of the book industry must reckon with. Given how collegial he is, you could argue that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is more the "do no evil" type and would therefore be more predisposed to allow his competitors to participate in the Kindle ecosystem than Steve Jobs is to allow Apple's competitors to compete in the iTunes ecosystem. Then again, right now, the only place a Kindle can get its ebooks from is Amazon.com and the only device that can access the Kindle service online is Amazon's Kindle. In this respect, the Kindle is actually worse than the way Apple has things set up. At least in the Apple world, you can experience the content you've acquired on your PC (in fact, on multiple PCs) and you can even burn some CDs (although the feature has its limits). With the Kindle, there is no corresponding software client for Windows or the Mac so that, in the event the only device you have with you is your PC, you can still read the same books that you have on your Kindle.

Another step backwards for the Kindle, relative to the iPod ecosystem, is that when iPods came out, they supported the prevailing music file format (and the one that still has the biggest global footprint): MP3. The Kindle, on the other hand, eschews the book industry's international standard for ebooks, the International Digital Publishing Forum's epub standard. Epub formatted books are not consumable on the Kindle nor are PDF files (PDF files can however be e-mailed to your Kindle's dedicated e-mail address and Amazon will attempt to convert them and load them into your Kindle. For PDF the email conversion feature is experimental). The Kindle is capable of viewing its own AZW file format, TXT files, and unprotected .MOBI files or .PRC files. It can also consume audio content formatted in MP3 or Audible.com's AA format.

In terms of the power-play like questions that Amazon's Kindle raises, most of them start with the unique relationship that Amazon has with book publishers. It's already a force to be reckoned with in the book business. Now that the Kindle is out, does Amazon represent even more of a threat to the status quo than it already did? While I know enough about standard and proprietary file formats to know that they're often the tools of vendors looking to establish market advantage, I hardly know enough about the book industry to say whether Amazon's Kindle is good or bad for it. So, to the extent that the Kindle is very much a Dell-like supply-chain story, I asked Fran Toolan, the president and founder of Quality Solutions to indulge me with a podcast interview. Quality Solutions is deeply involved in the supply chain side of the book industry. According to the company's home page:

Quality Solutions offers the most powerful and comprehensive integrated Title Management database available for tracking book titles from acquisition through editorial, marketing, production, and other processes.

It sounds very supply chain-esque to me which is why I asked Toolan to come and share some of his insights into the Kindle and the impact it will have on the book industry. To listen to the podcast, all you need to do is press the play button on the Flash-based player above. Alternatively, you can manually download the MP3 file via the Flash-based player's menu. Or, if you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts (see how to subscribe), the podcast interview should already have been downloaded to your PC, your MP3 player, or both, depending on how you have your podcatcher setup.

Topics: Amazon, Browser, Hardware, Mobility

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23 comments
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  • Good article. Kindle is a good idea, but too restrictive

    I really like the Kindle idea. I do lots of reading on my large screen but want to take this with me. The Kindle, I thought, was the way to go.
    However, your points about proprietary formats is not the way I want to invest in content - even if most of what I want to read on line are disposable blogs, news and white papers.
    Prognosticator
    • Newspaers

      I throw my paper newspaers away every day anyway, so I don't care about the proprietary format for that. My Kindle subscription to the NYTimes alone will recover the cost of the device in 2 years, and I don't have to recycle, or read advertising.
      lynne.personius@...
    • PDF support?

      Sony's reader supports PDF. If Kindle does not - it's a deal-breaker.
      waterneversleeps@...
  • RE: Amazon's Kindle: Much needed revolution or book industry power play?

    The DRM nonsense, coupled with the pay per convert service made me go with the Bookeen unit instead.
    GAGendel
  • Books are better

    It will take a lot of paperbacks to add up to the price of Kindle especially in Britain where prices are always much higher than in USA. I do not like DRM which treats legal users like criminals and does not mean a thing to the real criminals. Anyway I could not read in the bath the way I do with paperbacks.
    misceng
    • What about newspapers

      I am getting the NYTimes on kindle, and canceled my paper subscription. The cost of kindle will be recovered in 2 years with just this subscription
      lynne.personius@...
      • What about my parrot? My woodstove?

        I have enjoyed reading eBooks on my PDA for years. Not as nice in a tactile as a well-bound book, but very portable. I'll probably buy a Kindle when the price drops. On the other hand, I have a parrot and a woodstove. Newspapers are an essential part of my keeping the cage clean and getting the fire lit (or should I say kindled?). Some of us will keep our newspaper subscriptions or start begging for handouts from our Luddite neighbors.
        boxplayer
      • Don't do the crosswords, eh?

        ;-)
        Userama
    • Can I lend a Kindle e-book to a friend?

      If the answer is that I have to lend the whole kindle, than that is a show stopper right
      there. I wouldn't want to lend out my whole library, now would I? One of the joys of
      real books is in the sharing and the discussing the work with friends and relatives.
      Also, now I can share a book with anybody with working eyes, but with Kindle or other
      digital books, the others have to also have one. With DRM even that wouldn't be good
      enough. Friends would have to also BUY the book. I can see the publishers like that
      idea.
      arminw
    • Exactly

      One slip, and there goes $399. Plus, one of my biggest holdups is that i'd mainly use it at school, where the policy is 'no electronic devices'. Considering in my school they know next to nothing about basic computers (or networking for that matter - my router at home has better uptime than the network for the whole system), they wouldn't see a difference between the Kindle and a cell phone. No, for me I'll be sticking with paperbacks for a while.
      jflash_z
  • Amazon can't be trusted...

    Amazon lost my e-book business forever when they suddenly, and without warning, quit selling PDF-format e-books. Supposedly, the books would be available "indefinitely" for re-download through Amazon's "locker". A nice feature if you're away from home if a drive crashes, or whatever. Well, somebody seems to have put a padlock on that locker--the e-books are no longer available.

    Now, Amazon wants people to spend $400 on a proprietary reader for a proprietary format that may or may not be supported a year or two or five from now? A format which doesn't allow printing and demands that a user carry an additional device around with the laptop? Screw that.

    Amazon can sleep with the book publishers, but I'm staying out of that bed.
    IowaTVMan
  • RE: Amazon's Kindle: Much needed revolution or book industry power play?

    Books are better FOR NOW.

    This really portends a threat to the chain bookstores more than to any other business. Amazon already took a big bite out of them with its initial business model; now it's staking a piece.

    Don't look askance at the device; the device has flaws as all V1 devices do and will be improved incrementally(remember the first iPods?).

    Rather look at the business model - frictionless book purchasing, instant gratification and instant access to your favorite authors.

    This represents the elimination of having to ship atoms to get what we call "books" into our hands. Trees will be saved. And gasoline (no need to warehouse books; no need to drive to the bookstore).

    What Amazon needs to focus on next is keeping the serendipity and expertise of the bookstore experience. We can't afford to lose that. But since their real competition is Barnes & Noble and Borders, you don't really get the expertise there. But you do get the "browse" and that's critical.
    bobjudeferrante
  • Books vs Ebooks

    Books are recycleable, require no power, transferable (loan,trade,sell) and relatively cheap.

    Ebooks are more portable (many books on device), possibly
    easier on resouces (impact of printing vs battery usage is?)
    and maybe a good tool for visually impared people
    (magnification and text to speech capability).

    I see ebooks as a good portable container for reference books,
    but that's about it. The fact is, used books are far less
    expensive than buying the ebooks and have far less restrictions
    on them. The other thing is, for the cost of these devices you
    can get a full lap top with greater capabilities.
    richard233
    • Kindle Content - what is better

      I moved one ton of books across country - the mover weghed them, and I paid by the pound. That makes e-books attractive.

      I subscribed to the NYTimes on Kindle, and canceled my paper subscription. I love this format. No advertising, and no distractions. I am reading the paper quite differently. Instead of reading a piece of several articles on the first page, then picking them up later after a lot of other stuff, I am reading them from start to finsih. You choose them from a sort of table of contents. It is great. And, the kindle cost will be covered in 2 years through the saving in this one subscription. And I am saving all the hassle of re-cycling. Plus, there is no more going out into my driveway in my nightgown every morning to pick up the paper. I love this new format!
      lynne.personius@...
      • Kindle - too expensive

        One ton of books, if we average the weight of a book at 2 pounds, is 1000 books. Let's assume for a moment that a used book runs about two dollars. That's 2000 dollars in your entire collection. A Kindle book is about ten dollars for most books, but I guess older ones are around 5, we'll take the lower price. So it would be cheaper for you to buy your entire collection, throw it all away in city A and then buy it again in city B than to buy it all on Kindle. Even if Kindle books were cheaper, they in no way replicate the feeling of an actual book. Until prices become such that the consumer sees major savings, Kindle will just be a fad.
        senoy
  • Close but no cigar

    The display technology is great, but Amazon has no lock on that. Price and DRM will limit its popularity. In the future, we will have similar sized devices, maybe phones, with similar displays and wireless access to Internet/content. It won't take much to get to a Kindle-iPhone-Blackberry hybrid. One day we'll be able to use our computers while we bask in the sun - not today though.
    devils_advocate
  • Kindle - the Zune v.1 of eBook readers?

    Yes, it's v.1 - and the v.2 Zune is a LOT better than its industry-joke predecessor. But the Kindle's odious DRM lockdown on book content (I can't even make a copy to share w/a friend?), the locked-in support of a few file types (no direct support for either PDF, DOC, RTF or EPUB files?), the high content cost considering it's all just 1s and 0s ($9.99 for a book with no printing or shipping costs outside of bandwidth?), and the fact that all your content's stored "in the cloud" with [b][i]no[/b][/i] local storage/backup option, makes me say "Thanks, but no thanks." The last thing we want is for publishers to turn into their own version of the RIAA or MPAA - which is EXACTLY what Amazon's encouraging them to do.

    Give me an e-book reader with storage and uploading on my local computer, wide file support adoption, no DRM, some form of color screen (I'd settle for 8-bit color) so I can read comics and photography books as well as straight print, a MUCH lower price on the device ($99.99 is the sweet spot, IMO) and prices equal to or lower than paperbacks (I'm thinking $4.99 is a good base price for most e-books), and I think Amazon would have a winner.
    drprodny
  • Try to Look Past Kindle 1.0!

    I think most people get too hung up on the current state of the technology and don't think 5 or more years out on this sort of thing. It's much easier to look backwards and marvel. For example, compare today's iPhone with the original iPod from 6 years ago. Even though the original iPod was a thing of beauty, would anyone have predicted the iPhone's form factor back in 2001?

    Now apply that same logic to the Kindle. Yes, the Kindle is a far cry design-wise from the original iPod! There's no doubt about it. But think about what this product could evolve into over the next 5-7 years. Now *that's* what intrigues me! I can't see spending $400 for today's Kindle but I'm highly likely to jump aboard in 3 or 4 years when the feature set is much richer and the price is much lower!

    Joe Wikert
    Publishing 2020 Blog
    www.joewikert.com
    jwikert@gmail.com
    jwikert
  • RE: Amazon's Kindle: Much needed revolution or book industry power play?

    Add a picture to the article with a brief description of what it is.

    Title the audio so that we know what to expect, provide the length of the audio, and prepare the interviewee so that he knows that mumbling is equivalent to silence.

    Break up the article with paragraph headings.

    "Unique" means one of a kind, so "very unique" has no meaning.

    I bailed at 7:30 for lack of interest.
    markyannone
  • missing the point

    I have used a Sony Reader for about 7 months.Works for about 50 hours till recharge. The tech of these devices is usable BUT - - when textbooks are available at a reasonable price; the market is limited.
    It is a neat thing to have (read while waiting for the Doctor e.i.)if you can afford it.
    Gnat View