Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Re-Kindling The eBook Market

The sound of war drums is now unmistakable, and it's announcing a very good war.

You may remember I have already griped about the state of the market for eBooks. No wonder then that the news of the Amazon Kindle Store opening in the UK, too, was music to my ears. Teamed with the gorgeous new Kindle (yes, I am getting one - it's already on the pre-order) this turned into a true symphony (as opposed to an opera).

Some retailers have responded already, albeit in a somewhat confusing fashion. Selling all your stuff half price does not exactly send a reassuring message to the consumer. Others seem to have remained oblivious, at least for some titles (admittedly this seems to be changing almost as I type this). While both these are selling Sony Pocket Reader at a heavy discount (a very good pick, as I raved here), and the Sony Touch Reader is a truly well designed and beautiful device (read about it here before it's replaced), I believe that they will all lose out to the complete Amazon proposition. And I'm going to tell you why, too...

I won't belabour (again) the importance of pricing for eBooks. That really should be obvious. What I am going to emphasise here is the importance of the whole ecosystem that surrounds an eBook reader - a successful one, of course.

Let me first nail my colours to the mast when it comes to DRM: it's BAD. We do not need it. It is harmful, and should go the way of the dodo (or worse). Currently, almost all commercial eBooks and readers use it, in one way or another. Exceptions like Cory Doctorow are (too) far and few in between. Yet, the Kindle ecosystem manages to create an impression of DRM almost not being there, or at least not being as disruptive as it is usually. How was this achieved. First and foremost, Amazon put in the effort (and the money) into developing reading software for almost all the major platforms. Notably, not Linux. I'm watching you, Amazon. But anyway...

Building on this, comes the Whispersync, the system that synchronises your library across all the devices you use. And not just that: it will also sync information about where you left off your reading, so when you pick up any of your devices, and open a book, you are guaranteed to be easily transported to the exact same page you closed it on. Of course, all this magic depends on the Internet connectivity, and that's where the new Kindle's connectivity options come into play. Even the basic, really cheep (by today's standards) version has built-in WiFi, and the slightly more expensive one bundles a 3G modem, too. And Amazon did not stop there either. The 3G connection, both for book downloads and sync, and browsing is free in a long, long, list of countries. No contracts, no operators, no cost! 

The whole system truly competes for number one spot of the "cloud" services of today. Yes, it does only one thing, but it does it exceedingly well. This philosophy has always stood Unix (and Linux, of course) in good stead. Better build a set of simple tools that do one thing, but do it well, than create an unwieldy Swiss-army-knife-like contraption that never fits all its parts together well. 

Combine all these things (the device, its ecosystem, lowest eBook prices) and surely we have a winner. Will the others catch up? In terms of prices and raw capabilities - very likely. But they are already a bit late for the game. It is difficult to see a lot of "cloudy" ecosystems begin successful at the same time. Unless of course everyone agrees to be compatible with Amazon's - but that is probably too much to expect even if otherwise I may never want to leave, having invested in my Kindle library. It would be like every time you buy (or even just rent) a new house, you have to leave most of your dearest belongings - including family portraits and silverware - in the old one. Probably worse. If you left your physical possessions behind at least there'd be a remote chance of someone using - maybe even enjoying - them. With digital files locked in a DRMed walled garden it's more like burning them. And we know who used to burn book, don't we?

So, re-Kindling of the eBook market may end up burning quite a few. Knowing the state the current market is in, that may not be such a bad thing after all...