After chewing it over all day, I’ve concluded that Amazon’s Kindle is going to flop. Or at least I hope it does.

What it comes down to is that when you purchase books in Kindle’s e-book format, they’re wrapped in DRM and are in a format that no other software can read. There are no provisions for sharing books even with other Kindle owners, let alone with everyone.

Barring physical catastrophe, I expect that the real books I own — the ones printed on paper — will remain in good condition long after I am dead.1 With digital Kindle books, I’m not even sure they’ll be available 10 years from now. They’re only useful so long as you own Kindle-compatible hardware. What happens to these e-books if Amazon, having lost money on the endeavor, stops producing Kindle readers a few years from now? What are the odds that these files will be readable 50 years from now?

With DRM-protected audio from iTunes, there’s a reasonable out: You can burn your audio to DRM-free AIFF files on CD. You can also share Apple’s DRM-protected audio and video with a limited number of family and friends. With DRM-protected Kindle books, you’re stuck. The only way to lend a friend a Kindle book is to lend them your Kindle reader. “Unshareable books” sounds downright oppressive to my ears.

Admittedly, it’s not like Amazon could do Kindle without DRM. Major publishing houses almost certainly would be unwilling to permit Amazon to sell e-books sans DRM, in the same way that music labels were originally unwilling to sell DRM-free music. But so why not bundle the Kindle e-books with the good old-fashioned shareable, preservable, paper books? Change the pitch from “buy digital e-books instead of paper books” to “get a digital Kindle e-book with each paper book you buy from Amazon”.

(As I suggested earlier, if Amazon really wanted to get aggressive, they could offer to Kindle owners not just digital versions of each book they buy from Amazon going forward, but also digital versions of each book they’ve already bought from Amazon.)

With iPods, while the iTunes Store is the only source for DRM-protected content that iPods support, you can easily fill your iPod with any popular non-DRM audio format other than WMA. Kindle supports a few other formats than its proprietary .azw, but the only way to use it for its main purpose — as a digital reader for popular mainstream books — is via its own proprietary DRM-protected format. I.e., Kindle actually is what ignorant critics have claimed regarding the iPod: a device designed to lock you in to a single provider of both hardware and digital content. You can easily and happily use an iPod without ever buying anything from the iTunes Store; without Amazon’s DRM-protected content, a Kindle is the world’s worst handheld computer.

With video, of course, we’re all screwed, in that every legal source for mainstream content attempts to lock you in. DVDs, unlike CDs, can’t legally be ripped to digital files for your own personal use. (If iTunes could just rip movies from DVDs like it rips songs from CDs, Apple would be selling a hell of a lot more Apple TVs.) That (a) the iTunes Store sells far less video than audio content, and (b) iTunes’s video DRM is more restrictive than its audio DRM, is not a coincidence. What they do sell, I think, are iTunes TV shows, because TV shows are ephemeral, and at just $2 a pop, it doesn’t seem like as much of a rip (compared to iTunes’s movies) that you’ll never be able to play the video on non-Apple hardware. If iTunes is ever going to be successful as a purveyor of movies, it’ll be through rentals, not sales.

So the Kindle proposition is this: You pay for downloadable books that can’t be printed, can’t be shared, and can’t be displayed on any device other than Amazon’s own $400 reader — and whether they’re readable at all in the future is solely at Amazon’s discretion. That’s no way to build a library.

  1. “If you would know how a man treats his wife and his children, see how he treats his books.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson ↩︎