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

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.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive on

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.

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