I broke my Kindle over a year ago. But I still only buy Kindle ebooks.
I read them on an iPad, mostly.
Kindle isn’t simply an ugly little sliver of off-white plastic and aluminium with a mould-coloured display, much like Coca-Cola isn’t just bubbly brown liquid sloshing and fizzing inside a red can. Kindle is a living thing, spreading from the E Ink reader you can buy from Amazon, to iPhones and iPads, Macs and PCs and Android phones. If you own a device that a fair number of other people also own, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to read Kindle books on it. If not now, soonish.
Some of the parallels that people draw between the digital transformation of the publishing industry and the music industry – the preferred reference point, since it maps over the most neatly – are a stretch. Paper books aren’t going anyway anytime soon. But digital publishing is now at the same kind of inflection point the music industry was at few years ago: disposable devices vs sustainable platforms.
What happened? The core technology has gotten cheap. In the beginning, audio players were expensive because dense, portable storage was too. Storage got cheap, and you could buy an MP3 player from Taiwan or semi-reputable companies for a fraction of the cost of an iPod – and it would play twice as many formats. eReaders were expensive because electrophoretic displays, like E Ink, were expensive. Not anymore. Cheap readers that promise to turn all kinds of files and formats into digestible letters for your eyeballs abound. The line was irreversibly crossed when Amazon cut the price of the Kindle 2 below $US200. Plastic Logic just killed their expensive reader. The gigantic Skiff is dead, too. Hardware is a commodity.
Even after the flood of cheaper, generic, more open alternatives, iPods still make up around 70 per cent of the MP3 player market. Why? iTunes. The platform. Not coincidentally, it’s got around 70 per cent of the legal music download market in the US. iTunes made it easy to buy music (and later, TV shows and movies). It blew up when it spread to Windows. And once you bought in, you stuck with it, even though FairPlay DRM meant you could only play stuff you bought on iTunes on Apple devices. (And now it’s dead.)
Kindle’s position is eerily similar. It’s got 80 per cent of the ebook market. It’s the wildly dominant service because it was the first one to make it easy to buy ebooks and get them onto your reader. The books are wrapped up in a proprietary format and DRM – unlike the more open EPUB – but they’re available on lots of different platforms and devices. Once you buy in, you stick with it.
Kindle’s position looks shakier than iTunes, threatened by competition from Barnes & Noble and iBooks, and its tense relations with publishers. But it’s not all that dissimilar from what iTunes went through years ago, battling labels who wanted to siphon off as much as money as possible while working to cripple it at the same time, afraid of a middleman, as they saw it, building too much power. (A funny point: The labels tried to build Amazon into a credible iTunes-fighter; now the publishers are trying to build iBooks into a credible Kindle fighter.)
If anything, Kindle’s in a better position than iTunes, since it doesn’t restrict you to Amazon’s hardware. It’s a true service. iTunes emerged to sell iPods at high profit margins. iBooks exists to help sell iPads and iPhones. Contrast that to what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tells Fortune: “Our strategy with the ebookstore is ‘buy once, read everywhere.’ If you want to read on your iPhone, if you want to read on your BlackBerry. We want people to be able to read their books anywhere they want to read them.” He doesn’t to sell you a Kindle. He wants to sell you Kindle.
So there’s two choices, really, if you’re looking at ebooks. An agnostic piece of eReader hardware that’ll probably read a lot of the files and formats that are out there. It’ll work, reasonably well, though it might not be all that reasonably easy to use. You’ll probably do all of your reading on that one particular slab, if only because it’s a pain to move the files around and keep them in sync. Or you can pick a platform, making a long-term investment in a service that you plan to stick with. It’ll work, on at least a handful of devices, and it’ll be really easy to get your books on all of them and pick up right where you left off, no matter what screen you’re reading on.
I’m picking the platform that’ll outlast the others, hoping I’ll be able to read everything I’ve paid money for in a few years, on any screen. Right now, that seems like Amazon. At least, I tend to side with the guy who says, “We think of it as a mission.”