Kindle for the iPhone: The fatal threshold?
The briefest of thoughts, here, really deserving of more consideration than I’m going to be able to give it in the time I’ve got. Perhaps you can expand on it.
I wasn’t at all interested in the original Kindle, for no other reason than that the form factor seemed really clunky and poorly-resolved. And living in Finland, short-sightedly deprived of the brilliantly-conceived Whispernet service, I’ve had no need of the rather more attractive Kindle 2.
But as it happens – don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming from a mile away – I already have an e-reader platform in my pocket that’s not reliant for its bandwidth on any deals Amazon might forge with US carriers. And, OK, it doesn’t have a lusciously crisp e-Ink screen, and its battery life isn’t quite what a Kindle might be able to boast, but it easily breaches the “good enough” threshold. It’s called an iPhone.
So of course I downloaded Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone application (iTMS link) the moment it went live the other day, and sixty seconds later was tucking into my first Kindle book (Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which I recommend).
And the experience was convincing, in a lot of ways, and well on its way to pleasurable. I was able to adjust the type to a comfortable size, the iPhone UI is very well suited to flipping pages, and the battery didn’t seem to suffer overmuch from two-three hour jags of reading. I did miss some of the Kindle features I’ve read about – being able to take notes, or tap on a word to open up a Wikipedia link – but overall the convenience more than compensated for the drawbacks. Again: not perfect. Good enough.
I finished The Caryatids last night, and the feeling I experienced as I laid my phone on the night table was identical to that familiar, mellow melancholy of putting down a book at the end of a satisfying read. Except that I didn’t have to pay a premium for a hardcover edition I did not want, I didn’t have to tote around a book with an embarrassing cover – a factor which I imagine actually suppresses SF sales more than is generally recognized – and I don’t now have a legacy object to hump around from continent to continent like the other 5,000 volumes in our library. For certain kinds of things I want to read, this is an unbeatable bargain.
So. Expanding the audience for Kindle-formatted books would certainly appear to be a brilliant move on Amazon’s part. I spent ten bucks there that I would not have otherwise; I bought soon after its release a book I ordinarily would have waited to pick up in paperback; I seemingly helped reinscribe the critical associative chain book – Amazon – Kindle, however incrementally. And there are many, many times more iPhone users in the world than people who can or ever will plunk down the cash for a single-purpose, US-only device. The logic seems unassailable. But I’m not so sure it isn’t actually, in the long run, a fatal blunder for the entire business model Kindle is predicated on.
For the moment a Kindle-formatted work becomes decoupled from Kindle, the object, it becomes fungible, just another kind of digital document – less like a book and more like an mp3, in other words. I can use it on this device, I can use it on that device. Where have I seen that pattern before? And how much in the way of constraint am I willing to put up with in my music files? Perhaps more to the point, how much am I willing to pay for them?
All of a sudden, the DRM and pricing models which had seemed marginally acceptable – and I do mean marginally – in return for the convenience of a bespoke device/service experience are revealed as the absurdly overbearing impediments they are. I can’t send this file to someone else? Why? I can send a PDF to anyone I want. Amazon wants me to pay $13.99 for a subscription to the New York Times? Why? I can look at the Times any time I want, for nothing, in the browser that’s a tap away from the Kindle application.
And the genius Kindle/Whispernet integration, which points so clearly toward the only sustainable future of product/service value propositions – comes-with-device connectivity, no configuration, no setup, no additional expense, no hassle? Whispernet only works to Amazon’s advantage if I get to experience it, and perceive it to be clearly advantageous over the alternatives. It’s entirely irrelevant to my experience of Amazon e-books on the iPhone.
What the Kindle for iPhone winds up doing, ultimately, is undermining the value proposition DRM-secured e-books are founded on. There are some nice provisions in the application, but ultimately it’s not perceptibly different from reading a free book in Stanza. The only thing Amazon might have to offer to justify the expense is the depth of its catalogue, and at least as things stand now I challenge you to find even ten books you want to read in the Kindle shop. (It’s all lowest-common-denominator noise: technothrillers of the Captain Codpiece variety, Harry Potter, and an enormous tide of self-help and “productivity” tripe.)
So oddly enough, Kindle for iPhone winds up selling me not on Kindle, and not on anything provided by Amazon at all, but on an idea I’ve been resisting since June 29th, 2007: reading on my phone. I’ll definitely be doing more of that. I’m not at all sure Amazon will factor in the equation. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’ve planted the seed of an idea in a great many heads that turns out to be injurious to their longer-term prospects.