Kindlling eBook Openness

Amazon Kindle has certainly accelerated awareness and interest in eBooks. My spouse, son, and I have been sharing (i.e. fighting over) a Kindle for the last couple of weeks, and the consensus opinion is that Amazon definitely got some things very right with its solution. Seamless, untethered acquisition of content really does transform the experience. The widely noted complaints around 1980s-esque appearance and usability issues (can’t hold without accidentally pressing buttons) certainly are factors – the Sony Reader 505 is a much more refined industrial design. But the real barrier with Kindle is much more fundamental: it’s an entirely closed system.
Buying eBooks in a proprietary vendor-specific format that can only be used on that vendor’s device is a mug’s game. Kindle is far more closed even than iPod, which started out and have remained primarily players for MP3s, easily made from any audio CD. While Kindle supports a couple of non-DRM publication formats (unfortunately not yet PDF or EPUB), there’s almost no supply of non-DRM commercial content, a situation unlikely to change any time soon. Amazon touts 90,000 titles on the Kindle Store but searching for any topic will quickly reveal that it’s still quite a thin selection – a substantial number of the titles seem to be relatively obscure treatises and for-sale DRMed versions of public domain works. Leaving aside quality issues with the titles, Kindle Store selection of consumer-relevant content feels somewhat less comprehensive than an average major-airport bookstore. Underwhelming, yes – but the real zinger is that you’re completely out of luck if Amazon’s sole-source store doesn’t have what you want to read.
For a healthy eBook ecosystem, readers need to be able to choose where they want to get their content, and where they want to read it. That’s what Adobe is working to enable. Admittedly we still have a lot of work to do, but there’s going to be some major steps forward in the very near future. Sony and Adobe announced back in June that Sony Reader products would gain support for the EPUB open eBook standard, reflow capabiliies for PDF, and Adobe’s DRM, supported by hundreds of online bookstores and libraries. Adobe has also noted that we’ll be enhancing the DRM support in Adobe Digital Editions to enable content transfer across multiple PCs and devices. Yesterday Adobe open sourced a tool to validate EPUB titles for conformance to the IDPF standard.
Heading off to a sunny beach, Kindle in hand, I thank Amazon for taking eBooks a major step forward in 2007, and I applaud Jeff Bezos and the Lab126 team for their creativity and persistence. Amazon clearly has an incentive to maximize its retail opportunities. As the open eBook ecosystem grows, dedicated reading devices, convergence devices, and PCs improve as platforms for reading, and it becomes clear that “cornering the market” with a sole-source/sole-device solution is not going to fly, I hope that Amazon (already an IDPF member) will end up becoming a major participant in, and contributor to, the broader digital publishing ecosystem.

One Response to Kindlling eBook Openness

  1. bowerbird says:

    amazon didn’t seem to think that
    creating a “new” format would be
    an “obstacle” to them, which only
    reinforces my “formats aren’t
    really all that important” message
    on your last blog post…
    [ Neither did Kodak think that adopting a new format (FlashPix) would be an “obstacle” to their success in digital cameras. Oops. Time will tell but my perspective remains that standardized, interoperable formats (JPEG, PDF, MP3, DVD) are very important to success in establishing broadly-adopted consumer content platforms. In fact I can’t think of a counter-example (given that only a small minority of iPod content is FairPlay, which Apple is now being forced to move away from in favor of interoperable formats) -B ]