Entelligence: Two strikes for Kindle is enough for me

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

I like books. No: I actually love books. In virtually every room in my home there are bookcases that are filled to overflowing. I like to purchase them, hold them as I read words written to inform, delight, and transport the reader into different times, new experiences, and enlighten them in ways they could not have imagined. Like the worst hot dog I've eaten and the worst beer I've drunk, the worst book I've read was wonderful... but books do have a downside. They're bulky to store, hard to travel with (paper is really, really heavy), and paperbacks in particular tend to not hold up well over time. So, in addition to books, I've been a fan of e-Books. My former venture capital firm did one of the first investments in Peanut Press (long sold and re-sold many times and now owned by Barnes and Noble) and more than a decade ago I struggled with reading fiction by Dan Brown on a Palm V device with low resolution and on backlight. It was a struggle -- but it was better than schlepping paper.

There have been a lot of e-book efforts over the last decade, but none of them have been successful. There have been dedicated readers such as the RocketBook and others. There were efforts from Microsoft to create an e-book market for their handheld devices and tablet PCs, and efforts from Adobe to publish books via the ubiquitous PDF format. None were successful -- until Amazon introduced the Kindle. While it was far from perfect, I felt that Amazon had done for the e-book reader what Apple had done for the PC. In the words of Alan Kay, the Macintosh was the first PC good enough to be criticized. I felt the same way about the Kindle. The Kindle had enough content to be interesting -- it focused on getting e-book prices lower (after all, what's the difference physically between an electronic version of a paperback and hardcover book?) and wisely bypassed the PC to load content. The Kindle 2, the Kindle DX, combined with Amazon's willingness to evolve the Kindle onto other platforms such as the iPhone seemed to make the Kindle appear to have the best chance of taking e-books to the mass market. But two events over the last few weeks have led me to put my Kindle back on the shelf and wonder again if the e-book market will ever take off.

Amazon states that "a copy of every book you purchased from the Kindle Store is backed up at in case you ever need to download it again. You can wirelessly re-download books for free any time. This allows you to make room for new titles on your Kindle, knowing that Amazon is storing your personal library of Kindle books. We even back up your last page read and annotations, so you'll never lose those, either. Think of it as a bookshelf in your attic--even though you don't see it, you know your books are there."

Sounds good. Not too different from eReader's policy where I can download books I bought more than decade ago to my iPhone, a device that didn't even exist when I bought them. My problems occurred after downloading my copy of Freakonomics to my Kindle 1, my iPhone and iPod touch. I discovered I couldn't download the book to my Kindle 2. I kept getting error after error that simply said this book can't be loaded on this device. A little time with Google revealed I was not alone. It seems there's a finite number of times each book can be downloaded, even if it's downloaded to the same device. This number is set by the publisher and varies from book to book, but Amazon never mentions this, and there's no indication of it anywhere during the purchase process. In short, it obviates the reason why one would buy an e-book in the first place. If I want to read Freakonomics at this point, I either have to find a device that I'm no longer using that has that content on it or buy a new copy. Sorry. That's just not acceptable and I've been debating what books I'd buy in the future. That was until last week.

More troubling for me was last week's news that customers who had purchased copies (note the irony) of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four discovered their copies had been deleted from their Kindles, and Amazon was issuing refunds. Now, these copies were unauthorized in the US, Amazon had no right to sell them, so I'm not surprised they were pulled from the store. But the idea of a company reaching on to my device and removing content I had put on there is beyond the pale UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Imagine Apple deciding somehow that the music on your iPod wasn't there legitimately and deleting it for you? (In fact, Apple has removed content from their app store such as Tris, which violated license agreements, but users who had downloaded the app to their device could continue to use it). Yes, Amazon blundered. They have said to the New York Times that they won't do this again. There are a hundred different ways they could have handled this. At the end of the day, they chose not to and that's a hard thing for me to get over.

Books are precious. Important. The books that I purchase over the years -- from the literary treatises to the medieval Jewish commentaries, to techno thrillers and mysteries -- are far too valuable to me to take the chance on ever being locked out of the content that I own, or worse, having that content taken away from at the discretion of an employee at the bookstore where I purchased them. People have blamed this on DRM but it's not a DRM issue for me. I've bought protected content from Apple for years and have never had an issue of being locked out of it. Likewise from the folks at eReader and fictionwise. For now, I'm going back to paper, and when I do make e-book purchases, it will be through eReader (and now Barnes and Noble) where I have never lost access to content I own.

This is now two strikes for Amazon, and I'm not willing to wait for strike three before they're out. If the Kindle is going to really take on the mass market, Amazon needs to re-think how they're selling content and on what terms.