Over the holiday season, Amazon’s Kindle became the most gifted item in Amazon’s history. On Christmas day, Amazon sold more Kindle copies of books than actual physical books. Without a doubt, E-readers are the future of the book industry, and the Kindle is leading the way. Or is it?
Unfortunately, it isn’t. The Kindle sucks.
The Kindle, which was one of the first mainstream E Ink readers and easily the most popular E-book reader out there, allows you to download digital copies of books, newspapers, and other publications for reading on an E-ink display. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, archaic DRM restrictions and totalitarian actions by Amazon have prevented the Kindle from becoming a worthy purchase.
Since it’s impossible to have an article about the Kindle without talking about the 1984 debacle, we’ll get that out of the way. In July of 2009, Amazon remotely removed titles (including 1984, ironically) from consumer’s Kindles without their permission. Customers were refunded the purchase price, but no immediate explanation was given. It was later revealed that the publisher of the novels didn’t own the rights to publish, but does their mistake grant Amazon the right to digitally intrude into consumer’s devices to correct their mistake? If a bookstore sold paperbacks that were later found to be illegally sold, would they have the right to come into your home and take it back? Of course not, that’s ludicrous. However, Amazon had no problem doing the digital version of just that.
If you ever decide to move to a different company’s E-reader you’re out of luck, none of the books you bought through Amazon will work.Amazon sells E-books in their own proprietary DRM protected format, AZW. Much like the DRM protected music of days past it lets Amazon restrict how you use your purchased material. If you ever decide to move to a different company’s E-reader you’re out of luck. None of the books you bought through Amazon will work. If one day Amazon decides they don’t want you to own a book anymore, as in the 1984 incident, they can go ahead and take it from you. Similarly, the Kindle supports very few formats other than AZW. Of course you can convert from these formats to AZW using external tools, but then you run the risk of losing formatting.
In many ways, Amazon’s business model is similar to that of the digital distribution service Steam. Steam allows you to purchase video games and immediately download and play them. Purchases are tied to your Steam account, which means you can play them on any computer as long as you are logged in to Steam. Many people are fully rejecting Steam’s business model, arguing that Valve can pull the plug on Steam at any time, rendering all of your purchased games unplayable. In my research I found claims that Valve has said they would release a patch allowing people to play their games offline, but I could find no official statement.
The same could happen for the Kindle, albeit slightly differently. If Amazon ever decides to change the format of their DRM protected books, or for some reason the Kindle stops being produced, your purchased titles are only good for as long as your Kindle lasts. I own books purchased 15+ years ago, but how many people who own Kindles today will still own one 15 years from now? Thanks to the DRM protected books Amazon sells, if anyone decides they want an E-reader other than the Kindle all of their purchased material will become unusable.
One of the advantages of E-books is that they can be sold at a cheaper price than their paperback or hardcover counterparts since there’s no overhead of printing costs. This works great when the E-book you’re buying is in an open format that you’ll be able to keep and use forever, but for something in Amazon’s AZW format it just doesn’t make sense. How long will Amazon support files in the AZW format? What happens to the E-books sold in this format if Amazon decides to move to a different format? As we’ve seen with DRM protected music, this can cause problems such as people not being able to access the content they’ve purchased. About a year ago iTunes finally stopped selling DRM protected music, how long will it take before E-book sellers see the light as well?
Thankfully, not every company shares Amazon’s archaic views. Sony’s Reader Store recently changed so all of the content sold by them is in the wonderfully open, DRM free EPUB format. Also, four leading magazine publishers are now trying to come up with a DRM free standard to distribute digital magazines.
(UPDATE 1-25-09 – It has come to my attention that the Sony Reader Store does not, in fact, sell their books DRM free. They use the EPUB format, but unfortunately are still protected by a DRM solution provided by Adobe. Looks like we’ll still have to wait for DRM free books.)
At least one author has even found success by selling his book DRM free. David Pogue offered one of his books for sale DRM free for a year and compared the sales of it to the previous year’s DRM protected book’s sales. While piracy of his book did increase, sales also rose over the previous year’s numbers. As was found in the music and PC gaming industries, you can make money even without DRM.
What does the future hold? What can we as consumers do? Amazon has dominated the E-book market up until now, but 2010 looks to be the year of the E-reader. Everyone is trying to get into the market, and we can only hope that pressure from competitors forces Amazon to rethink their current stance on distribution. Until then, the only thing we can do is purchase E-readers from companies who support open formats, and if you already own a Kindle, protect your investment by converting your legally purchased books into a DRM-free PDF file.
Author’s Note: If you find any factual errors in this article, please let me know in the comments. I did my best to research everything thoroughly, but the possibility for errors still exists.