Opening Kindle

July 6, 2009

Slashdot has a brief story today about an article in Forbes by Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, on the success and future prospects for the Amazon Kindle E-book reader.  The product has been quite successful:

The Amazon Kindle has sparked huge media interest in e-books and has seemingly jump-started the market. Its instant wireless access to hundreds of thousands of e-books and seamless one-click purchasing process would seem to give it an enormous edge over other dedicated e-book platforms.

However, O’Reilly argues that the current closed architecture and book format of the Kindle is a mistake, one that will in time lead to the loss of its market-leading position:

Yet I have a bold prediction: Unless Amazon embraces open e-book standards like epub, which allow readers to read books on a variety of devices, the Kindle will be gone within two or three years.

Now, Tim O’Reilly does know something about the technology marketplace.  His publishing firm is very well regarded by technical folks because it publishes a large number of high-quality titles in the technology field (the popular series of Nutshell Handbooks is an example).   O’Reilly has especially focused on open-source software applications, and publishes books on Perl, Apache, Sendmail, PHP, Linux, and many others. They also sponsor open-source conferences.

His argument, which I find persuasive, is that an open environment will foster more participation in developing the market for E-books, and lead to a richer “ecosystem” for the product.  He makes an analogy with the early days of the Internet. when AOL, Microsoft Network (a/k/a MSN) tried to establish their “walled garden” model of content presented in a proprietary format using proprietary tools, and proceeded to have their lunch eaten by upstarts like Yahoo! and, more recently, Google.

He also draws an interesting contrast between the Kindle and Apple’s iPhone, which has of course been a big success.  He points out that, although Apple’s environment appears to be proprietary (only one carrier, AT&T, and applications only available from the AppStore), there is a large opening for “unauthorized” development, since any Web site can provide an on-line application.  Similarly, the iPod music players have a closed architecture, but users can rip music from their own CD collections for listening on the iPod.

As he also points out, this is not necessarily bad news for suppliers.  Turning again to the Web, we see a great deal of advertising-supported “free” content, but that model has created several reasonably large companies.  And the recent demise of the original CompuServe service reminds us that being early to arrive is no guarantee of longevity:

Open allows experimentation. Open encourages competition. Open wins. Amazon needs to get with the program. Or, like AOL and MSN, Amazon will wind up another online pioneer who ends up a belated guest at the party it planned to host.

When the Internet first became prominent in peoples’ view of the world, there was a great deal of silliness spoken and written about how it would change virtually everything.  Most of those changes have not come to pass, nor arre they likely to, in my opinion.  But I think that there are more subtle changes, such as the shift to the generalized “open model” of development, that will have a lasting impact.

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