On the Kindle and e-books

The problem with the Kindle, Amazon’s new e-book thingy, is the problem with every e-book thingy I’ve encountered — namely, that they’re all designed as the last link in a proprietary supply chain. They’re not reading devices; they’re a place to read the e-books you’ve bought from their store. Everyone complains about the DRM, whether it’s Amazon’s, Sony’s, Microsoft’s or Palm’s, but the DRM is quite honestly a symptom rather than the problem.

iPods have DRM, but nobody complains as much about it, because it’s easy to route around: iPods are reasonably format-neutral in that they’ll play run-of-the-mill MP3s as well as AACs, and tracks ripped from your own CDs as well as those bought from iTunes. The DRM is something you can route around or even ignore, depending on your source. Compare that with an e-book reader whose design is to support the content from the associated store; other formats are possible, but it’s not as easy.

An iPod is designed for listening to music; an e-book reader is designed not for reading e-books, but for buying them. And that’s a mistake. Imagine an iPod whose purpose was to support the iTunes store, and not the other way around. It would bomb. But that’s exactly what e-book ventures have tried to do: build reading devices whose primary purpose is to support (read: create) a market for yet another online store. Why else is Amazon producing one?

Instead, they should be making reading devices that are as format-neutral as possible and that focus on reading text from whatever source. Get away from the book paradigm. If people can appreciate the device as a portable reading device that supports content they either already have or can get for free, then the value of that $400 device is easier to see. As iPods are valuable even if you never buy a track from iTunes, an e-book reader should be valuable even if you never buy a book from an online store. (Why spend $400 just for the privilege of buying books?)

You know who should be making an e-book reader? Adobe. Since PDF is already a de facto standard, at the very least we won’t have the barrier to entry created by yet another proprietary text format.

Further reading: Charlie Stross on the Kindle and the Sony PRS-505.