My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Welcome to the Walled Web 2.0

As much as I am in love with the technological achievement that is the Amazon Kindle, I have to chastise Amazon and the producers of other eBook readers for what I see as a step backward.

You may have heard last week about Amazon deleting books off Kindles. This is worrisome because--as Jonathan Zittrain explains--it emphasizes how much you don't own what you "buy" from Amazon or any other company that digs its claws into you by selling you tethered goods. We sacrifice our freedom to keep what we purchase in return for a little convenience in the purchasing.

That's not all though. Barnes and Noble, bookstore rival to Amazon, plans on launching its own eReader from Plastic Logic. Now, I'm all for competing eReader devices and competing eBook stores. Competition breeds innovation. But what I don't like is this:

At this point, B&N's plan becomes clear--the books will be tied to the B&N e-reader, and not downloadable by Kindle or Sony Reader owners. Essentially B&N is trying to set up a closed ecosystem that's a direct rival to Amazon's, and that's based from its bricks and mortar stores and a website, versus Amazon's 100% cloud-based solution.

A synonym for "closed ecosystem" would be "proprietary network." This harkens back to the early days of the World Wide Web, when the Web consisted of disparate service providers like CompuServe and Prodigy. Rather than buying the eReader right for me and then buying books from various online sources, I'm going to be locked into a single provider for my content--and apparently they have the right to veto my access to that content, even if I've paid for it.

(To the credit of Barnes and Noble, their eBooks will not be restricted just to their Plastic Logic eReader. According to the Fast Company article to which I linked above, they will also have software available for the BlackBerry, PC, and of course, the notoriously proprietary iPhone. This is one step up from Amazon's strategy with Kindle eBooks, I suppose.)

I understand why stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing this. They're just trying to make a profit. And part of me wants to say, "OK, try it your way, and see if this works." Yet I worry that such an attitude will do more harm than good, especially for authors and publishers. I sincerely doubt publishers will ever make much money on eBooks. The role of eBooks is in publicity, in attracting new fans and moving physical versions of the book--because rest assured, physical books aren't going to disappear as eBooks gain popularity. Give the digital copy away for free, then charge for the hard copy.

Critics contend that this model is unrealistic: after all, then everyone with an Internet connection will just download the free copy and the publishers and authors would lose money! I somehow doubt that. Firstly, I much prefer reading books in hard copy, and most readers share this sentiment. Even improvements to eReaders to make reading more comfortable (such as the e-ink screen on this generation of eReaders) will never equal the feel of a bound paper volume in my hands. Secondly--and I'm sure you've noticed this yourself--having easy access doesn't automatically mean I'll take advantage of it. I currently have easy access to 30,000 free books from Project Gutenberg. Guess what I'm doing right now? That's right, I'm not reading a single one. Because I'm lazy. On the other hand, if I've got a physical copy of a book on my shelf, I have an impetus to read it.

But hey, maybe I'm just a dreamer. It's not my job to come up with new revenue models, just to shoot down existing ones!

Incidentally, if you're looking for more information on this subject, check out Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It, available for free download under a Creative Commons license. And if you like the book, buy the hard copy version. ;)