, Orwell, and Greed

Tech-followers the world over – but owners of’s Kindle e-book reader in particular – got a nasty shock last week when Amazon switched into reverse the “Whispernet” wireless network it uses to sell e-books directly to the Kindle devices, instead plucking away e-copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm that people had thought they had bought, because of a rights dispute. For more details, the New York Times’ coverage is here; do note how carefully Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener chooses his words, promising that “in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances” (emphasis added; why were those last three words necessary?).

This bizarre episode promptly elicited on-line comment about how strange it was to suddenly find missing something that you thought you had bought, and how appropriate it was that the works in question originated from the author famous for “Big Brother.” Among the more in-depth remarks I have run across, however, must be included reaction from a German-based Kindle-owner (who therefore still has his e-book Orwell, if he bought it in the first place – Amazon’s “Whispernet” network extends only to the US) by the name of Peter Sennhauser, who writes on the site (Orwellian DRM Fall-of-Man; yes, it’s an awkward title in English, but less so in German). His lede: “Amazon has erased-over-distance customers’ books on the Kindle e-book reader. Jeff Bezos is about to stomp out his e-book sparks.”

Sennhauser is no less amazed than anyone else that Amazon could actually stoop to what it did last week. The falsehood has been exposed that Kindle customers “buy” their e-books; rather, that Orwellian erasure (together with the prohibition on transferring the books onward to others in any way) shows that all they do is license them – and this in a period when the entire concept of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has ceased to be acceptable to customers. (My comment: For music, yes, but not necessarily when it comes to e-books; we’ll have to see how consumer reaction to this Orwell incident plays out.)

Still – and as you might expect from someone who has bought into a technology that he cannot actually purchase nor use to its maximum effectiveness in his native land – Sennhauser has been tracking the Kindle’s evolution closely, and therefore sees this incident as only the latest in a series of developments that convinces him that Amazon management has rather prematurely decided that the “nurturing period” for the Kindle is past, that it’s time to cash in on it in a big way. Consider:

  • You can subscribe to newspapers over the Kindle as well, but most of that money is going to Amazon, namely 70% of the subscription-price you pay. You’ve got to wonder what is in it for the newspapers: Kindle subscriptions are much lower than the paper-subscriptions in the first place, yet there is no advertising allowed within the Kindle-content from which they otherwise could at least recoup some revenue.

  • As mentioned, the Kindle has not yet come to Europe – and that process is taking longer than it should, Sennhauser reports, because Amazon cannot find a telecom operator to work with that will accept financial terms similarly one-sided in Amazon’s favor.

  • The prices Amazon asks for its Kindle e-books are simply too high, if you compare them with paperback versions of the same available works.

  • For that matter, the Kindle itself (now only available in its newest “Kindle 2” version, costing $299) is also too expensive.

Why does everything still have to be so expensive? Why this seeming unbridled greed? As Sennhauser exclaims, in bold print, “All in all, Amazon could now make the market for electronic books explode and thereby make book publishers, the newspapers, and even customers happy” – if only management were clever enough to continue to invest a bit more for the future by keeping prices low – and behavior reasonable – to attract all those out there looking for a workable e-book solution. He notes that he personally has never bought so many books in such a short time as in the period since he first got ahold of his own Kindle 2.

But no more. Inexorably, and in spite of itself, by its behavior and pricing policies Amazon is delivering its customers over to the competition, to an alternative e-book reader, which must surely be on its way already. What’s the German equivalent expression for “jump the shark,” anyway?

UPDATE: Another good bit of commentary on this issue now from Thomas Rohde of the Frankfurter Rundschau (Big Brother in the bookshelf). I’ll just pick out for you here his juciest bit, at the end:

With this action Amazon has transformed the greatest technological advantage of its device [the Kindle, of course] into an aggravating disadvantage: from now on it is clear to every Kindle-user that a Thought Police is keeping his digital library in view and can, unobserved, manage it as it likes. This should be kept in mind especially by those desiring to make use of a further advantage of the latest DX Kindle model: its built-in PDF software “enables you,” as Amazon promises, “to read all of your personal and professional documents on the road” . . . enables possibly not just you alone.

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