It has been reported recently that Amazon has sold 500k of their ugly Kindle readers in 2008. In fact, despite the slump of sales of almost everything in the last month of 2008 the demand was so high they did run out of them in November.

This shows the power of content. Kindle isn’t the best of digital readers. And it is ugly. And there are limitations to the content you “purchase”. In fact, a book you “buy” from the Amazon’s Kindle store is not your property, you can’t do nothing with it other than read it on the device. For example you can’t give it to friends. Or print few pages. So in fact it is a long-term lease that will function as long as Amazon and your Kindle will work.

But the Kindle wins with other digital readers and other more open ebook formats because of the amount of well catalogued content – books, magazines – you can easily get on the device for moderate prices. In fact, even my father’s book on composites which is a scientific textbook on an exotic subject is available as a Kindle book.

Amazon clearly had connections and power to work with major publishers to get their books as Kindle ebooks. And they had easier time persuading them to do so, as because of the closed nature of the whole system they could offer publishers more reassurances their content will be protected. Plus, small, independent publishers can use their very simple publishing platforms to get their books to Kindle with very little cost. The effect is that user buying Kindle gets an easy access to a huge library of books, something no other reader offers. That is why the Kindle “brick” has gained momentum many doubted it will ever get (me included). Once again it was proven that content is the king and the key, not devices to deliver it.

The only hope now for open ebook formats and other readers remains the fact that Amazon Kindle is not available anywhere outside the US. That leaves a huge market open for other devices. And lets hope other players will use it, because the future where digital reading is monopolized by a closed platform is not a vision to cherish.

I have to return to Amazon’s Kindle device for a moment today, because in my last post I didn’t cover some aspects of this device I find disturbing.

Not only it is totally proprietary and binds you to Amazon as the sole source of content – it also opens up a whole new set of possibilities for privacy invasion. First, Amazon knows about all the books you’ve read. And as the device is on-line all the time through a GSM network and knows who its owner is all kinds of things are possible: from gathering detailed statistics of what you read, when you read it, how fast you do it – and what notes you scribble – to tracking your whereabouts. Since the platform is totally closed there is no way whatsoever to verify what the device does and what it doesn’t.

But not only that – it would be also possible to retroactively alter publications. It could be seen as a good idea – manuals could be updated, errors could be corrected – but it can be also used to alter history, by for example removing mentions of someone or something from a newspaper days after it was “published”. This is purely Orwellian – the Ministry of Truth was doing exactly this.

Overall, I find this whole thing and the mindset behind it highly disturbing and dangerous. This can be best exposed by pushing this idea to its limit: let’s imagine it is immensely successful and everyone has one. Then everyone has only the books that come from Amazon, pays them for the right to read, there is no second-hand book market, no libraries too and Amazon knows who was reading what. All that is totally opposite to what a traditional book is – it is yours to keep, forever, no one knows what you read – you can walk into a bookstore and buy one totally anonymously – and you can lend it or give to anyone for free.

I think, in a nutshell, monetizing on everything and locking users into a proprietary platform on which they in fact don’t own anything, just pay for the right to read, is what I find most repulsive. Circulation of the written word has been limited until recently by the physical limitations of the books and newspapers. Now Internet removes those limitations – it should be an opportunity to make more available for free. There is something inherently wrong with the idea that you have to put a dime in for any page you read, any tune you listen to or any picture you see.

Over and over people come up with something they think will replace traditional books. Over and over they are proved wrong. Next in line to get slapped is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. His Kindle device is not only ugly (and who would like to be seen with something hideous in his hands?) but it also perpetually ties its user to Amazon, them being the only source for purchasing any content for Kindle.

So not only this “e-book” concept lacks all the advantages of the traditional book – no requirements for power or wireless coverage of any kind, durability, ease of use – but it also limits the concept of ownership. If I buy a book from Amazon now I own it. I can lend it or give it to a friend. I can make a copy of a few pages and give it to a friend. Will I be able to do the same with the Kindle-book? I doubt it.

I think the ugliness of the thing together with lack of clear benefits of having it over a laptop or… about 10 or so normal, paper books will be enough to kill it. People who read – and read a lot, otherwise this toy makes no sense at all – are not the same target market as usual gadget-buyers, especially customers who buy modern all-singing-all-dancing “mobile phones” and then waste money on ringtones and wallpapers. People who read tend to think.

There are just a few people who had a very good idea and had also enough luck, connections and execution power to turn it into gold. But even fewer are able to do it more than once. It is nothing unusual to get so immersed in one’s idea that one is not able to see its flaws (happens to me too). The problem is that no one dares to tell the wealthy and powerful people their idea is… less than perfect, to put it mildly. Some may fear for their position, others want to just rip the stupid affluent off.

Clearly no one told Bezos he won’t get far with this and judging by his announcement he didn’t realize it by himself. Yet.