Quietly, Amazon has enabled a potentially transformative functionality for the Amazon Kindle device ecosystem called Whispercast. The service was launched with little fanfare, but it has the potential to enhance Kindle’s already-dominant control of the e-book device market. Whispercast launched on October 17, and it provides services for administrators who have a network of devices within their institution. The service allows administrators to register significant numbers of devices at once, or customize the device for each individual. Alternatively, existing owners of their own Kindles can register with the network and receive centrally managed services. Within an organization’s network, apps or content can be centrally managed as well as network access control.
The functionality is not radically different from the Whispersync service that Amazon released with Kindle when it was first launched. However, with Whispercast, it is now extending this control over the Kindle’s content to other parties. With the launch of this new service, Amazon is effectively moving to provide the necessary network administrative control over business and, in particular schools, that will require centralized management. Consider the power of being able to control the network of kindles within a school, managing the network of devices, the content on those devices, ensuring that it is all centrally managed and regularly updated as needed. If one is providing Kindles to a school or classroom, this type of control is vital to effectively managing those devices.
This also combines with the growing trend of centralized academic content sales.The model that seems to be winning out among publishers and distributors of higher education content is to include the content purchase directly from the institution, which is included directly as part of the tuition price. During a talk at the Tools of Change meeting in Frankfurt last month, William Chesser, VitalSource Technologies, discussed the variety of models for distributing content to students, which included single title sales, embedded sales and institutional purchase structures. From the perspective of students, having content that is embedded (at no apparent fee) is better for the student, in that they don’t directly pay for the content and they are assured of having all of the appropriate content at their fingertips without having to go through the additional step of purchasing content.
While this simplicity might work for the school, the faculty and the publishers, whether this is actually a good deal for the students is an open question. Generally, economic systems where there are payment intermediaries between suppliers and end-user-customers are not the most efficient. Consider the some data about the implications of disconnect between buyers in the market for surgical services, pharmaceutical sales in the US, or the academic library market for journals. All are examples of markets where the ultimate customer is detached from the payment process and each is an example of market dysfunction. While adding the course content as a component of course registration or university fees may be appealing at first glance, it isn’t obvious that this will lead to lower (or even competitive) prices for the students. It is also not obvious that the savings for the primary or secondary school districts that the price point of the devices is such that it is a better deal than traditional print distribution models (although it has been some time since I posited that argument). It could be possible with the significant price decreases of reading devices is making the calculation more competitive for reading devices.
There is little doubt that Amazon is becoming a key player in the higher education market, rapidly displacing the sales from traditional bookstores. Over the past two years, Amazon has increases its share of the college textbook market by about 6% to nearly a third of overall textbooks sales. It has also moved into the rental market for collegiate textbooks, when it announced in August it will offer a textbook rental system through which students can mail back well-kept books free of charge after 130 days. E-books are certainly another aspect of Amazon’s strategy, this new functionality will only add to that trend.