Monday, December 10, 2007

Kindle and print

While looking for something else, I ran across the November 26 issue of Newsweek. The cover story was on Amazon's new Kindle e-book. Conveniently enough, the article is available online.

Overall I found the article pretty evenhanded, balancing the "print is inherently inefficient" side with the "books are inherently special" side. As usual, I think both sides have valid points. A few thoughts:
  • Yes, print is inherently inefficient. That doesn't mean it will die anytime soon. People still sent hand-delivered messages long after the telephone became widespread. Steam trains ran long after the diesel came along. Western Union only recently shut down its telegraph service.
  • On the other hand, it's hard to imagine print not giving way to bits over time and eventually reaching niche status. My completely unfounded guess is that it will end up more like blacksmithing than buggy whips.
  • Amazon is right to recognize that it's not enough just to have an electronic device that more or less looks like a book. The Kindle is not just a device but a service. Along with searchability and the potential for hyperlinks, Amazon hopes the killer app will be the "buy and read it right now" feature. Push a button (and pay Amazon a fee generally less than you'd pay for print) and the Kindle will download whatever book you like. Whether this is enough to pull people in remains to be seen, but it at least seems plausible.
  • The Kindle relies on copy protection, presumably using some Trusted Computing-like facility. I've argued that it's not unreasonable to expect a special-purpose device to give up programmability in an attempt to lock down copy protection. Again, it will be interesting to see how well this works.
  • Conversely, print has a nice, well-understood copy protection model. Copying a book means physically copying pages. In theory this is quite breakable. In practice it works well (so far). Publishers naturally like this. It would be interesting to try to quantify how much this convenience to publishers is extending the lifetime of the book, as opposed to the "nice to curl up with and read" aspect.

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