Mr. Bezos, Tear Down This Wall

Mr. Bezos, Tear Down This Wall

Summary: Amazon is not-so-quietly building a wall between itself, its competitors, and open e-book formats. It's time to show them that those of us who seek e-book readers without boundaries will not stand for their market monopolization and Soviet-style platform containment.

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Amazon is not-so-quietly building a wall between itself, its competitors, and open e-book formats. It's time to show them that those of us who seek e-book readers without boundaries will not stand for their market monopolization and Soviet-style platform containment.

So while I was out on a business trip to Chicago this morning, news broke about the probable introduction of a large format Kindle device aimed towards easier reading of textbooks and other large media, such as magazines and newspapers. As usual, I'm late to the game when it comes to Kindles, but I'll try to add some new perspective here.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

I've gone on (in multiple iterations) about the cost analysis of Kindle ownership and my feelings about the Kindle so ad nauseum that the my dead horse storage bill at the local veterinary clinic is starting to become excessive. For those of you that have not been subjected to my missives on this before, here is what I have said in the past about Kindles in a nutshell. They...

a) ...Are too expensive for the average human being

b) ...Are a device for doing nothing other than read books, magazines and newspapers using Amazon-protected formats or personal documents converted into the device's internal protected format when loaded through Amazon's e-mail conversion service, for a transaction fee. Oh yeah, and charge you for reading blogs (albeit awkwardly) that you would otherwise have free access to on your PC or other handheld device. Amazon has also removed storage card capability from its latest generation Kindle 2 which makes it even more of a hassle to get data onto the device.

(EDIT: Apparently, you can also read unprotected Mobipocket format books on the Kindle, but it requires manual data transfer via USB. Amazon's DRM-protected AZW Format is little more than DRM-enabled MOBI with a different encryption method. Encrypted MOBI can also be converted to AZW with the right hacker scripts.)

c) ...Are completely proprietary and cannot be modified to do anything other than their primary function which are to read DRM-protected Amazon books, unless you are a hacker and want to risk voiding your warranty.

d) ...Use a proprietary e-book store that is completely controlled by Amazon and makes it impossible for independent authors and publishing companies to run independent stores which are compatible with the device. Amazon has chosen to go with the iTunes/iPhone App Store model for loading e-books onto the device, and has forced large publishers to deal with them directly and cut heavily into their profit margins for the privilege of being listed and sold on the Kindle online store.

So it really doesn't matter to me if the Kindle is book sized, magazine sized, or the size of a coffee table (maybe I shouldn't give them any ideas.) The "Jumbo" Kindle that is likely to be announced shortly will cost at least $500.00 if not more, and will be even more out of the reach of normal human beings, let alone students.

Perhaps you didn't notice, but a few weeks ago Amazon purchased Lexcycle, the software company which produces the popular Stanza e-book reader software for iPhone and iPod touch. Stanza is currently capable of downloading and reading over 100,000 e-book titles in EPUB format, including magazines and newspapers.

The Stanza/Lexcycle purchase by Amazon looks good on paper, except when you read between the lines and realize exactly what is going on here. For some time, there have been rumors of Apple coming out with a tablet device, which in effect would be a larger-format iPod Touch with a screen comparable in size to the Kindle 2.

Is it just me, or does Amazon's purchase of Lexcycle and Stanza a prelude to an e-book cold war? By taking Stanza off the market -- at least from Apple -- and likely changing the software in the future so that it can only talk to Amazon's e-book store instead of e-book stores run by competitors, it will be able to control what the Apple Tablet is able to do as an e-book reader and if necessary, pull Stanza off the market or restrict its functionality so that the Apple Tablet is not as an attractive an e-book platform as the Kindle. Or so they will think.

Apple, of course, will likely respond in kind, by releasing their tablet in a similar price range to the "Jumbo Kindle", in color, and with the usual access to the iPhone/iPod App Store as well as a special "Book" channel to the App Store that they will create specifically for selling electronic books, along with integrated e-book functionality, with no doubt an Apple-created e-book format that it will release to developers as an addendum to the iPhone 3.0 SDK.

And of course, Apple's "Book Channel" will no doubt be fully searchable and will be available as part of an iTunes update and will work with existing iPhone and iPod Touch devices. The iTablet will be an Insanely Great device, and if they really go through with it as many have speculated, even I am likely to break down and get one.

When faced with a choice of the dictatorship of the Red Fruit or the stone face of the oppressive Amazon Wall, I will choose the Fruit, as much as it pains me to say so, given all the criticisms I have made of Apple and the iPod/iPhone in the past. At least the iTablet will be able to do something other than read books, and you'll be able to write applications for it, even though the App Store is completely controlled by Apple and they decide who can develop for it or not.

While Amazon and Apple duke it out (I liken this to a tense standoff between Soviet Russia and Communist China) I suggest that the other industry players with potential horses in this game -- namely Google, Microsoft and SONY, as well as companies like Barnes & Noble and BORDERS (also known as the free world) who can supply them with competing e-book stores to Amazon and Apple -- band together to support open e-book standards and book reader devices with open developer APIs, open source operating systems and open functionality, so that any publisher of any size can host their own e-book stores, perhaps on platforms such as Google Checkout.

Perhaps the true answer to Amazon and Apple will be a completely open reader and device standard created by a yet-to-be created consortium, with affordable devices for the masses running on AndroidSymbian and gosh, shall I utter it -- even Windows Mobile.

Is Amazon building a wall between itself and open publishing formats and standards? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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Topics: Amazon, Hardware, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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59 comments
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  • Well Jason ...

    ... you can criticize the iTunes store model all you want but the fact is that customers cannot get enough of it. Despite the premium price of the iPod and the proprietary nature of the iTunes mechanism, iPods and the iPhone sell like hotcakes.

    As for the Kindle, like most of these electronic toys, it is very hard to justify them on the basis of ROI.

    It is also misleading to suggest that downloading electronic content is truly free.

    While the Kindle charges a high one-time fee for the device, there is no ongoing fee for the cellular data service it relies upon. The Sony eReader is no less costly but requires a connection to the internet via your computer. There is a monthly feeassociatewith that connection as well. Of course, the generic device (in this case, the PC) is far more cost-effective than ANY ereader device, be it a Kindle, a Palm, a smartphone, a Sony, or a BRAND-X ereader (or any other dedicated device).

    With the Kindle, you are paying for convenient access to their Store.

    I cannot argue with your recent analysis of ROI but the cost of their ebooks is not out of line with other ebook vendors and most of them put DRM on their copyrighted content as well and many of them charge more than Amazon for the same content.
    M Wagner
    • Couldn't agree more with mwagner ...

      Saved me a bunch of detail, but as you say - the customers love iTunes. The customers love Amazon and a significant number seem to love Kindle. Yes Amazon may control the format, but they do not make access to that format difficult if you want to self-publish (at prices you set) - much less cost-prohibitive than trying to get into print. And yes it is more expensive than downloading an open format book - but the customer is paying for style and convenience, just as they do with iPhone, iPod, Starbucks and so many other brands. Tried an ROI on a cup of Starbucks coffee - not sure it'll add up, but it's very popular ??? Amazon are there to make money, not provide some benevolent service to the world - personally I'd rather pay $10 to download a book, at my convenience, than have to go to a store or order online and wait - and pay significantly more (takes about 50 books to recover the cost of the device right now). Of course there is the possibility they'll jack the price later to the notional SRP - we'll see - but I doubt the market will take it.
      nigebj
      • Well said and some just don't get it...nailed it on

        the head:
        "Amazon are there to make money, not provide some benevolent service to the world "
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • You lost me at

        questioning the ROI on a cup of Starbuck's coffee. Let me help you: it's huge.
        compudog
        • Lost ...?

          "questioning the ROI on a cup of Starbuck's coffee. Let me help you: it's huge. "

          To Starbucks yes, not the consumer where the ROI is usually measured - I assume that was the bit which lost you. My point was that ROI doesn't matter if the consumer wants it.
          nigebj
  • I think I'll stick with paper books

    At least the traditional codex doesn't restrict who I buy the books from, and once they're mine, they're mine to do with as I please, as long as I don't manufacture and distribute copies (rather tedious anyway).
    John L. Ries
  • RE: Mr. Bezos, Tear Down This Wall

    Jason, thank you! for these revolutionary insights. Amazon needs to change their entire approach to selling ebooks. Or else there will be format wars that devastate the already-struggling publishing industry, keep prices high, and harm consumers by offering ebooks with sub-par
    functionality. Amazon could offer the world an olive branch by getting rid of their DRM; changing from a proprietary format to an open format' and reducing the chunk (now 65%) that they take from publishers on every ebook sale. If Amazon fails to listen and fails to
    re-invent itself then formidable opponents such as Apple or Google (or both) will challenge them by offering smarter and better deals to ebook publishers and ebook buyers. Thanks again,
    Michael Pastore
    == 50 Benefits of Ebooks ==
    ebooklover
    • Open format = Stolen Royalties

      nt
      Too Old For IT
      • RE: Mr. Bezos, Tear Down This Wall

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        hardwork1
  • You're so right

    Which business is Amazon in anyways? (I know, they're not sure, either ... they seem to be in about 100 businesses... .) Do they want to sell books or hardware? If they opened their eBooks to where I can read them on my Tablet PC, I'd be buying every book I buy from them. Instead, they stupidly insist on making it happen on their hardware only (fat chance, for me). So I buy my books wherever they are cheapest, and ignore their e-offerings. Goodness, I'd pay a premium to not have to buy more bookshelves and get the stuff digital, if they'd just smart up and sell their books in a way I can read them on the computer I already have...
    dunraven
    • Which business is Amazon in?

      The business of making money I would guess. It might be something their stockholder want them to do but Im not for sure! Doesnt Apple want their OS to only run on their hardware?
      gary859
    • No bookshelves

      There are a number of e-book formats. Check out Baen Books: They publish in several formats.
      Ebookwise/Rocket Format
      Mobi/Palm/Kindle Format
      EPUB/Stanza Format
      Microsoft Reader Format
      Sony Digital Reader Format
      RTF Format

      I think Fictionwise, a Barnes & Noble subsidiary, also publishes in several formats, though those are controlled by the publisher, apparently. (Baen is itself a publisher, and can use as many formats as it wants to.) You can read some of these on computers, PDAs, and smart phones, others on proprietary readers (Kindle, Sony, & their ilk).

      And there are other e-book sellers.

      Unlike Kindle owners, I don't have a problem with plugging in my PDA to the PC to download books. Strictly speaking, I don't really have to do that. Just use the SD card to do it.
      Barc777
  • I'd love to see books and mags availabe as

    PDFs or some equally accessible format, and readable on whatever device(s) one chooses. I've bought literally thousands of books over the years, and have had to give most of them away because of lack of storage. Something like a Kindle, or just a large USB computer drive, would let me keep at least the ones I buy from now on.

    Then, of course, there's DRM. I've been engaging in a boycott of DRM-crippled material and don't know if I'll ever be able to convince myself of the futility of it. I don't remember the last music CD I bought, and am not sure I'd ever be able to buy a book with DRM either.
    clfitz
    • "...large USB computer drive..."

      Actually, you don't need a [i]large[/i] USB computer drive. Books are smaller than you think they are. Most books generally run much to somewhat less than a megabyte. Some really huge books will cross the megabyte boundary. Those are in the range of 700-800 pages in physical books.

      Even a 1 GB flash drive should hold around a thousand books or more.
      Barc777
  • Kindle reader for the iPhone, iTouch

    Download the free kindle reader app for your iphone/itouch from the itunes store!
    Apache19
  • Apple, Amazon . . .

    I have to agree with you, Jason. If I HAVE to end up buying one of these devices (my BlackJack II does me good right now), I'll take an Apple over Amazon's limited device any day of the week.

    And don't forget that Fictionwise owns E-Reader and it's format. Fictionwise was recently bought by Barnes and Noble, so Apple could cut a deal with them and not have to come up with their own format . . .

    http://www.teleread.org/2009/03/05/fictionwise-acquired-by-barnes-noble/

    Plus, E-Reader ALSO has a free app in the iTunes App Store already . . .

    JLHenry
  • There's a reason people like this approach

    Though I don't and likely won't own a Kindle, I can see why people are flocking to it the same way they flocked to the iPod and iPhone. A trusted (by many, anyway) company known for innovation and attention to detail creates a closed system in which it can attend to every aspect of the product and service, and offers easy access to the content people want, within a user experience that goes well beyond anything else out there. Open systems offer choice, but the choices available usually seem to be lacking. I can choose among a plethora of unappealing options, or I can go with the walled garden, which just feels intangibly right, even though I have to give up some of my freedom to get it. Clearly the former choice appeals to many, especially the tech-centric, but for the average consumer, the walled garden has considerable appeal.

    Proprietary systems are the enemy of choice and open standards, certainly, but I'm not convinced they're the enemy of consumers. I'm still waiting for the downside (for the average consumer, not for a niche enthusiast audience) of a closed system like iTunes and the iPhone.
    paferg
    • There is something to be said

      About a simple device doing what it is marketed to do simply. Consumers have devices that do many tasks and they sell well. The Kindle also is selling well. I personally don't see any reason that Amazon needs to change course when they sold out the first year, seems maybe they are on to something. The technophiles want every device to do damn near everything and at some point such devices start doing a whole bunch of stuff damn poorly.

      If I want to read a book, that's all I want to do. I want to pick it up and be reading instantly, not being bothered with updates, virus checkers, etc. etc. Come to think of it I already have an ebook reader that does it all and is connected to the internet don't I? So does most of the population, it's called a PC or Mac. How are ebooks doing for these "do it all" machines?
      oncall
  • Gimme the Kindle. It just works.

    The headline screams Reagan, but the message sounds more like George H W Bush, "Read my lips: no new taxes". (I hate Apple. I hate Apple. Give me an Apple.) :-)

    Left alone, the market will figure this one out on it's own.

    Personally, I would rather pay more for the device and never have to worry about connectivity. And, frankly I've about had it with devices that do everything half-way, but nothing really well.

    Gimme the Kindle. It does one thing really well because Amazon controls it end-to-end instead of letting every "shade-tree mechanic" in the market tinker with the inner workings of the Kindle and it's distribution model.

    It just works, well. Novel concept.

    Deacon336
  • RE: Mr. Bezos, Tear Down This Wall

    I thought I wanted a Kindle and now I don't. I am going to wait to see what Apple has to offer. I would like a reader that could also handel my MP3, and MP4 needs as well. I do not like being boxed into anything. That is why I don't have a iphone, I hate AT&T's service.
    jimnwashington