Tim O'Reilly: Kindle needs to embrace standards or die

Tim O'Reilly predicts the imminent demise of the Kindle ebook reader unless it makes the move to open standards and abandons DRM and proprietary formats. I've been trying to get someone at Amazon to answer my basic questions about the "DRM-free" option for authors and publishers ("Does the EULA prohibit a reader from moving a DRM-free file to a non-Kindle?" "Is there a patent or other restriction that prevents competitors from making readers or converters for the DRM-free files?" and "Can DRM-free files be remotely downgraded, the way that the DRM'ed files have had their read-aloud functionality taken away after the fact?") and been totally stonewalled, as have O'Reilly.

Kudos to Tim for a great editorial and especially for the use of "strategy tax" -- what a great phrase!

So we sold GNN to America Online in June 1995. Big mistake. Despite telling us that they wanted to embrace the Web, they kept GNN as an "off brand," continuing to focus on their proprietary AOL platform and allowing Yahoo! ( YHOO - news - people ) to dominate the new online information platform.

So it was with a feeling of deja vu that I listened in mid-2007 to the promises of Amazon about the potential of its new proprietary e-book platform. While no payment is required to participate, there are clearly onerous restrictions that could limit the growth of the market: a proprietary file format, and the requirement that the e-books only be sold by Amazon.com.

The file format was a problem for us from the get-go: Amazon's Kindle file format doesn't provide support for tables or for so-called monospaced fonts, two formatting features that we use heavily in our line of technical books. And there is a viable alternative: Epub, the open format from the International Digital Publishing Forum, is based on the Web's native format, HTML, and provides full table and font support. This is the first "strategy tax" paid by those who embrace proprietary platforms: They can't support the needs of every niche and must prioritize their support for mainstream needs.

Why Kindle Should Be An Open Book (via /.)


  1. When _Sony_ has a more open strategy than you do, you’re reeeeeeeally doing it wrong.

  2. Amazon are annoying a lot of people by trying to force them to take the Kindle bus and then restricting their use when they are on it. For instance, they bought the Stanza ereader app for iphone and now seem to be back pedalling on a commitment from Stanza to support Adobe drm books. If the Kindle DRM was not so restrictive this would not be a problem but they won’t sell it to you if you are in a country that does not have kindle support. Infact, I dont think they will sell it to you if you do not have a kindle yourself. They also bought mobipocket and have not allowed people to use already purchased books in that format on the Kindle or iphone, even though the difference between that DRM and their own one based on it is a line code, put in there to make it different. The problem is that we are being asked to invest our libraries, which we would want to access over many years, in a company that is not giving us ownership and is playing hardball with the ownership it has retained. I think they see their book distribution business heading for the garbage can and are desperately trying to dominate a business that is not going to be that easy to dominate.

  3. Yes, it’d be nice if they added epub support but I seriously doubt it will hurt them much. Epub is no way the mp3 of the publishing world yet. There’s no easy way for anyone to “rip” a book to Epub, mobi or any other format, so most users will have to rely on what’s availible in stores or in other places. And in the book piracy world epub is way behind mobi, microsoft’s lit and pdf formats. It’s going to take quite awhile for this to shake out, and I think O’Reilly is trying too hard to fit this to previous patterns that do not fit well.

  4. Kindle supports images. So it doesn’t need to support tables. You need a table, you put in a picture of a table and on you go, assured the formatting is perfect, etc.

    As for monospaced fonts… yeah, maybe. Though I suspect that when they decide to support them, it’ll take about an hour to implement them. And if not, there’s always… pictures. :o)

    Memory is cheap (and getting cheaper); small pictures gain ground, storage-wise, as the square root. Or in other words, a 1000×1000 image has a million pixels, while a 100×100 image, something we perceive as 1/10th the size (because each axis is 10% of the former) has only 10000 pixels, or 1% of the storage requirements. And of course JPEG crushes images quite well, leaving them still understandable, while stealing bits from the edges of your perceptions (to lapse somewhat Gibsonian.)

    Would it be great if the Kindle supported HTML as a book format? Sure, sure it would. Would it be great if the Kindle wasn’t so pricey? Sure it would (my iPod version was free… and my iPod *does* display HTML quite well. Hmmm.) Would it be great if the Kindle supported color? Sure it would (yeah, my iPod does that, too.) And if it did sound (hey, my ipod…) and video (my ipod…) and it was smaller and more convenient (my iPod…) and it could do many other things (my iPod…) and it wasn’t locked to Amazon for media (my iPod…) and if you could develop your own readers for it (my iPod…) and if it supported about any kind of document you could think of (my iPod) and you could transfer documents without relying on Amazon as a third party with a special email address (my iPod…)

    Say… why aren’t you guys just pointing out that you could buy an iPod, eh? For less than a Kindle, and get far more than a Kindle, while you still get… a free Kindle! Well, of course it’s far more portable than a Kindle, has a better display, is tougher, considerably more handy, does more, looks better, sounds better… but you know what I mean.

    And of course iPhones do all this too, and act like telephones to boot, but you have to be somewhere AT&T has networks, which, sad to say, I am not.


  5. @Fyngyrz: Images don’t reflow to adapt to changes in size/shape of display.

    Unless the plan is actually for the publisher to produce a different picture of the table for every combination of screen resolution, portrait/landscape, font, font size, accessability setting(high contrast, etc.) then using images to display text is crippled at best.

    Supporting all the textual edge cases is hardly trivial; but doing it the wrong way by sheer brute force is even worse.

    I’m most optimistic about the coming flood of cheap, fairly homogeneous, and largely linux based e-paper devices. Trying to build your own handheld, that doesn’t feel like something stolen from a 1970s trade show, is pretty much impossible for most; but the e-paper equivalent of the NSLU2 or WRT54G would be all kinds of useful for open development.

  6. The Sony e-ink book readers PRS-505 and PRS-700 support epub. And Sony’s own format (.lrf) is accessible via open tools.

    I’ve been using my PRS-505 for many months in a totally anti-DRM manner. Meaning absolutely no closed media, period. And no special Sony desktop software to interface with the device.

    This is a viable alternative to the Kindle, if you are ok with not having the wireless and keyboard.

    I’m recommending the PRS-505. It’s widely considered to have a clearer looking screen than the -700. At this time Sony has them for US$279

  7. What happens to the Kindle when Apple makes an 8.9″ tablet format iPod Touch/Mac Book Air “crossover” device?

    The Kindle becomes Kindling?

    I am becoming fond of my most recent “whim” purchase, a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet, and I think that the future lies in multi-function devices like that, not in uni-function devices like the Kindle.

    If more folks were comfortable with bluetooth headphones, an 8.9″ tablet version of the iPhone could also be a big seller – you leave it in your backpack and interact with it via voice commands.

  8. A friend of mine bought the first Kindle, and replaced it with the newer one. I certainly see it has advantages – an avid reader who travels can really benefit.

    At least one book lost it’s pictures in the kindle version, perhaps for licensing-related reasons. Another book I wanted to read on my iPhone using the Kindle reader app was very reliant on a single graphic – a double page map – that looked terrible in the Kindle version.

    I will use the free preview chapters as a way to see if I might like a book – but it will be a long time before I ever consider spending the equivalent of 10 books on a device like the current Kindle.

  9. The Kindle does support non-DRM formats, including mobi, txt, and PDF (although only the DX natively supports the latter). Most of the content on my Kindle is non-DRM’d material from other sources, with a couple of things I bought from Amazon just for giggles and/or to play with the Whispernet when I first got it.

    I think the onus for bringing change to this market falls onto the publishers (and I say this as both a Kindle owner and someone who works in publishing). I think the publishers themselves will need to push into this market by offering non-DRM’d materials themselves, and I doubt they’ll be inclined to do that anytime soon. Otherwise, Amazon has no compelling reason to change what it offers or how it offers it.

    I also think it’s not necessarily the hardware that will die–if Amazon continues to make improvements and the price comes down, the Kindle will survive regardless of how Amazon chooses to sell eBooks, as long as there are other sources available. That’s assuming, of course, that Amazon doesn’t try to make the Kindle Amazon-content-only reading device, and if adding native PDF support to the DX is any indication, that’s not the direction they’re heading. I got the DX instead of the Kindle 2 precisely because the PDF support opened up a truckload of free, non-DRM content to me.

    I’m fascinated to see where this market will go.

  10. The Kindle does support non-DRM formats, including mobi, txt, and PDF (although only the DX natively supports the latter).

    Holy crap, why isn’t this bigger news?

    By far the #1 top complaint against the Kindle is it doesn’t natively support PDFs.

    But it turns out that the Kindle DX natively supports PDFs!!!

    Sorry Tim, but that’s it, the Kindle does support a platform agnostic universally supported open and popular document format: PDF.

    Epub? Isn’t that what I used to have to convert my etexts to in order to read them on my Palm Pilot? Who uses Epub — other eink readers? Everybody knows how to deal with a PDF (except the Kindle… until the DX).

  11. Ok, BBG covered the whole native PDF thing pretty well back on June 11th.

    Testing PDF for speed and compatibility, I tried a 2.4MB PDF of “All you can eat: autophagy in neurogeneration of neuroprotection,” by Phillipp Jaeger and Tony Wyss-Coray. It loaded in 3-4 seconds, with 1 second transitions between pages — same as plain text! Nothing in the document confused it, layout was good, including charts, pictures, superscript and greek letters, etc. Hilbert’s Foundations of Geometry, full of pointy-headed Tex-set equations, was just as snappy.

  12. I preordered the Kindle DX for PDF reading. It arrived on a Friday. I returned it to Amazon the following Monday. It’s just not there yet; PDF rendering of text is speedy enough, about the same as books. But rendering of complex pages with lots of tables could be much slower. One page took THIRTY SECONDS to render.

    The real Achilles heel, though, was the navigation support. The Kindle is designed for fiction and casual non-fiction, where you read a page, then go to the next page, then the next, in order. Thus, there are physical buttons for ‘next page’ and ‘previous page’, and menu options for ‘go to front’ and ‘go to page number’. No ‘jump ahead 10 pages’ or any other way to ‘thumb’ through a reference work. No support for PDF links. And the ‘go to page number’ option took about 15 seconds to do, because it required multiple screen refreshes.

  13. I’m giving it at least 5 more years. When it’s not cool anymore, it’ll be reliable and useful.

  14. @FYNGYRZ: Images are not a good answer for tables and monospace fonts. Why not make the entire book an image?

    The problem is that you can’t reflow the text within an image, making changing font size or formating the work for different readers (with different screens and screen sizes) impossible.

    I love my Sony Reader for now, and would echo anonymous that when Sony is doing it more open than you, you’re doing something wrong.

    When someone comes up with a device that merges Kindle’s connectivity/store with a handful of open formats, it’s game over for Amazon.

  15. @FYNGYRZ

    Yet another problem with images is that you can’t search for text within an image. I guess they could include an OCR program or captcha buster… but no, that would be only compound the idiocy of writing text as Jpegs: nobody would ever do that.

  16. I wonder if we underestimate the profit of owning the whole market for a few years. Amazon can just switch to open when forced to. Like Microsoft giving up MSN, or IBM before them with the mainframe. Maybe they don’t just hold on tight because they’re huge and can’t change, but because there’s money to be had with DRM, and open will accept them anytime they’re ready.

  17. Anonymous wondered about the value of owning a given market, and mentioned IBM as at one time “owning” the mainframe market. (They never did, but they got very close to being the only game in town. For comparison, I don’t think IBM ever had the same market share as Microsoft currently has with Windows (94%, last I saw). There was a thriving industry that used machines that were not IBM designs: Prime, Unisys, and others, as well as Plug Compatible Machines (PCMs) from companies like Amdhal and Fujitsu…)

    One of the problems IBM and AT&T had was that while they owned their respective markets (Computers and phone service in the US), neither would sell the equipment, they only leased it.

    There was a time when you had to get an interface device from the phone company to attach anything from a third-party (answering machine, headset, etc.)

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