I’m starting to see signs that Amazon has successfully injected some major mojo behind its Kindle electronic book program. Dare we call them green shoots? This morning, publisher, blogger and Chris Anderson-fill-in Rex Hammock had a great post up about how his Kindle was aiding his effort to re-read David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest. I also came across a thought-provoking post about the Kindle by Kent Anderson over on the scholarly kitchen blog called “The Freedom of Not Owning Books.” Kent makes the argument that it’s worth buying a Kindle despite the DRM-imposed limits, pointing out the value of the wireless connection, the space saved by having virtual books, the ability to read and acquire new reading material on the go and so on. But he also crystallizes a more original factor at play:
Ownership isn’t a panacea, especially in an age of information abundance. Will I be concerned if the Kindle dies and books I’ve read on it become inaccessible on that platform? Not really. If I want to read them again, there will be plenty of alternative ways in the future. And my bookshelves long ago stopped being my collection of known facts and resources.
Joe Wikert points to a related post about how e-books still have room to evolve. I agree with the author’s points while noting that they’re already evolving in many ways. Two of my favorite old Sherlock Holmes collections are on my Kindle — for free. A copy of “Moby Dick” typeset especially for the Kindle also held sway for a while. From classics to current bestsellers, I can wirelessly get books for free and for less.
And I don’t have to own them.
It’s a fascinating point and one that is growing on me the more I ponder it. In fact, with Amazon keeping all my Kindle books alive in the cloud for instant access, I actually can go back and review a text from almost anywhere. A physical book sitting on a shelf at my house is out of reach if I’m not at home. And what about the Kindle’s indexing of every book you buy? It’s great that I own thousands of dead tree pulp books but if I can’t remember exactly which book contains the scrap of info I’m looking for, it can make for a long afternoon.
But, of course, this is the Internet so open the comments and queue the anti-Kindle-istas. In this case, the lead complainer was David Crotty, another member of the scholarly kitchen crew and the executive editor of an academic biology publication. Crotty wants to own his books, he doesn’t want any digital rights management software limiting what he does with his books and he is especially fearful that some day Amazon could take away his books.
I started arguing with Crotty in the comments but after a while, it started to feel disjointed. So, here’s why I agree with Kent: The Kindle is a good value if you are an avid reader, buy lots of new books and like to read when you’re on the go. It’s a good value despite the stupid DRM limitations, despite the fact that it costs hundreds of dollars and despite the fact that there’s a remote chance that Amazon will abandon it some day.
I do agree with Crotty that before you invest in any new technology, particularly one with a proprietary DRM involved, you need to make an assessment of the costs and benefits and the risks involved. Crotty cites examples like Microsoft killing its PlaysForSure music program or the defeat of HD-DVD at the hands of Blu-Ray as cautionary tales. One should wait until a DRM-free electronic book market opens before buying any ebooks, he argues. I guess that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not very far.
It’s obviously always better to buy without DRM but that’s not always an available choice. For example, see almost all major software programs with their horrendous activation schemes, current downloadable TV shows, movies, electronic books, downloadable video games, smart phone software etc. There is no way to buy electronic versions of current, popular books without DRM. There is no DRM-free substitute available. I wonder if Crotty buys any business software, video games or iPhone apps because they all have DRM? How long is he going to wait? In the meantime, the opportunity “cost” of not using software and playing games and using apps mounts. If anything software and computer game DRMs have been getting more annoying and restrictive over time, so he may be waiting forever.
Consider the PlaysForSure situation when Microsoft announced it back in 2004. The proper risk assessment strategy if you wanted current music back then was to go with the DRM that looked most likely to succeed. There wasn’t much DRM-free music at the time and CDs were priced well above the cost of digital albums (not to mention forcing you to buy 13 songs when you only wanted one). PlaysForSure was a steep, steep underdog to the already dominant iTunes/Apple DRM format. PFS was just one zig in Microsoft’s zigzagging, ever-changing, incoherent strategy that consistently failed to make any headway against Apple iTunes. It also only worked on a small subset of the total number of MP3 players out in the world (not ipods!). Buying into that DRM was a pretty obvious bad risk.
Not so for the Kindle today. Kindle is currently the dominant ebook format, Amazon is the leading ebook seller and the DRM works not just on the Kindle hardware but also on all iPhones and iPod Touches as well as more devices to come (Blackberry and Windows Mobile support coming soon, supposedly).
Right around here, Crotty turned to the last refuge of scoundrels in Kindle debates argument that despite all Amazon’s success it was just roadkill as soon as Apple decided to start selling ebooks in the iTunes store. I can’t face repeating all the reasons this Apple/ebook dominance meme is wrong so see my old blog post about why Apple won’t kill Amazon for more on that.
But Crotty does speculate that Apple would yank all competing ereaders from the app store — a new twist I hadn’t heard before. That seems far-fetched in the extreme. There’s no precedent for it, it wouldn’t pass antitrust scrutiny and it would infuriate literally millions of customers who have bought books in Scrollmotion, Kindle, eReader and other formats. Apple started out barring competing web browsers from the get-go — a far cry from banning an entire category of apps after they’ve already been available for a year. I have not heard of an example of Apple pulling an iPhone app because it launched its own version.
And after all of this, Crotty still has to assume that Amazon would kill the Kindle program in the face of tough competition from Apple. I just don’t see it. People buying a Kindle device now are already choosing to pay for something that they could do in part for free on an iPhone or iPod Touch. And still it’s selling out every few weeks and analysts are saying it’s a multi-billion dollar revenue stream for Amazon within three years.
So stick with it, Kindle fans, and don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.
(As an interesting aside, Kent’s post was sparked by Crotty’s post a day before pointing out two of the recently-discovered DRM limits in Kindle that I wrote about quite negatively on June 20. I guess Crotty and I agree that DRM stinks and that undisclosed DRM limits should be illegal but we differ on how much those problems diminish the value of the Kindle).
(As a second aside, Crotty is a fan of John Hodgman, so we also agree on the humourous side of life.)