For better or worse, the books you buy for your Kindle via Amazon exist only in places that receive Amazon’s express consent. They utilize digital rights management (DRM) technology to make sure that your Kindle books stay on your Kindle, or at least in the Kindle App on your iPhone or Blackberry. Sites like Project Gutenberg and Feedbooks, by contrast, offer a plethora of public domain titles that be transmitted from place to place without concern for brand name or publishing rights.
The benefits of the former are plainly obvious from the publisher’s perspective, but as a consumer, it’s a little disconcerting knowing that the books you spent hundreds of dollars on for your Kindle remain in Amazon’s little gated community. What if a non-Amazon e-Reader is the most attractive product on the market when your Kindle eventually bites the dust? You really don’t have any choice except to stay with the brand you’ve chosen.
Or that’s the status quo, anyway. A recent report by the BBC indicates that an Israeli hacker by the name of Labba cracked Amazon’s DRM, allowing users to make PDF versions of all the proprietary AZW files on their Kindles. Subsequent reports seem to indicate that Amazon has already patched out this capability, but the speed of the automatic firmware upgrades is unknown.
This isn’t the first time that an extremely popular DRM file format has been hacked. Anti-copyright measures in DVDs have been circumvented for years, and it was just four years ago that Apple’s proprietary iTunes file format was hacked as well. It’s a classic back and forth battle between big companies and hackers, and it always seems like, given enough time, the hackers prevail.
Demographically, Kindle owners trend towards the northern side of middle age, so it’s probably too much to expect that people are going to be going out there in droves to download an experimental beta of a program to crack the DRM on the latest Robin Cook novel. As the market for the Kindle becomes more mainstream, however, piracy could start to become more of a factor.
I think this just underscores the notion that Amazon’s quest to keep the DRM in place is ultimately a doomed one. Barnes & Noble’s promising, if flawed, lending system is just one baby step in the right direction. It’s really just a matter of time before one of the major e-Reader makers opts to lighten the DRM restrictions to gain a competitive advantage.
The sanest solution to me is to adopt the EPUB standard. It allows publishers to maintain DRM control of their content, while also allowing for portability between devices. The Kindle doesn’t support EPUB at the moment, but the Sony Reader and the Nook do. Unfortunately, Amazon is unlikely to agree to such a standard unless they feel their position is being threatened, which given the holiday they’re having, won’t be any time soon.
So for the time being, we’ll continue to plug along in our little DRM-restricted community while hackers jostle about outside, smashing holes in the fence.
If you’re planning on getting a Kindle for yourself or a loved one this Christmas season, you had better act fast. At the time of this posting, you have just under twelve hours to place your order. If you wait any longer, your Kindle will most likely arrive after Christmas day.
With the year nearing a close, here are our top 5 predictions for the Kindle going into 2010.
5. Smart phone e-reader software becomes more popular
People often bemoan the death of reading without stopping to recognize the types of reading that people actually do engage in. In these modern times of ours, it’s far more likely that you’ll find somebody reading on a screen of some sort. And while e-Readers like the Kindle are perhaps too out there for many would-be readers, smart phones most certainly are not. The tiny screen of a phone will never do for more die-hard readers, but expect to see more and more people reading on their iPhone and Blackberries.
4. Publishers fight back
It’s been a story for much of the second half of this year: as reading on e-Readers becomes more popular, companies with a vested interest in print are pushing back. First Rupert Murdoch and some of the other newspapers started engaging in a tug of war, and more recently publishers have started banding together to delay the release of eBooks. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I fully expect content publishers to continue to come together to meet this threat – perhaps even resulting in the release of a new, pro-publisher e-Reader platform. One way or another, the landscape is going to change.
3. Low-cost e-Reader released
Speaking of landscape changes, one thing I’m certain we’re going to see in 2010 is downward pressure on the price of e-Readers. Studies have shown that the optimal price for an e-Reader is somewhere in the area of $100. It’s probably too soon to expect manufacturers to be able to get it down that far in just a year, but with new entrants like Plastic Logic being added to the marketplace, I think the trend is going to be towards more barebones products (without the built-in 3G, presumably) at lower prices, just to get people on-board.
2. A new contender emerges
While publishers and smaller manufacturers do pose a threat to the Kindle, they are minor fights compared to the threats of Barnes & Noble and Sony. I expect that one more major competitor has yet to enter the e-Reader fight next year. The good money at this point is on some sort of Apple tablet, but they have been dubious about being content providers in the area of books before, so the specifics remain to be seen. Don’t rule out Google as a possible competitor as well, though in what capacity and I hesitate even to speculate.
1. New generation of Kindle
One thing is extremely clear – Amazon simply can’t rest on their laurels. While initial reports seem to indicate that the Nook’s hardware is still a little rough, it’s only a matter of time before they get the kinks ironed out of their new e-Reader. That’s going to leave a competitor on the market that not only has all of the features people enjoy with the Kindle, but sports LCD touchscreen navigation for the same price. The way I see it, there are two paths that Amazon can go from here. They can either piggy-back on No. 3 and release a stripped down version of the Kindle for a fraction of the price, or they can go all out and release a feature-rich SKU with touch-screen navigation and color. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they did both. Because while they have the brand name and the market share right now, things are changing rapidly, and it’s going to be difficult for Amazon to stay on top of the pile.
One way or another, we’ll be there to cover it.
The Atlantic, a magazine well known for publishing short fiction, will now be selling short stories in the Kindle Store. Priced at just $3.99 a pop, these stories reportedly fall somewhere in between a magazine-length feature and a full book. Short fiction usually has the dubious honor of being relegated to short story collections, but for the first time, the Kindle will make them commercially available in a sort of a la carte arrangement.
Of course, this is not the first instance of a content provider deciding to publish directly on the Kindle. Stephen King fans might remember earlier this year when Stephen King published his novella Ur exclusively on the Kindle. (Of course, that particular story happened to revolve around a mysterious pink Kindle which delivered menacing extra-dimensional literature to an unsuspecting professor, so it’s hard to say that it doesn’t actually belong there.)
For all the whining the Newspapers are doing about Amazon’s publishing deals being unfair, their burgeoning relationship with short story authors seems quite promising. In addition to an up-front fee, authors will get to split the sales revenue with Amazon and The Atlantic. Publishing exclusively through Amazon does limit their distribution to a certain extent, but this is the kind of literature that often gets buried in obscure journals anyway, so any commercial presence at all is a boon.
While they’re starting small with it, this could turn into a pretty big deal for both Amazon and the authors involved. The publishing industry as it exists today is designed to filter out any written works which aren’t commercially viable enough to commit to the page. It’s inherently exclusionary. When you remove the need to go through the costly process of printing material, it starts to look a lot less risky to publish material which might have seemed too borderline or obscure under the old system.
I think this is a niche which it would behoove Amazon to help expand. Lowering the barrier for aspiring authors to get published, and especially those who work with short fiction, is only going to increase the Kindle’s popularity amongst the world’s most prolific readers.
Personally, I’d like to see some authors experiment with the platform a little bit. Stephen King’s inclusion of the Kindle into his story was done in a sort of ham-handed way to mixed success, but somebody really needs to write a piece of fiction that breaks the fourth wall for Kindle users in the same way that Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions does for readers of print.
Regardless, these are exciting times. Since Gutenberg first developed the printing press in 1440, the book industry hasn’t really been one to usher in big changes. This might be the start of a process that will finally bring them into the 21st century.
Fans of the music industry remember the transition to digital downloads as a trying time. Music companies accustomed to charging as much as $20 for a new CD were reeling with the mainstream adoption of file sharing technology. It took as much as a decade before they really figured out embraced the fact that there were ways to make money in this new marketplace, despite the fact that things were scary and different.
And while the rest of the media world, from movies to television to video games continues on the speedy path to unfettered digitization of content, the publishing industry is mired in the past. Just last week, publishers Simon & Schuster and the Harper Hatchette Book Group announced their plans to institute an across-the-board delay on the digital release of their newest books this spring.
According to a representative from the HarperCollins, their reasons for doing this are purely financial. Because Amazon has pinned the price of eBooks in their store at $9.99, consumers are opting to purchase those over the more expensive hardcover editions of new releases. The result has been a hit to book publishers’ bottom line; one they are wont to accept without a fight.
Hatchette CEO David Young, interviewed in the Wall Street Journal last week, explained: “We’re doing this to preserve our industry. I can’t sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It’s about the future of the business.”
The industry is moving towards eBooks. This is a fact. Amazon currently has over 360,000 books in their existing library, and the number grows every day. Google just recently announced that their plans to sell books through their new venture Google Editions will extend to all e-Readers, including the Amazon Kindle. With market leaders like those two companies throwing their bulk behind the idea, how can anybody deny that it’s anything other than inevitable?
The parallels to the music industry cannot be overstated. When they refused to embrace digital downloads, they effectively conditioned a generation of consumers to turn to piracy before considering buying downloaded music. Now digital downloads are considered a loss-leader for the music business – a non-profitable teaser used principally to get people to attend live concerts.
By delaying the release of best-selling titles, book publishers are stoking the flames of a potential piracy problem. Do they really think that people are just going to go back to buying hardcover editions of books after dropping the $259 for an e-Reader? Either people are going to bide their time on cheaper fare or they’re going to use their music downloading skills to find that latest bestseller. Publishers can either get their acts together or watch as their industry crumbles around them. Your choice, boys!
We here at KindleChat don’t generally like to weigh in on the political dialogue going on in the world today. The reasons for that should be self-evident, I think. The Kindle itself is a politically-neutral device, equally capable of delivering everything from The Communist Manifesto to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. What brings us together is our love of reading and our enthusiasm for Amazon’s e-Reader. For the first time, however, I’ve seen somebody try and make a political commentary on the Kindle, and as a staunch enthusiast myself, I feel compelled to respond.
The Huffington Post recently printed an article by Alan Kaufman, a poet and occasional author, in which he likens “hi-tech” devices like the Amazon Kindle to the technology used by the Nazis to exterminate millions of people in the Holocaust. Let me say that again: he draws parallels between the technology powering a popular e-reader device to the technology used in the murder of six million men, women, and children.
To be honest, I was expecting his article to be a delayed rant about Amazon’s now-infamous removal of 1984 from customers’ Kindles. More than anything I’ve seen or heard since the Kindle first debuted, that was the closest correlation I’ve been able to draw between the Kindle and totalitarianism.
No, instead, Kaufman seems to be of the belief that the Google Books Library Project, along with the proliferation of e-Readers like the Kindle, is somehow destroying the intellectual privacy of the world’s readers. The very fact that companies know which books you are reading constitutes the fulfillment of the Nazi dream, according to Kaufman.
Let me be clear. I very much understand the reticence and sentimentality of those who believe the written world should continue to exist as it has for the past several centuries. I find myself occasionally nostalgic for the tactile feel of books and believe they should still hold a place in our society, and I’m one of those “hi-tech” people Kaufman is talking about in the first place. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lend any credence to his argument.
The truth is that the digitization of books that is occurring as we speak is as far from a totalitarian act as you can get. Where under the Nazis a campaign of book burning all but eliminated hundreds of texts from continental Europe, such an effort would be virtually impossible today. For less than $100, I can purchase an external hard drive that, even though it’s small enough to fit into my laptop bag, could hold over a million books. If you’ve ever had to move a book collection before, you know print isn’t quite so portable.
The transformation of books into a new form is a scary prospect for people not familiar with the technology, but one shouldn’t let that fear cloud their perception of reality. The way things exist today, it’s virtually impossible to totally purge a work of art, however obscure or mundane, from existence. Far from being the first step in a new totalitarian regime, this new era of the written word is the fulfillment of the democratic dream. And for that we should be grateful, not afraid.
For all its versatility, the Kindle is still a relatively simple and straightforward platform. You browse for a book, you buy a book, you read a book. The process continues for as long as your batteries remain charged and those precious neurons keep firing in your brain’s neo-cortex.
That elegant simplicity may not be long for this world however, if one begins to read the writing on the wall.
Consider a small company called Luidia. They’ve developed a technology called eBeam that allows users to instantly scan the contents of a white board full of notes into a handy image file, which is automatically delivered to the email address of a Kindle 2 or Kindle DX.
When you pair this easy method for note taking with as-yet-untapped digitization of text books, it’s not difficult to see how the Kindle could quickly transform from a somewhat superfluous gadget into a must-have device for college students.
Or consider the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Once a staple of the elementary school book fair, the Choose Your Own Adventure books allow you to read interactively by making choices presented to you and following along with their consequences. If you haven’t seen them already, those very same CYOA books are available in the Kindle store. And in fact, they actually work much better on the Kindle because you don’t have any way to cheat and find the best way through.
Nancy Knight of the Baltimore Sun makes an excellent point in a recent blog – this Choose Your Own Adventure model could be adapted to take advantage of more adult fiction, be it a noir detective novel or a Dan Brown-esque thriller. If you jazz up the presentation enough with rich images and the like, you could even go so far as to call it a game. A game? On my e-Reader? It’s more likely than you think.
Indeed, I think this is one untapped facet of the business into which Amazon will inevitably delve – some sort of app store that would allow you to purchase interactive games or useful add-ons. Anything from an integrated facebook app to a book recommendation engine to drink recipes could be accomplished on the existing hardware.
Just look at what the app store has done to help sell the iPhone. Apple makes a killing on those apps, and they serve the dual purpose of helping to promote their product. The next generation of Kindles is likely to be the one that takes advantage of such a Kindle app store, but the Kindle as it exists today is clearly capable of doing more than just allowing you to read books.
With Apple themselves rumored to be on the cusp of entering the market, Amazon would do well to begin to pioneer this idea now, before somebody comes and steals their thunder. At this point, it’s only a matter of time.
Amazon announced this week that the Kindle was the most wished for, the most gifted, and the best-selling gadget on Amazon.com for November, confirming speculation we’ve had for weeks that this holiday season would be a big one for the market-leading e-Reader.
“Kindle is a great gift for anyone who loves to read and it’s flying off the shelves faster than any other product Amazon sells,” said Ian Freed, Vice President, Amazon Kindle. “We’re seeing lots of people buying from one to a handful of Kindles as gifts for friends or family, as well as many businesses and other organizations buying Kindles in large quantities for their employees or customers.”
For all the back-patting, the press release didn’t have any specific sales numbers, which would have been slightly more interesting for those of us watching the product category. The closest approximation to the health of the Kindle from Amazon is that their net sales for the third quarter of 2009 are $1.19 billion higher than the same period last year.
Of course, just because Amazon hasn’t been forthcoming with sales numbers doesn’t mean that analysts aren’t happy to take some shots at it. According to experts from the financial advisory group Collins Stewart, sales of the Kindle 2 should top 450,000 total for the year, with the Kindle DX also checking in with 100,000.
According to their analyst, the Kindle is poised to become a lynch pin of Amazon’s bottom line. While sales of the Kindle itself are productive, it’s the sale of books that is really going to going to fill the coffers. Removing the whole “print” aspect of the business streamlines their cost structure, but perhaps more important than that is the propensity of Kindle owners to purchase more books than they once did. They estimate that Kindle owners increase their book-buying habits by 2.7x after purchasing the device, a fact for which we here at KindleChat can personally attest.
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble seems more and more resigned to handing this holiday season to Amazon. Ship dates for Nooks preordered on BN.com have moved back a week from January 4th to January 11th, putting them even farther from their goal of being under the Christmas tree this year.
Those hoping to at least get their mitts on a Nook before preordering it will also likely be disappointed. Reps from Barnes and Noble have said that only select high-volume stores will get the benefit of in-store demonstration units, and then not until December 7th. Those same stores will also stock the Nook, but only with “very limited inventory” and after an undisclosed date.
So what you see is more or less what you’re going to get for the rest of the year. Amazon is king, and the rest of the e-Reader world follows in their wake.