Friday, January 22, 2010

AppFail: Amazon Opens Up Kindle, Only to Expose Its Flaws

Amazon Kindle has always been an odd duck of a platform, a proprietary e-book reader that bundled wireless access with a device that offered a very limited range of functionality. But as the first major e-book platform with an integrated ecommerce function, it gained early followers and a lot of media hoopla. Enter Apple, which is trying to become the default delivery mechanism for a galaxy of mainstream media content sources via its soon-to-be-released whiz-bang iSlate platform, including book content from Harper Collins. All of a sudden last year's bright, shiny thing from Amazon seems not so bright and shiny after all, prompting a late move by Amazon to open up its Kindle platform more aggressively to software developers.

As noted by CNET, though, this is way too little at a time in which software developers are inundated with platforms begging for appplications to make them stand out from the crowd. To boot, premium applications will have to pay a healthy chunk of their revenues to Amazon, presumably to cover the cost of downloads, which is bundled into the Amazon service from a consumer perspective. Kindle readers on iPhones and other platforms may help to buoy Amazon's overall e-book strategy, but it is highly doubtful that the Kindle itself has much of a lifespan as a multi-functional content delivery platform. In turn, this puts pressure on Amazon's overall sales picture, as a generation attuned to iTunes downloads may be more willing to add books to that list of items to cram into their portable devices than to shift to downloads on the Kindle platform that's centered around yesterday's content formats.

The vision of the Kindle was myopic from day one, too bent on luring timid publishers into the e-book era before others became premium e-book download kings. While this did leverage Amazon into an early advantageous position for e-books, its focus on a pioneering device locked it in to formats and concepts that reflected the fears and limitations of the book publishing industry more than it did the realities of a Web-enabled world of a multitude of content formats, publishers and delivery channels. Its onerous cut of Kindle e-book revenues also gave publishers a good reason to work with other platform providers to get a better piece of the action. The net result is that Amazon is in strong danger of becoming a book distribution channel that fails to lock in a new generation of book readers on emerging mobile platforms.

With Apple setting itself up as a primary download competitor, the question becomes whether Amazon wants to continue to try to be the Microsoft of e-books via its proprietary approach or to become the Google of e-books in response to this challenge. In other words, is Amazon willing to admit that it made a huge mistake in not aligning itself more with a cross-platform, open standards approach in preparation for the inevitable platform battles that required stronger technology partners? There may not be a black-and-white answer to this question, but clearly Amazon needs to focus more on channel strategies and content publisher relations than on multi-function platform development. This is especially important in light of media companies that manage multi-channel products - "Avatar" lives as a movie, as a game, and, inevitably, as videos, books and so on. Amazon should be focusing more on the question of how to be a download king for content of all kinds rather than a gizmo king.

The logical leading partner in this would seem to be Google, with its emerging Android and Chrome OS platforms, options that weren't on the table in any serious way a couple of years ago but which are now coming to market aggressively. Microsoft will certainly be in the mix also, but it's playing catch-up in mobile platforms at a time in which Google is preparing to soar past many established vendors with its cross-platform Android operating system. In February the Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader will be the first model delivered to consumers based on Google's Android operating system, opening the door to thousands of applications that could be integrated with e-books easily on that device, as well as on other Android-based devices. While there are notable flaws in the Barnes & Noble strategy - too few books, no reader yet for other mobile devices - its use of the ePub standard for its downloads and an incorporated lending model is closer to what will help book publishers to integrate with many other kinds of content and platforms quickly and profitably.

Book publishers have, predictably, dug themselves into an early hole in the race for digital markets by rejecting standards that would make cross-platform use of e-books a simple thing for consumers. One of the great things about books traditionally is that they didn't require a special technology to use them. Why would publishers go out of their way to balkanize their market into dozens of different proprietary formats that can only discourage people from picking up books in general? While it will take some time to undo this damage, there is still time for book publishers to avoid the mistakes of the music and video industries and decide on formats that will encourage cross-platform use of e-books as simply and inexpensively as possible and which encourage developers to create functionality around e-books that enhances their value and their integration into Web-based content, collaboration and community services.

While there may be some sucking up of pride in Amazon's C-suite to make these things happen, they are absolutely necessary if Amazon is to extend its early ecommerce successes based on Web standards into mobile markets. Perhaps Amazon forgets that if it weren't for Web standards, the world would not have discovered its leading ecommerce services in the first place. Amazon needs to re-discover its appreciation of the power of Web-oriented industry standards for e-books and re-establish itself as a company that can carve out the broadest opportunities for content ecommerce via the widest array of content platforms. While this may not always sound like music to the ears of its publishing partners, it's the only way in which it will be able to offer a sound alternative to media companies that are locking themselves into proprietary platforms that will inevitably place Amazon in an awkward relationship with them. I don't put much hope on this happening in the short term - some changes at the top in Amazon may have to occur for this to happen - but it's likely their best road to success in the years ahead.
Post a Comment