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.

16 responses to “Kindle for the iPhone: The fatal threshold?”

  1. Michael Anton Dila says :

    Adam, this is a great collection of thoughts. I guess the 84 million dollar question is how do we set books free? CDs and DVDs gave up their secrets to mp3 and ripped avis, etc. quite easily. Those digital formats accelerated the disruption of the media space, big time. We don not have the same access to easy to “translate” formats for the vast catalogue of stuff we want to read.

    I’m wondering how we start a pirate project. Not because I’m not willing to pay for books, but because only pirate disruption at scale will transform/unlock publishing’s move to the open plaforms of the web and mobile. That’s the lesson of music & video on the web, isn’t it?

    Meanwhile, low hanging fruit would be to develop smarter, better aggregators on free online content for better mobile reading experiences, no? Someone should port Diigo to iPhone, maybe? That, plus content aggreagation frameworks and you’ve got all you’ve described and more.

    freebook.com?

  2. chris finlay says :

    The Kindle feels like buying a mini disc player while knowing there are mp3 players out there. Dead end tech.

    Book publishers are dabbling in open platforms but are understandably hesitant. Epaper is emerging as strong tech to attach to but who knows where it will settle. Who would have thought so many would want to read on the iPhone’s tiny screen?

    Think a lot of the slow pace is because the population of book readers that are rabid fans and want to trade are not as great as the # of music listeners.

    Google books project has made a deal to unlock a lot of resources. http://books.google.com/

    Penguin is enriching content http://twurl.nl/k24nbi

    Publishers better get their act together though before everyone reads in 140 character bursts only.

    The internet content is “a mile wide & an inch deep” so how to handle distributing deep content. I can see where you are going with Diigo. Perhaps it is getting users to make the content smarter through highlights, tags, linkage, popularity, etc. Harnessing people without them knowing or with them knowing? CAPTCHA or Deli.cio.us?

  3. Cian says :

    Michael,
    Have you looked at piratebay, or mininova recently? They’re filled with ebooks. A bigger selection than you’ll find on Amazon, including lots of out of print stuff.

    There is a pretty big market for an ereader, where all the copyrights are irrelevant. Anyone who does a lot of travelling, and has a lot of reading to do. It includes academics, lawyers, consultants, etc. Whereas the Kindle just seems kind of weird to me as it seems to be aimed at people who buy disposable paperbacks.

  4. Rand says :

    Hey Adam,
    Some good thoughts. One thing though, regarding this comment:

    > …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.)

    Ironically, I found your site/blog by way of your book, Everyware, which I in fact acquired in Kindle form through the Kindle store! To get bootstrapped, Kindle needed to get critical mass of popular content, but I wouldn’t call it all ‘noise’ and ‘tripe’.

    I think of the Kindle device and the iPhone Kindle app as both complementary to traditional book reading. None replaces another, but together they expand the range of contexts in which I can access my library.

    I nearly always have my iphone at hand, so the kindle-app provides ready access to certain kinds of content with sufficient quality (eg a novel), but a sustained reading experience is clearly less satisfying than with the Kindle.

    At least for now, there is room in my bag for a dedicated reading device.

  5. AG says :

    …but I wouldn’t call it all ‘noise’ and ‘tripe’.

    Heh. I sit corrected.

    Seriously, though: could you find ten books you wanted to read?

  6. Cliff Gerrish says :

    Nice post. I arrived at a similar endpoint by way of a vastly different route. See my post: e-Books: Intertextuality, Boundaries and Doorways.
    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    http://blog.echovar.com/?p=765

  7. AG says :

    Lovely post, Cliff, and you’ve reawakened my desire to reckon with the deeper Joyce at some point.

    This is also the third time I’ve seen Norman O. Brown cited in the last two weeks, after a lapse in hearing the name of many, many years. A resurgence of sorts, do you think?

  8. Michal Migurski says :

    Your comment about SF covers? Spot-on. I’m currently reading a book whose cover I consciously keep concealed when I’m on BART – it has all that silver shit and star trek fonts that marks it as Danielle Steele For Dudes, yet the book itself does not suck.

    /me returns to read rest of post

  9. AG says :

    I had to stop New Riders from doing the foil treatment on Everyware‘s cover type.

    It was an early indicator that they didn’t understand the book at all. The editor called me excitedly, suggesting that I should say yes to the foil because, in so many words, it would give the book “a more tech-y feel.”

    I had to explain that that was precisely what I did not want the book to look like. To this day I cannot comprehend why they’d be willing to spend money on that, but not, like, a bibliography.

  10. Martha says :

    For me, having a vast library of free classics via the Gutenberg project, to dip into whenever I want, is an unbelievable luxury. All those times on the tube, or in a queue, or waiting for someone – filled happily! I read very quickly too, and paring down to two or three books to take away for a week was always a wrench before.

    I don’t use it for new stuff because, as you’ve observed, there seems to be no online equivalent (yet!)of the interesting, well, chosen bookshop, and I can’t be bothered wading through all the tripe. Will try your recommendation of The Caryatids though :)

  11. Dave says :

    Freebook.com? Authors already have a difficult enough time trying to get their novels published. Imagine when the publishers can’t even get any money for books being pirated. Having lost its own creativity, this generation wants to steal everything from the people who do create, it can’t manufacture anything for fear of frivolous lawsuits, and the only entertainment left is Reality TV. Doesn’t anybody see the cause-and-effect here?

  12. AG says :

    I’m not sure I understand your comment, Dave.

    At any rate, as in most of the arts, the notion that a full-time professional writer can or should make a living from leveraging their creative output in the medium of print is a historically recent idea.

    I’m not at all sure that this model necessarily deserves to survive; it certainly doesn’t “need” to. And I say this as a writer.

  13. Txvoodoo says :

    FAR more than 10 books. According to my “Manage your kindle” page, I found more than 10 books in the past 30 days. They range from scifi to fantasy to biography to politics to history to ‘chick lit’ to serious literature.

    If you can’t find 10 books you’d want to read, I suggest you’re so picky that a bookstore wouldn’t satisfy you, either.

  14. AG says :

    No, I just have better taste than you do. ; . )

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