For those enamored with the Kindle, two recent articles highlight its troubled business model.
First, we learned what happens to your Kindle, and all of your purchased books, if Amazon turns off your account:
Your Kindle still works, and the books you already bought for it will work, but you can’t download those books ever again (better have made a backup on your PC!), you can’t receive your magazine, blog, or newspaper subscriptions on it anymore, you can’t email documents to Amazon to have them converted and sent to your Kindle, and you can’t buy any new books for the device. That $360 device only works so long as Amazon decides it will work.
For consumers, this demonstrates the worst aspects of the Kindle’s business model. If you buy a Kindle and any books, you are permanently required to remain a customer of Amazon if you wish to retain the books you purchased. If you decide to buy a device from a different company, you have to re-buy your books. If Amazon goes out of business, drops the Kindle, or just decides they no longer like you as a customer, your hefty investment disappears.
Second, the Kindle doesn’t work for libraries. As one avid user wrote:
Libraries. They’re really important. Do we really want there to be a direct connection between how well-heeled you are and how well-read you can be? Have we figured out what happens to public lending libraries in the digital world?
What happens to poor readers in a world where reading a book costs $360 for a device, and where each book must be purchased from Amazon as a new item (no lending, no used books)? Does reading books become an activity only practiced by the well-to-do? Realistically thinking, the market will correct some of the problem here–we’re not going to see dominance by any particular stand-alone reading device, they’re always going to be something of a niche product. But even if we assume that reading can take place across a variety of widely available and inexpensive devices (think cell phones and Gameboys), that still doesn’t solve the issue of access to tightly locked-down material.
There are obvious solutions to all of these problems.
As book publishers, we would be wise to act now, to learn from the mistakes of the music industry, and to establish the market and the behaviors common in that market from the very start. When the record companies failed to respond to Napster by offering a reasonable alternative, they allowed the creation of a culture that devalued their product and encouraged rampant copyright infringement. Do we want to find ourselves in the same situation in a few years or are there things we can do proactively to avoid it?
The first thing to understand is that there are always people who want things for free and will go to great lengths to avoid paying for your product. Although most rationalize their greed by claiming that they’re striking a blow against corporations or for copyright reform, they’re really just a bunch of avaricious cheapskates. Obvious evidence is seen in the piracy of iPhone apps, where you have people illegally trading $0.99 applications (no conspicuous overpricing to complain about) from independent developers (no evil corporations to strike down). No matter what you do, these people aren’t going to pay for your product. Since there has yet to be any digital rights management (DRM) system invented that hasn’t been cracked almost instantly, it’s not worth spending a lot of time and money worrying about stopping these folks. If you do, you’ll end up inconveniencing and alienating your real customers, a much bigger group, that can be swayed away from file-sharing by a usable, high-quality product.
By providing a product that suffers the limitations of lock-in and prevents users from doing the things they’re used to doing with books, Amazon is encouraging potentially honest customers to become copyright infringers. Most of the problems seen in the two articles linked above can easily be circumvented by breaking the Kindle’s DRM and illegally uploading and downloading files — that’s the shortest path to satisfaction available right now. The record companies have taken years to slowly realize that their DRM schemes were driving customers to illegal alternatives and are slowly eliminating DRM to much public acclaim.
The e-book market is still nascent. We have a chance to build a culture where quality and convenience make our product worth buying. But offering a limited, locked-down product that is less usable than a print book strikes me as a failure to learn from the past.