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Innovation

Hey, Amazon! Are you stupid?

Amazon is so intent on maintaining that status quo of their proprietary e-book formats and shutting down Google's progress in making millions of books available that they jeopardize educational adoption of e-texts. They ultimately jeopardize any place they might have at the educational table.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

There are a few things in Ed Tech about which I am relatively passionate: making 1:1 affordable and realistic; making 1:1 actually add value instead of just giving every student a lightweight typewriter; using open source software to save money, promote a sense of community, and engage students in the products they use; and making electronic books affordable, accessible, and open.

This last item has been on my mind a lot lately (obviously, given a few recent posts). And why not? New e-readers are coming to market, albeit still lacking a few key features for students. Google is scanning the heck out of books, the EPUB format is gaining traction, and libraries are even starting to get the hang of lending electronic books. We're on our way, right?

Except the dominant product on the market is using a closed file format, has DRM up the wazoo standing in our way, and its parent company is fighting hard (along with several other companies who probably have a lot to lose if they don't sort out a strategy around e-books soon) to maintain the status quo. I'm talking about Amazon, of course, who was figuratively handed the keys to the castle Google is building with their book scanning project. As Ars Technica reported,

Still, Google announced a concession today to ease concerns of its rivals over the settlement: allowing other companies to sell access to Google's scanned works. "Google will host the digital books online," said the company, "and retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore will be able to sell access to users on any Internet-connected device they choose. Retailers can also pursue their own digitization efforts of out-of-print books in parallel."

Seriously? And Amazon is still complaining when Google is willing to do all the work for them? The piece that gets me from an Ed Tech perspective is the line "any Internet-connected device they choose." There's Amazon's problem, of course. While we stand to gain the ability to deliver content to students with a variety of devices and media, Amazon is seeking to block that so we have to use their Kindle.

One of my kids no longer needs to bring his 700-page history book home since the publisher hosts a copy of the book online. It's searchable and "zoomable"; nothing fancy or truly interactive, but genuinely useful to my son. He just logs in from any of our computers or even his iPod Touch and off he goes. A Kindle (and, in fact, any e-Reader on the market right now) couldn't deliver this sort of content.

Amazon's fight, though, is slowing progress towards even such rudimentary accessibility. If Amazon would drop its proprietary format and adopt EPUB (and support devices that could display color, images, etc., accessing the Kindle store), textbook publishers would have a much easier time getting their content into students' hands.

Whether they are reading a text-only/low-resolution image version of a textbook on their Kindle or viewing a version on their iPhone, adoption of open standards can only help education. Similarly, Google's efforts drive us closer every day towards the ideal of widely-available texts, books, and media. Not only do Amazon's designs to keep Kindle king of e-books hurt education, but they will ultimately hurt Amazon, as they refuse to benefit from a rapidly growing body of useful content.

Amazon already acts as an intermediary for countless retailers. Is there any reason it can't profit acting as an intermediary for books hosted by Google? Is there any reason that support for standards would actually hurt Amazon? Rather, how many more schools might adopt Kindles as their device of choice if more textbooks were electronically published by an industry that could now utilize an open set of standards and easily port their content to many devices?

Amazon has a lot to gain here; the walled garden approach is utter folly when electronic texts take off in education.

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