New Kindle, same problems

As seemingly every media outlet has mentioned, Amazon released the Kindle 2.0, and the press fawning is more notable than the gadget itself. To be sure, its stats are impressive, and maybe this one will be better made than 1.0. Its big problem, however, still looms: DRM and software. You don’t own a “book” bought with the Kindle—you have a temporary license for it. If Amazon discontinues the Kindle, or declares bankruptcy, or has any of the myriad of other problems companies are susceptible to, your investment is as solid as the wireless transmission of the book itself.

To quote an earlier post:

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

To be sure, in a few circumstances the Kindle is superior, and Megan McArdle enumerates some here: “I don’t think it’s for everyone, but for a subset of people like me–people who buy a lot of new books every year, so that the half-price books make it cost effective, people who spend a lot of time in transit, and people who travel a lot for work–it’s a godsend.” If you’re moving every six months, or likely to be deployed on a Navy ship or sub, or tend to read any given book only once but read many books per year, the Kindle might be worthwhile. For the rest of us, its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) makes it terribly unappealing.

13 responses

  1. I like the idea of the Kindle, and I’m really pleased that my book is available for the device, but I don’t see myself buying one, mostly because I haven’t seen any indication that it’s useful for anything other than recreational reading. What I need is a professional e-reader—not a device that strips down other formats into HTML-like text, but one that can actually show me PDFs and other files with their original formatting intact. The forthcoming Plastic Logic reader appears to do just that, and it (or something like it) could be a real boon to people in law, business, academia, journalism, etc., especially those of us who wish we could take large portions of our highly specialized personal libraries with us when we travel.

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  2. Thanks for the interesting post (and links to others). I have never tried reading on a Kindle (or on any other similar device), but I’ve been very skeptical of it. You raise an especially good point about the temporary license to the book. The music industry, if they had their druthers, would license music in the same way. The iPod is analogous to the Kindle in a great many respects — and I do not own one of those either!

    I like Jeff’s idea (above) better: something that would preserve the book in its original, as-published format, with all the benefits that only electronic gadgets can bring. But even then, I doubt I would ever become a convert from books — paper-cuts, dust, mildew and all. :)

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  3. Pingback: Time Is Still On Their Side. : Just Write

  4. The point of the kindle is not to give you a physical copy of the book. If you wanted that you could just buy the book from Amazon. This is for portability and convenience. And there’s so much room for improvement. We don’t hardly have records or CDs anymore, but most people seem to be comfortable with this (and I would argue that a really good song is just as important as a really good book).
    I plan to use the kindle for classes. This way I don’t have to carry all my books around for my english major. I can highlight passages on the kindle and take notes on a notebook just as I would normally. It will also save me money as most of the books I will be reading (assuming they are included in the 300,000 offered) will be available for cheaper on the Kindle than for the physical copy.
    The kindle is also able to get newpapers articles. This is great for someone who has a really basic cell plan or doesnt have time to watch tv or listen to the news everyday. Its like a virtual (and green!) newspaper for people on the go. (and you can download the articles whenever you have the chance-on the bus, waiting for your coffee, before the start of a meeting- you don’t have to be at a computer with internet service or pick up a paper. Sounds like it has a lot of potential once people learn how to utilize the benefits fully :)

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    • All of which is true and none of which deals with the central problem of the Kindle: its Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). If Amazon goes kaput, so does your investment in books; if you want a different electronic reader, you’re effectively locked in; and Amazon’s license grants it the power to revoke your books. _That_ is the problem more than any other.

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      • And there’s another danger. Maggie, you hinted at it yourself when you said “we don’t hardly have records or CDs anymore”. With the higher production costs of physical books, which are passed on to customers in the form of cheaper prices for digital books, and with the publishing industry in dire straits as it is, how long before physical books are basically a thing of the past? As you say, not many people buy vinyl records anymore. One of these days nobody will even manufacture them, taking all choice in the matter away from consumers. The same could happen with printed books if we reach the point where the vast majority of the buyers have electronic readers and only buy digital copies of books. Right now, you can choose to buy books in either or both formats; but eventually, publishers may decide that too few people are buying printed books to make it worth the effort on their part, and then either stop producing them entirely or raise their prices to a point where most consumers can’t even afford them.

        I think this would be a tremendous loss. (And yes, I still have vinyl records too. :)

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  5. What about when Amazon has updates from the kindle?
    Is it true that it can wipe your books and that publishers have put limits on how many times you can redownload the same title before having to repurchase?

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    • It’s all about transition and progress though. Creatively speaking (which is really what is important about music, isn’t it) musicians are still producing great songs. That type of emotion is something that even a dying industry can’t take out of people. And the need to express those emotions are just as strong. Whether expressed in music or in writing, they will always be expressed. I don’t think that we should focus on if people will continue to publish physical books because the physical copy of the book isnt what is important to society as a whole. Its the creation of something full of emotion and made to share these emotions with the rest of the world. Isn’t that why we tell stories? Isn’t that why we record history? So that these times and feelings that come upon us have some sort of justification of existence through the process of being written down?
      I think that the publishing industry should worry not about becoming obsolete, but should consider how they are going to adapt with the changing format of distributing what people will always be writing.
      And I agree that there is definitely something special about holding a book in your hand and feeling the pages between your fingers and smelling that old book smell. I think that there are a lot of people who agree (you still have your records after all) people aren’t ready to give up their libraries of book yet. Books are like friends and electronic versions have never been as good. Publishers definitely have some new things to consider, but they shouldnt be worried about the elimination of physical books all together.

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      • Not all change is good, nor is all progress (so-called). Let me give you one example of a consequence of the “iTunesification” of the music industry. Because you can now buy any individual song you like, people buy entire albums much less often than they once did. Therefore, artists are becoming less concerned with producing full, cohesive albums, and more concerned with producing EPs or even just single “hits”. This will only get worse, I think, until the concept of the album begins to go away completely and artists just release songs one at a time, and fewer and fewer of them. The whole thing becomes much more about commercial success than about making a larger musical statement. In the past, an artist could get his less commercial musical statements heard, either through non-release album tracks or b-sides to singles. Now, though, there will be a financial disincentive to produce any track that studio execs don’t think will sell well on iTunes, Amazon, etc.

        As to your other point, Maggie, I disagree that physical books (one species of cultural artifact) aren’t what’s important to society as a whole. Physical books say something about a culture that digital books can’t quite compete with. Physical books also have many advantages over digital ones (just as digital books have some advantages over print ones). For example, physical books are much more durable. They’re also technology-resistant, requiring only the ability to read, irrespective of the device, user-interface, etc. They layout, design, choice of paper and binding, etc., all contribute to a book’s message, most (or all) of which is lost in a digital format. Physical books can be loaned to friends, borrowed from libraries, sold to used bookstore or on eBay. Not so (or at least not so easily) digital books. And so on.

        I’m not ready to say goodbye to physical books, and it sounds like you aren’t either. But I can see a possible, even *probable* future, perhaps even within our lifetimes, where the expense of producing physical books (as compared to digital) makes them literally a thing of the past. What a loss that would be!

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  6. I still can’t agree with you about the benefits of physical books. Physical books are records of culture, society, everything just as digital books are. They still have the same words and the same meaning regardless of the format in which they are printed. As far was how the book is printed giving signals to the reader about the book. That is completely true. However, these signals are certainly transferable to digital formats. How books are bound, what their covers look like, layout, etc are all marketing techniques used by the writer and publisher to attract the type of reader that would be interested in the book. Right now, there aren’t very good ways to transfer all of these over to digital format. But with the changing times, ways to convey these messages will be developed and communicated to the consumers (and have already begun, as the Nook has color pictures of covers at the bottom).
    It may be a new way to convey the old messages, but these messages are a vital part of the book and methods will be found.
    Lending methods will also be developed, as they are also an essential element of books. We can burn CDs with music currently. Libraries will find ways to lend out digital books if that is what it comes to. Everything will be solved in a new way if it is necessary, I don’t think that this is a loss.
    I hope that you don’t truly believe that our society would allow for books as symbols of culture to be lost or to lose any part of their meaning. People are not so money oriented as to be blind to the beauty in music and written word. There will be actions and pressure on the creators of these digital devices that will contain our culture to retain much of these elements that humanity holds close.

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    • I think I am more cynical than you are. :) I do believe that commercial interests can (and probably will) trump concerns to preserve beauty for its own sake. I don’t think physical books will completely disappear — at least, not for some centuries to come — but they could easily become extremely expensive rarities, or even museum pieces. I think that if the powers that be had their way, we would all pay some kind of licensing fee each time we read a book (as oppose to the “you bought it, you own it” model currently in place with physical books). Anyway, I’ve said about as much as I can here, so I think I’ll leave it there.

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  7. I’m a little late to this very fascinating debate about the value of traditional print books versus ebooks. I just bought a Kindle, and the DRM issue is one that I worry about too. But I could not pass up the convenience. So the jury is out for me still. But, when they invented the ball point pen, much of the argument made here regarding print books was made when the ball point pen was invented (and the movable type press). Now, we use keyboards and handwriting is almost obsolete altogther. I am not sure that a love of any medium is worth the kerfuffle. For us, as individuals, yes, because we love what we love, but as a society, not so much, as I, for one, am happy to forgo the stone tablet in exhange for the digital tablet…:)… just a thought.

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  8. I happen to be an author of both print and Ebooks. The move from print to Ebooks is happening now, and accelerating very quickly. It really isn’t up to us, it is primarily a function of consumer economics. An Ebook copy is virtually free to produce for the publisher, vs. the extreme production, shipping and shelving costs of a physical copy. With print-on-demand (POD) we will always be able to get a book in physical form, but in a decade an Ebook will cost $6 while a print book will cost $30. The choice will be up to the consumer.

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