Kindle about to handle ePub? Smart move by Amazon if it’s so!

image Speculation alert! Speculation alert! And with that out of the way, I’ll raise the possibility that the Kindle might be doing ePub soon---A Good Thing.

“In the future, Amazon.com’s Kindle e-book reader will display more book formats beyond its own,” writes Saul Hansell in the New York Times. ”And you should also expect to see Kindle books on a lot more devices.

“That was the clear implication of comments that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, made at a conference in New York Monday on disruptive business models.”

So will ePub be the next format the Kindle supports, given major publishers’ use of the format for wholesale distribution if nothing else? Stay tuned. I’ll especially be interested in what kind of DRM system, if any, Amazon uses with ePub. Not to mention DRM in a PDF context. Will Amazon use Adobe’s DRM system with either? Nothing is out of the question here, given the speed at which tech moves.

In related news, Bezos said that he preferred to keep the device and book businesses separate—with each expected to be self-supporting. That means charging customers the price of the machines. But Bezos is open to the possibility of lowering the price of the gadgets in return, say, for customers committing to buys of X number of books.

Bezos, in a similar vein, said he wanted Kindle books on a number of devices, “at the same $9.99 price points,” even if it meant that the book people and hardware people were competing against each other. Wise words. Hey, I call ‘em as I see ‘em. What Bezos seemingly promises, if executed, is sensible not only from a consumer  viewpoint but also as antitrust-proofing. Amazon-sold books able to be used on the Sony Reader, anyone?

No guarantee that Jeff will be heroic. But if I’m reading the tealeaves correctly, he may see that a more open approach will lead to a more sustainable business.

Of course, proprietary DRM is bad for readers no matter how many choices of poison they have. But at least with ePub as the actual format under the gook—at least if chosen by customers—life would be simpler. If the Kindle can read DRMed ePub, remember, it can read nonDRMed ePub. Definite progress if it happens!

Oh, and by the way, I wonder if news of Asus’s $300 laptop/tablet might just have a little to do with Amazon’s talk of more openness in regard to formats and hardware. Amazon for a long time has been dropping hints of openness. But hints are a long way from action. Let’s see the latter for real!

Related: Jeff Bezos: Why the Kindle is so expensive, from Wired News.

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13 Comments on Kindle about to handle ePub? Smart move by Amazon if it’s so!

  1. Wow, I hope this is true. If the Kindle began supporting ePub, then I probably wouldn’t be so critical of the device.

    However, until Amazon loosens up on the Kindle’s DRM, I won’t even consider buying one. When people can no longer access the ebooks they legally purchased through Amazon, because Amazon ‘suspended’ their account, there is something seriously wrong.

    I’ll be eager to see how this plays out. Thanks for the post!

  2. I take a couple of things out of these reports. But we have to take these public pronouncements always with a grain of salt. No canny CEO is going to lay all his cards on the table for all his competitors to see, until he’s ready to play them. So I’m just assuming here that Mr Bezos is telling us the truth, and holding back only a little bit, while acknowledging that there is probably a lot more going on.

    1. Bezos is sticking with eInk. He is pretty adamant that reading on traditional LCD screens is not what he wants to do, and most people will, he thinks, agree. So I don’t have much hopes for a 3Qi color Kindle next year. Instead, color will have to wait on eInk.

    2. Subscription pricing plans are being considered, but only as alternatives, or niche. I wonder then if this might see the rise of ‘Kindle Book Clubs’ offered by allies or third parties. Like the ‘Kindle Romance book club’ or the ‘Kindle SF book club’ or ‘Kindle Mystery book club’ — these would not necessarily be offered by Amazon directly, any more than the traditional book clubs were owned by the publishers. Rather, the book club would arrange deals with Amazon for wholesale prices on the Kindles, then offer Kindles with preloaded starter sets of books, and the subscriber would be obligated to buy the ‘book of the month’ or alternative, so many books a year. This is speculation on my part, but it does make sense if the pricing can be worked out.

    3. Pricing? If Amazon is subsidizing the price of best sellers, then that #2 book club model won’t be able to compete. This is a serious flaw in the book club concept.

    4. Kindle on other devices? Amazon will have to move carefully here. You have to look at how Amazon will be making money. Kindle on iPhone means that Amazon doesn’t have to make and sell a Kindle to you (or subsidize the wireless fees), but it places Amazon in the position of making money ONLY as a publisher/retailer. And in that position, Amazon ONLY has its proprietary file format with its DRM to distinguish itself.

    So if Kindles support epub on any sort of standard (including a standard DRM) then Amazon will ONLY make money selling the devices. But you will be able to read those epubs on other devices as well as buying the etexts from other vendors. Random House could sell their epub editions directly to you, and you’d be able to read them on your cell phone, your Sony Reader, your Kindle, your netbook, your desktop. Under this model, Amazon has no real competitive advantage except for the edge that all serious readers already have Amazon accounts and Amazon makes buying from them pretty easy.

    In other words, I really can’t see Amazon giving up the competitive edge they have right now with their walled-off, proprietary garden. They offer Kindles, on which they make (very little) profit selling; they offer kindle-edition etexts, on which they make some money on a lot, and lose money on a few; they let you read those kindle-editions on platforms Amazon considers inferior to the ‘real’ Kindle, such as small-screen smartphones. And ALL roads to the kindle editions for sale run through Amazon.

    One final bit of speculation from me: I wonder if publisher X or author Y could do business with Kindle owners selling directly to them via email, and cut Amazon out of it — right now, today?

    You go to publisher or author’s website, and pay for the etext; the publisher or author then emails to your kindle email address the text. You pay a small additional amount for the conversion services and wireless fees — a few cents, really, for the average novel. Publisher gets to set his own price and keep full retail, but (I think) he foregoes DRM.

  3. Richard Askenase // June 16, 2009 at 8:08 am //

    I think these are moves in the right direction. Because of the direct wireless and lower prices, I do NOT see publishers or other on-line vendors selling direct to Kindle owners. They will go througb Amazon. (I think Amazon could tweek its internet access to PREVENT direct downloads from competing publishers/vendors). Similarly, Amazon could prohibit conversions through e-mails of books purchased from other vendors.

    I am not as bothered by DRM as so many of you (get your heads out of the sands!) Amazon is NOT goin gaway so you won’t lose your books. Being cut off by Amazon? You would have to act so egregiously that I would not have any sympathy.

  4. Felix Torres // June 16, 2009 at 8:20 am //

    Careful what you wish for: you might get it.
    Amazon has three ways of dealing with ePub and each one is to one extent or another bad news for their competition:

    1- At the lowest level, they could support DRM-free ePub. Takes away the “they don’t support the publisher’s preferred format!” argument while giving away nothing in their business model.

    2- They could support ePub and Adobe’s inept DRM by letting you run ADE on a PC and get DRM’ed books from other sources onto a Kindle. Takes away the “they want to lock you in!” argument but since they are still the largest, most convenient ebook store with (generally) the lowest prices they wouldn’t be giving much away.

    3- They could support ePub with their *own* DRM, possibly licensing the new format through Mobipocket, and instantly split the DRM’ed ePub market and stealing the “standard” imprint off Adobe’s proprietary DRM. For those that haven’t seen this approach before, its called “embrace-and-extend”. And it has worked every time its been tried; it worked for IBM, Microsoft, Google, and it is exactly what Adobe is trying to do with their hijacking of ePub.

    Best guess is Bezos is talking about level one ePub compatibility, at most. But me, I’d like to see Level three. The chaos resulting should be a joy to behold and it would likely topple eBabel once and for all.

  5. Thanks Richard, but in the past Bezos has even been quoted, rightly or wrongly, as saying that Amazon may not be in the book business forever. What’s more, look at companies such as GM that once were presumed to be immortal.

    As for DRM, it restricts the range of devices you can enjoy your books on. Granted, Amazon can go for multiplatform approaches. But tech keeps changing, and it’s inevitable that some customers will be left behind.

    Meanwhile here’s a reminder of the fate of the Mobipocket owners who bought DRMed books but can’t access them through any current Kindle client. So far Jeff hasn’t even granted them access via free Kindle versions of the same times.

    As a company to trust with your books purchases, Amazon will
    more credible if it drops or cuts back on the use of DRM.

    Thanks,
    David

  6. “But me, I’d like to see Level three.”

    So, Felx, we’ll all be happily united in time under Amazon-DRMed ePub? Actually that might be good news if it tips Adobe toward finally getting serious about social DRM–embedding customers names in books, as opposed to the usual “protection.” That would mean perfect crossplatform compatibility for ePub and nicely disrupt Amazon right back.

    Fun to speculate, eh? Thanks for your thoughts.

    David

  7. When’s the Kindle coming to Canada?
    Come on Amazon what’s the hold-up?
    At least let us have the Kindle app
    for our iPhones. We don’t really need
    the Kindle if we have the app and access
    to the bookstore.
    Don’t you want to make more money than
    you are already?

  8. I agree with pond that Amazon won’t relinquish any advantages it has unless that enables the company to steal a march on its competition.

    It could be the only hard info in Bezos’s remarks was that there’ll be Kindle e-reading software on other AT&T, Sprint and Verizon smartphones. He said the iPhone wouldn’t be the only Kindle-compatible device back in February so it’s just a matter of time before another partner emerges.

    As for “more book formats,” I wonder if that doesn’t mean:
    A) Amazon strikes its own deal with Google to provide public-domain titles in ePub, orB) integrating a proper PDF reader into the UI, instead of converting PDF to Kindle format. As you suggest, this might very well utilize Adobe’s non-exclusive DRM.
    But having written that sentence, I acknowledge your insight into the situation — Amazon can license the same technology from Adobe that Sony does, enabling Kindle users to read books obtained from the Sony ebook-store (but not the other way round).

    It might be tempting to let Sony carry all the weight of licensing, hosting and serving those PD titles, but Bezos’ doesn’t seem the sort to let his customers go elsewhere when they’re book hunting.

    By pricing e-books at Amazon so aggressively and including free 3G data service, he prevents anyone from flanking Amazon on price or convenience. The Kindle doesn’t have to add ePub and PDF, but doing so removes that feature as a competitive disadvantage. With lots of e-Ink e-readers and color-LCD tablets on the horizon, maybe it’s not a bad idea to add as much protection as possible.

  9. Felix Torres // June 16, 2009 at 10:42 am //

    David Rothman Says:
    June 16th, 2009 at 8:27 am
    “But me, I’d like to see Level three.”

    So, Felx, we’ll all be happily united in time under Amazon-DRMed ePub?
    ____________________________________________

    Read again.
    I expect level three to break the back of DRM’ed ebooks altogether. Which is why I seriously doubt it will happen at all.

  10. Interesting comment discussion.

    Just an FYI regarding Amazon and DRM. Like any other company, Amazon can fail and go under (I hope they don’t), but it’s possible.

    And Amazon can and has cut people’s access to ebooks purchased legally on the Kindle. One case I remember was a guy who had ‘too many returns’. His account was suspended and he could no longer access any of the books on his Kindle device.

    http://bit.ly/o6HzH
    http://bit.ly/12IIA
    http://bit.ly/AFAM

    Read the TOS for the Kindle carefully, it pretty much lets Amazon do whatever they want with the ebooks you buy.

  11. If Bezos is talking “more devices”, someone please explain to me why there isn’t a DESKTOP CLIENT for Kindle books? This just seems like SUCH a no-brainer (take the existing mobipocket.com desktop client and tweak it, basically).

    Seems like that bit about divorcing the ebook and ereader businesses at Amazon is total bunk. Maybe it’s just me….

  12. Brad, I agree that DRM is bad, that it makes ebooks less valuable and that it would be great if Amazon dumped it.

    But, the story you repeated/linked to is not exactly accurate. The guy was not barred from accessing ebooks he had already bought on his Kindle. His entire Amazon account was suspended so he couldn’t go to the site to re-download books that he might have deleted. Agreed that stinks but it’s still a far cry from Amazon bricking his Kindle etc.

    The TOS may allow Amazon to do bad things someday but the actual anecdotes have to do with a far more limited and less-scary-sounding practice.

  13. Felix Torres // June 18, 2009 at 1:07 pm //

    John Hagewood Says:
    June 17th, 2009 at 4:06 pm
    “If Bezos is talking “more devices”, someone please explain to me why there isn’t a DESKTOP CLIENT for Kindle books?”
    __________________________________________________

    That’s an easy one: they are (rightfully) afraid that a desktop Kindle reader would expose their DRM to the exact same kind of exploits that broke Microsoft, Adobe, and Mobipocket DRM.

    I’d say it would take less than a week before any desktop Kindle app is cracked open like a melon. As is, I’m not sure, but I think the Kindle itself has been hacked and probably cracked, anyway.

    The only reason they support iPhone is because it, like Kindle and Xbox, is *mostly* a walled garden.

    Real soon now they are going to have to choose between updating the DRM scheme and seriously inconveniencing their installed base or simply looking the other way.

    I expect the latter and the clearest sign will be the release of Kindle for Windows. Time will tell; its early in the game.

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