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.

My doomed love affair with the Kindle

Some big news in the Canadian tech industry this week was the advent of the Amazon Kindle in Canada. I've mentioned my mad love for the Kindle previously as well as my discomfort with Amazon's approach to tethered appliances. So, now that the Kindle is finally available here, will I be getting one?

The short answer is no, not right now. Technologically, I think the Kindle is an amazing device that uses some pretty interesting physics to make reading easy and comfortable. It boggles my mind that we have the ability to store so many books in such a small, slim shell and take it anywhere with us! However, I still have reservations about whether an e-reader is necessary, and I'm still set against tethered appliances. So here's the long answer.

One More Piece of Luggage

When you leave the house, what do you check to make sure you've got with you? Keys, mobile phone, ID, maybe money? What about your Kindle?

I've got this bizarre notion that, if I one day get a smartphone, I could use that device as my e-reader as well. It makes sense to combine them; we've already rolled music players and cameras into our phones. It's one less device to worry about forgetting at home--or worse, elsewhere.

Of course, the Kindle (and other e-readers) are superior technologically for reading books. Their screens are designed to make it easier to read, and their battery life will probably last longer if you're just flipping pages. I can see how an e-reader would be a sensible investment for someone who doesn't want or have a smartphone. And I don't deny that some part of me wants an Amazon Kindle.((The three-year-old, "I want it! I want it! I want it!" part.)) I'm just not convinced that it makes the most sense.

The Ol' Ball and Chain

No matter how attractive or sensible the Kindle may be, it's still tethered to the home office. Like the sleek and shiny iPhone, the Kindle is loyal to its manufacturer, not to you, the consumer. When you buy the Kindle, you're just buying a device that's a gateway to all the other content Amazon wants you to view but not own. The Kindle is a gateway drug.

Amazon demonstrated the draconian way it can manage Kindle content in July, when it deleted illegal copies of 1984 from people's Kindles. To Amazon's credit, apologies were made, and an Amazon spokesman assured us that it would never happen again--that, in fact, changes would be made so Amazon could no longer delete books remotely. It's still a sobering reminder that, despite your physical possession of the Kindle, it isn't really yours.

I'm aware that the Kindle can read multiple formats, including yummy plain text files from Project Gutenberg. Yet the Kindle's main goal is to persuade you to buy "Kindle editions" of books you want to read. These are proprietary files that only authorized devices can read, whereas a plain text file is readable by any number of devices. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it allows Amazon to control when and where you have access to the book you purchased. Secondly, it raises the spectre of data loss--since only Amazon-authorized devices can read the Kindle format, what happens if Amazon disappears? Unlikely, but still possible. Realistically, there are ways to cirumvent the DRM protection on the Kindle format and retrieve one's data, but they aren't legal, which leaves you in the interesting position of having to break the law to get at content you bought. An open format is safer when it comes to preserving and backing up.

I'm using the Kindle as an example because of its release in Canada, but Amazon is not the only company doing this to its e-readers. Sony, whose Reader line has long been available in Canada, also has a DRM format. And when Barnes and Noble's e-reader comes out, I'm sure they'll have a proprietary format as well. This isn't the exception but the rule. And it's up to us to change that.

Why? Well, Amazon, Sony, and B&N are doing what they think is best for their bottom line. They don't want freely available, easily re-distributable books that will cut into the profit margins for themselves, for their publishers, and for their authors. I understand the desire to cut down on privacy, but we've been down this road before. There's a reason that recording labels have finally agreed to drop DRM from iTunes. These bookstores, like the recording industry and the newspaper industry, are clinging to an outmoded idea of copyright and redistribution. Amazon, as a solely online venture, should know better. Clearly it doesn't.

In Which I Return the Soapbox to Its Rightful Owners

So that's why we, the consumers, need to show that this isn't the model we want.((Yes, I'm advocating that we let the free market decide. I'm not totally socialist!)) Or at least, that's what I think. I don't know. Sometimes I feel old and codgery. I'm a technophile who refuses to get a smartphone because I'm holding out for something that runs Google Android, and I refuse to change to a carrier that does offer an Android device because the competing carriers in Thunder Bay have ludicrous service and pricing compared to TBayTel.

Maybe I should just get off my high horse and admit that yeah, the Kindle is pretty darn awesome and I'd love to have one. But I can't do it. I just can't. I could probably surrender on the smartphone front, one day, if I so desired. This is different.

This is about knowledge. Books are one of the most precious resources of knowledge we have, and I will not be party to locking them away under the guise of "copyright protection" and "digital rights management." I will not be complicit in the gradual erosion of the public domain, nor in the partitioning of content by format and fiat.((Twenty years from now, assuming this blog hasn't been locked away behind some proprietary wall, the cynical Future Ben will look back at Present-Day Ben and shake his head at Present-Day Ben's naive idealism. But until that day comes, I'm allowed to be as naive and idealistic as I like!))

If you're new to this debate and want to learn more, I'll point you to the (somewhat biased) work of Cory Doctorow, Michael Geist, Lawrence Lessig, and Jonathan Zittrain, great advocates for a more open Internet.

I'm going to go read a non-DRMed book.