STEVE MURPHY: Amazon had a terrific idea with the Kindle: make books as portable as music. Make a single device to buy, store and read all the books you could ever want to own. A hand-held paradise for those who like to both read and travel at the same time.
But… they’re doing it wrong. They’ve taken this great idea and, with the help of publishers, tarnished it so badly it will not be easy to clean.
First there was the drama over text-to-speech, which I’ve written about at Perpetual Post in the past. Book publishers thought this robotic voice would eat into audiobook sales, which is an absurd proposition to anyone who, like me, has tried the text-to-speech feature and knows the hell that would be using this emotionless function regularly. But the publishers whined and Amazon folded; they were willing to get rid of text-to-speech at any publisher’s request.
And that’s when the real trouble started with Amazon, the first time it became clear that what I thought I purchased and what Amazon thought I purchased did not align. When this text-to-speech decision was announced, I (like all Kindle owners) had already purchased some books. When I purchased them, I understood they came with text-to-speech. But then all of the sudden, text-to-speech no longer worked, on books I’d already purchased. Which means Amazon remotely disabled functionality of something I’d already paid for.
And so the rift was exposed. I had not bought the text-to-speech of that book. I thought I had, but now it was taken away. As an analogy, if was as if Amazon stopped by my house, took a DVD I purchased, and scratched it so none of the special features worked, then left. Without asking my permission.
But you know what? Text-to-speech on the Kindle is terrible. Worthless. I don’t really miss it.
But then came Round Two of Amazon vs. its Customers. It was revealed (the hard way, of course) that books you purchase for the Kindle can only be downloaded a certain number of times. Oh, and that limited number is set on a per-publisher basis and is not published anywhere.
This became a problem once the Kindle iPhone app was released. Here’s how it happens: I buy a book on my Kindle. It downloads. That’s one time. I then open up my Kindle app on the iPhone, and tell it to download that book. That’s two times. I decide to take that app off my phone for a vacation to save space. When I put it back on, the book has to re-download from Amazon. That’s three times. Then I upgrade or replace my iPhone or Kindle, and when I get my new device I try to download the book…. and I’m denied. Why? Because you can only download the book you paid for a certain, undisclosed number of times.
And of course, that could be ten times, but it could also be two times. There’s no way to know, and it could be different for every book. And the only solution is to buy the book again. So now, as it turns out, I didn’t buy the content of the book. I bought the right to download the book some unknown number of times. That’s not what I was told. I don’t recall that being brought up at the Kindle press events.
And then this week came Round Three.
Amazon accidentally sold illegally published Kindle copies of 1984 and several other novels. A publisher without the rights to the book had put the book up for sale, and Amazon allowed people to buy it. This, it seems, should be Amazon’s problem. I didn’t illegally purchase 1984, they illegally sold it to me. If this were a real book… well, there wouldn’t be anything they could do about it. But because it’s digital and because they can… Amazon logged into every account that purchased this book which Amazon should not have sold in the first place, and deleted it, crediting the purchaser’s account.
So now Amazon’s position is that this is their device, and you are essentially renting the content. You can’t put the content on any other device except those licensed by Amazon, and even adding it to those authorized devices begins a countdown to your inability to download it again. They advertise lots of cool Kindle features… but at any time they are willing to turn them off, even for books you’ve already purchased. And now, if Amazon screws up and violates a company’s copyright by selling pirated content… they just ‘correct’ it by taking that legally-purchased content away from paying customers.
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, wrote a very nice apology after this 1984 fiasco blew up, saying this was a huge and unacceptable mistake and they’re very sorry… but that doesn’t really change anything for me. I bought an expensive device so that I could buy content for it. I don’t want that content subject to the whims of publishers after I’ve purchased it. I don’t want features remotely disabled. It’s my content, I paid for it. I want to own it, keep it, download it as many times as I want, and use it on as many devices as I need to. I don’t even care that they have to be Amazon devices, the DRM is a whole other argument. But once I buy content from Amazon, that content should not be altered without my express permission.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Steve is right, of course. And it gets at the heart of the beauty of books- one talks about them, shares th, and they remain, just as you experienced them, on your bookshelf to either be enjoyed again or passed on to another. But not with the Kindle. And this is a problem.
The Kindle does replicate the reading experience, if not build upon it. The portability of a device that allows me to feel sucked into a given work is a tremendous development. Furthermore, getting newspapers and magazines delivered straight to my Kindle has been a fantastic experience. Reading the New York Times by the pool, or Newsweek while I work out, has never been such a low-maintenance experience.
But my big fear, what kept me from racing out to buy the Kindle on the day it became available, was the elimination of both the permance and portability of books. The idea that someone can take my purchased book away from me extends beyond what should be my rights as a consumer, as detailed by Steve. It’s the idea that, at any given point, the book I am reading on the Kindle can change in form or disappear entirely. As a bibliophile, this fills me with despair.
Lately, I’ve found two opposing forces taking hold of me. On the one hand, new books I am reading on the Kindle are an unfettered pleasure. I am seldom anywhere without my Kindle, and waiting in line for one product or another is now just a chance to get some extra reading in-something that in our multitasking but Kindle-free world, I often found difficult to accomplish.
I’ve also been stocking up on 50 cent books from my local library’s donated books sale. I’ve enjoyed getting not-so-new books that once belonged to someone else, in building the collection of ideas represented throughout my house. I watched as my fiction shelves fill up in one room, my history books added to in another room. I enjoy stepping back from the shelf, taking in the range of creations before me.
And a few times, I’ve awakened in the middle of the night. I don’t have chocolate cravings at that time, but word cravings. I make my way into the library, reach for a book, and just as it was when I first read it, the same experience is there. Or I’ll take on something new, knowing what I am experiencing for the first time is the same as the previous owner, and aware of a time in the future when the same book will be experienced by another.
Kindle has yet to find a way to replicante this experience; indeed, their recent “rent, not own” steps take us further from this very ideal.