2012: The Fall of Garden Walls (Kindle Edition)

The Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989
Attribution: Lear 21 at en.wikipedia

It struck me yesterday as I looked at the reviews of the new Amazon Kindle e-Reader I preordered on launch day (the Kindle Paperwhite 3G). The walled garden is indeed doomed to fail despite excellent user interfaces. I know someone writes an op-ed piece about this every few years, but at least since the iPhone was launched it looked like maybe some walled gardens could stand.

Adventures in e-Ink Wonderland

Two years ago I was embarrassed to be the recipient of a 3rd Generation Kindle Keyboard (WiFi). Embarrassed because I long predicted out-loud: “Internet connected e-readers and e-paper will displace physical books entirely.” — but it took someone else to get me on the bandwagon.

My own resistance to the concept quickly evaporated as I unwrapped the Frustration Free packaging to find a device I quickly fell in love with. At the time I was the proud father of a 1 year old and 3 year old, for those of you that aren’t parents I guess I’ll clue you in that even 15 minute stops at the book store are pretty much out of the question (and I never had been a fan of buying paper books online). I also found most of the independently published novels (read: cheaper than used books) to be 90% as good as their commercial rivals (so goes the publishing industry, but thats someone else’s story).

Not only did I immediately banish paperbacks to the closet, between the immediate gratification of the built in book-store, and the text-to-speech read anything during your 6-hours-in-the-car travel days (not unusual in my line of work), I literally increased my reading by an order of magnitude.

At the end of my first year with a Kindle I had clocked around 100 books read, thats roughly 10 times the previous year. Score 1 point for Amazon, you CAN sell hardware with zero margin.

The Kindle cash-register Fire

When Bezos took to the stage to announce his long-anticipated Android Tablet I immediately pre-ordered the unit (despite the 6 week wait).

You see, I always knew tablets would replace personal computers (desktops and laptops) for most consumers. It was of course Greg Bear’s 1985 novel Eon that convinced me with their drop-in cameo role.

It just makes sense. What didn’t make sense to me of course is that prior to Apple, the tablet repeatedly failed. I even bought one of those 13″ convertibles popular in the early 2000’s running Windows XP Tablet Edition. It was great hardware, just, how could Microsoft get it so wrong?

I was ecstatic to see Apple get it right (if not perfect), but the form-factor just wasn’t for me. After carrying a 6″ e-Ink Kindle around for a year (wrapped in a lighted cover) I was convinced 7″ was the absolute maximum size I’d want for my tablet. I mean, I was already carrying the Kindle Keyboard around all the time. I could deal with a few more ounces, the same size, but more functionality — as long as it also provided a decent reading experience.

The price point on the Fire was unarguable. *1-click* and it was in my mailbox.

This is Going to Destroy Wal-Mart

When I received the thing, … meh

Text-to-speech was missing. The UI was horrible and slow, the lack of google apps painful, and the thing was insecure by default (so no corporate email there). Yet, I found myself not only continuing to consume books at the same rate, but also unexpectedly, discontinuing my box-store and even local hardware store trips for 1-click-free-2-day-shipping-with-Prime.

Man I thought, this is going to kill Wal-Mart as soon as tablet penetration nears saturation. And for those of you who think low-income can’t afford a tablet, remember these things are going to replace consoles like Playstations and X-Boxes within a single hardware generation. They did it again, I was never a big Amazon shopper, but man that tablet interface is better than the website.┬áSo yes, I’m buying 100 books a year from Amazon, tons of consumer products thanks to the Fire. I’m the model consumer.

The Fall

When spring 2012 hit, the Fire was relegated to an Amazon cash-register, and sometimes a couch web-browser. Back to e-ink for me (I do enjoy reading outside, not being winter anymore).

Then disaster struck about 2 weeks ago. My 3rd Generation Kindle Keyboard (about 2 years old) came down with lines. That’s just what a cracked screen looks like. I was so emotional I methodically pried the thing open and removed about 30 microscopic screws to discover what I feared, it wasn’t a loose cable.

That’s okay I thought, an excuse to refresh. 2 years wasn’t a bad run for something that gave me such enjoyment (and really didn’t cost much).

Launch Day — last Thursday. Nothing unexpected, but I took the opportunity to trade up for a front-lit screen and 3G (my previous unit lacked this, and it occasionally caused me to wait hours for new books!). *1-click*

Then yesterday, uh … what do you mean no text-to-speech? It was bad enough this wasn’t included in the Fire reader, or the Android phone app (despite the fact both units had TTS built-in). This wasn’t a deal-killer, I still needed a new e-reader, and I did like the Amazon selection …. but man, my love affair was over. It was like discovering a cheating spouse.

It’s not really Amazon’s fault, but it is something they’re going to need to deal with. I’m now estranged, and if it hadn’t been TTS it would have been something else eventually.

Yes I know, I can still get another Kindle Keyboard replacement, and last year’s Kindle Touch also has TTS. It is at the back of my mind, but what’s the point in looking back?

Fair is Fair

It’s my only option. This weekend I’m going to be fair-use-decoding my entire legitimately licensed e-book collection using the Calibre ebook management software. I’ll have to manage my own content library, which is a bit of a pain, but now I’ll have TTS on both my Android devices (tablet and phone) thanks to some wonderful 3rd party e-readers with built in text-to-speech functionality.

Where will I continue to buy my ebooks? Will my next tablet even be an Amazon model? I’m no longer sure.

My crystal ball sees a time, possibly a year from now, when any consumer can do this easily. The same way my wife dumped her iTunes collection into Google’s cloud last week to get everything synced up nicely on her new HTC One X (I did try unsuccessfully to sell her on the iPhone for compatibility, but, Apple isn’t the only one who can make a sexy phone). Once that was complete music purchases from Amazon (and even Google) were equally as attractive as the Apple value pitch.

Your Move Amazon

Apple has the same problem with Music, but that’s already a heated (and probably losing) battle. Amazon currently has the chance to head-off this wholesale loss of market share by making some smart moves when it comes to allowing consumers access to their own licensed content. I do like the Amazon experience, and I’ll happily return to the fold if I can just listen to my books in the car.*

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0105-029 / Reiche, Hartmut / CC-BY-SA

If they don’t do something however, I can easily see my book and product sales dispersing to other vendors.

* No, I’m not going to buy books twice so I can whispersync between the limited collection of Audible titles and their Kindle counterparts. Even if there was a selection I wanted to read, that would cost me roughly 12x (apparently, there’s a tax in the industry on blind people) as much as I am currently spending on my now veracious independently-published-book reading habit.