The Kindle and Tracking: Why Owners Aren’t Outraged

It is practically a given to many people that some amount of what you do on the internet is being tracked.  There is occasional outrage over this, such as when even their less tech savvy subscribers began to catch on to the fact that they were Facebook’s salable resource more than its target audience, but that is just going to be the case when you’re talking about “free” services.  Consumers are usually even less forgiving when they pay full price for something and get their activity tracked anyway.  Why is the Kindle so amazingly popular despite being fairly open in demonstrating that at least some tracking is obviously going on, then?

We can’t say that it is the result of Kindle owners being complacent.  Glance at the reviews of the Free App of the Day in Amazon’s Appstore for Android and you’re likely to see Kindle Fire owners outright attacking app developers for including anything that tracks or otherwise exploits users in what is supposedly the fully paid version of their application.  This is not a shy or understated bunch of people we are talking about, when the situation calls for more forceful reactions.

Where these app developers are chastised for sneaking in tracking, however, Amazon is openly displaying the fruits of their analysis.  This is one part of why they are able to get away with it.  They never deny that user data is being tracked and analyzed.  It is something that people know when they buy into the line.  Amazon is going to keep a list of what you buy, sometimes even what you consider buying, and they will draw conclusions from that.

There is more to it than that, though.  Amazon might be collecting this data for any number of purposes that work for the benefit of the company, but they are offering a clear service to their customers by offering the tailored suggestions that come standard in any Amazon account’s home page.  The popular theory that I have heard voiced is that this alone accounts for the general complacency with which Kindle users in particular take this situation.  At least there is a visible tradeoff here.

I would say that the real explanation is slightly different, although that is a part of it.  Amazon has done a lot to make itself a very customer-friendly company.  More often than anything else, their customer service receives glowing praise.  They not only brought us eBooks in a major way for the first time but actively got into disagreements with suppliers to try to bring them to us at reasonable prices.  Amazon really seems to be one of the few companies left that puts customer satisfaction first.  That makes it easy to trust that they will use any information they collect in a responsible manner.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there is an unconditional trust here.  We all remember the congressional inquiry into the Silk Browser’s privacy features around the time of the Kindle Fire launch.  If there are concerns, they should and do get brought up.  I just find it fascinating that the sort of behavior that causes outrage in other areas gets more or less ignored here.  Maybe Kindle owners are really satisfied enough to feel that Amazon deserves some trust?

Hay Festival Highlights Anti-Kindle Sentiment

The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, taking place now through June 10th in Wales, has been one of the largest growing literary gatherings since its inception in 1988.  From a humble gathering of around 400 bibliophiles, it has become a staple for the community that expects to draw in around a quarter of a million guests over its ten day run this year.  The Festival boasts panels with famous authors, debates about literature and environmental sustainability, and a number of other topics and activities.  A much-cited quote taken from Bill Clinton in 2001 declares it “The Woodstock of the mind”.  It is unfortunate, knowing about all this, to hear the recent press around participants’ demands to completely ban the Kindle from the event for the duration.

It would be hard to call this a surprise considering the nature of the festival.  Whatever else it has become, the festival was begun as a way to draw attention to the town of Hay-on-Wye and its position as a central location for independent bookshops.   In many ways this has been amazingly successful.  As things expanded, and they certainly have by this point with there being over a dozen different official “Hay Festival” events happening around the world every year, it just would have been nice for a bit of a wider view to take hold.

I’m not against the idea of the festival.  If anything, however, the Kindle belongs right in there with everything else.  Consider their own description of the festival itself:

“Hay celebrates great writing from poets and scientists, lyricists and comedians, novelists and environmentalists, and the power of great ideas to transform our way of thinking. We believe the exchange of views and meeting of minds that our festivals create inspire revelations personal, political and educational.”

This event is meant to be a gathering in celebration of great writers and thinkers, not favorite formats and business interests.

The Kindle protesters, led by local bookshop owner Derek Addyman, blame the activities of Amazon for the recent closings of five of the area’s thirty or so secondhand book stored this year.  Add to this the fact that the town’s only seller of new books went out of business as well and you can understand some of the pressure that the group must be under.

It’s interesting to see exactly how hostile the statements are getting, though.  Addyman has been quoted as saying “Booksellers here definitely want them banned. You see people walking around with Kindles and they are like robots in another world…Kindles are just a phase and they won’t last. They are our enemy.”  It isn’t a great way to garner sympathy from potential customers, given the increasing support eReaders have been enjoying every year.

If the Hay Festival really is a celebration of the written word and great writers, then the Kindle is going to be especially important in making those things more accessible to the readers of the world.  If this is still simply a propaganda-driven event meant to promote Hay-on-Wye bookshops then they need to make that more clear.  To the best of my knowledge there has been no actual ban, nor was there ever really going to be one, but it is rather sad that this sort of thing is allowed to hijack what is otherwise an interesting and potentially productive event.

Target Tosses the Kindle, Says Goodbye to Amazon

Target was among the first major Brick & Mortar retailers to begin offering the Kindle to its customers.  For many people there was a period when this was literally the only place they could try out an eReader in person rather than blindly trusting that it would meet their needs.  Now, with the Kindle everywhere and Amazon widely demonized as the bane of all storefront business, Target has decided that it would be best to say goodbye to the Kindle and Amazon for good.

Target Corp manages over 1,700 stores as well as a major retail website of its own.  The company become a huge name recently by beginning to pass Walmart as the most inexpensive shopping location available for a variety of goods.  While overall still slightly behind Walmart in general, it was reported last year that Target had begun to reliably offer less expensive grocery and household goods to its customers.

This is relevant to the company’s ending their Kindle partnership because the reason cited for the move was an increasingly popular practice called “showrooming”.  Showrooming is what retailers have come to call the act of window shopping in a local store while comparing prices with online outlets like Amazon.com on a smartphone.  It can result in impressive savings for customers, but big retailers complain that it amounts to little more than exploitation.

Amazon is tied into this practice fairly deeply.  In addition to offering the widest selection of inexpensive goods on the internet and a subscription-based service that allows free two day shipping to reduce wait times, the internet giant has even created smartphone apps to make the act of showrooming as painless as possible.  Using their smartphone apps, customers can simply scan the barcode of whatever they are interested in and be taken to the Amazon.com page selling it.

While it is definitely understandable that Target would be upset by the practice and with Amazon in general, it is hard to imagine this as a particularly productive move on their parts.  While Target undoubtedly earned little money off of individual Kindle device sales, the Kindle line was their bestselling tablet/eReader this past holiday season and it is almost impossible to actually use a Kindle for showrooming given that even the Kindle Fire lacks a camera and cellular connectivity.  At best this is a punitive move rather than an obviously productive one.

Interestingly, this plan does coincide with the decision to add internal Apple shops to a number of storefronts over the coming year.  The Kindle and all related accessories might be in the process of disappearing from stores, but they have stated that “We will continue to offer our guests a full assortment of e-readers and supporting accessories.”  Presumably that means the Nook will be sticking around.  If you are in the market for a Kindle, you can still find them at any number of retailers including Best Buy, Walmart, and Staples.

Kindle Ad Spoils Hunger Games In D.C.

The Hunger Games has by now become a pop culture phenomenon the likes of which we have not seen since the days of Harry Potter, and it is already far easier to get your hands on the Kindle Editions.  I’m forgetting the Twilight series on purpose here, mostly because I wish I could.  Anyway, as with any such popular series, the fans are interested in taking things at their own pace.  When those fans primarily interested in the movie versions of the young adult series (or just those who are behind on/late with their reading) are exposed to major plot details relevant to the as-yet unreleased second movie, it is understandably upsetting.

Amazon dropped the ball slightly on this one and ran an ad in the Washington D.C. metro that throws these details up on a billboard for all to see.  Meant to highlight the availability of the series on the Kindle and play to up the association with the anticipated second film, the billboard shows off the first page of Mockingjay (Hunger Games Book 3) in plain, easily read text displayed on the screen of a Kindle.  Normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but Collins opens that book with some fairly key points about the plot that amount to major spoilers for the second book, Catching Fire.

The ad has received huge amounts of attention through Twitter and Facebook, with many expressing disappointment or outrage over Amazon’s carelessness.  While understandable, it is hard to get too upset.  Many fans might only have recently become familiar with the series thanks to the movies, and might even be exclusively interested in the movie adaptations, but Mockingjay was released in 2010.  To expect ongoing self-censorship on a huge scale for years at a time is a great way to be disappointed.

It is unlikely that Harry Potter fans, to re-use the comparison, were able to wait the four years between book release and movie opening before learning about the way Snape and Dumbledore interact in the sixth book of Rowling’s series.  If you want to be safe from this kind of exposure, I wish you the best of luck despite the difficulties.  The Kindle advertisement in question can be found on the Blue Line of the DC Metro.

Amazon has not responded to any of the inquiries about the unwelcome revelation so far, but the fact that it caught sufficient attention to make people think of the Kindle and The Hunger Games in the same context probably makes this a win for the marketing team.  While it would be incredibly bad for the image of the Kindle line in general if this sort of plot spoiler was used as a regular advertising gimmick, one instance is unlikely to be enough for public apologies and the tearing down of a billboard.

Link To The Ad In Question

Arguing that Amazon’s Behavior Justifies Agency Model Price Fixing is Idiotic

Since the rise of the Agency Model that Apple made possible for publishers in a partnership surrounding the release of the iBooks application and store for the original iPad (a partnership now awaiting trial in an anti-trust case), there has been serious talk about how Amazon has set out on a crusade to utterly destroy traditional publishing with the Kindle.  This isn’t news, exactly, but it has become an important and popular topic after the recent contract dispute that the company had with the Independent Publishers Group that has resulted in the ongoing absence of IPG titles from the Kindle Store.

There can be no question that Amazon is acting like a bully in this dispute.  They want a lot and are in a position to demand rather than ask or negotiate.  What has risen up in response to this anti-Amazon sentiment has been shocking to say the least, however.  Scattered around popular blogs, we can now see any number of authors and publishers coming out against Amazon and claiming that publishers were somehow right to have engaged in price fixing and that even if it was technically illegal they should be allowed a pass because otherwise Amazon will win.

On the one hand, it is understandable sentiment.  Thanks to the Kindle, Amazon controls around 75% of the eBook market already.  Without their platform, the rise of eReading as we now know it would slow to a crawl.  Nobody else has the resources, or seemingly the interest in customer satisfaction, that Amazon is willing to put into keeping such a platform going.

On the other hand, this is insane.  Publishers were unhappy with how poorly the old business model applies to new media and so their potentially illegal activities should be excused.  It makes no sense to me, somehow.

This is made to seem like it is a one-sided arrangement.  I believe that to be a mischaracterization.  If publishers lacked power, they could not have compelled the adoption of the Agency Model in the first place.  They were just too concerned at the time with short term profits to be willing to take a stand and risk losing Amazon as a storefront.  It was a move that only made sense for every individual company if they knew that none of the competition would be capitalizing on their threatened withdrawal.

Amazon’s acting like a bully aside (because in the matter of the Agency Model and its potential legal implications that that does not apply) they have built the simplest and most usable way for readers everywhere to access eBooks.  Nobody else has come close, despite competing efforts from Barnes & Noble’s Nook line, the Kobo, and more.  This does not mean that anybody has been compelled to use it.

There would be no case against them if the Big 6 Publishers had come out with their own Kindle competitor and started offering all of their titles through it.  The Kindle would still be there attracting self publishers and generally making itself useful in various ways, but it wouldn’t have the content to be so important.

These publishers don’t want to have to deal with building new distribution channels, though.  They also don’t want to have to adapt when other people build them.  The fact that there is a power disparity is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean that these publishers were ever powerless.  Nobody compels them to use the Kindle platform.  To say that they should be able to get away with their own anti-competitive and manipulative actions because otherwise the Kindle line will make people start seeing books as more affordable and ruin their profits is just ridiculous.

Amazon Revenue Shortfall A Sign of Kindle Success?

Investors have recently suffered a bit of disappointment as Amazon’s fourth quarter revenue failed to meet expectations.  Stocks fell, as a result.  The big question is why this was the case.  With Amazon saying that the sales of their Kindle line were up 177%, and the Kindle Fire specifically being the best selling product on their site since before it was even released, it’s possible we have an answer.

Regardless of whether or not the Kindle Fire, or any of the Kindle eReader devices for that matter, is being sold at a loss, it is definitely not being sold for a significant profit.  That is even taking into account nothing beyond the simple numbers that people have managed to break down as far as parts and manufacturing cost estimates and ignores any other form of investment the company has to make to create a successful product.  This means that everything after launch from software development to marketing to Amazon’s ever impressive support staff will inevitably push things over into the red.  This can create some misleading information when you launch something like the Kindle Fire that exceeds expectations so strongly.

The way the Kindle line works, especially the Kindle Fire, is that the profit always comes from media purchases over the course of the device’s life.  By providing each customer with a simple way to get whatever they want at a moment’s notice with no complications, Amazon makes it easy for a $1 eBook here and there to add up to a decent income.  This means that while expected income for the company on each Kindle Fire is estimated to exceed initial guesses, it will take time for that to manifest.  The short term will see more investment in making the product as indispensible as possible to users and cement customer loyalty even if it means taking larger short term losses than expected due to the sheer number of new users.

Basically that is what this all seems to come down to.  Despite the doomsday predictions floating around now that Amazon has had a superficially bad quarter, there is reason to believe that the short term loss is actually a good predictor of long term growth.

The Kindle Fire has had a huge impact on markets and now accounts for the largest percentage of Android tablet usage by some accounts.  It is beating out the competition and still gaining momentum along the way.  There have been some reports that Android developers are currently making as much as 250% more off of their app sales on the Amazon Appstore than on those made through the general Android Marketplace, especially in those situations where revenue is advertising based.

The model is working and people are definitely making good use of their new tablets.  While it remains to be seen what will come of Amazon’s efforts beyond the Kindle Fire, particularly given that future installments are rumored to be vaguely directed at confrontation with Apple’s iPad, right now there is every reason to believe that the experiment in moving beyond eReaders was a success.

Kindle Fire Wins Over The Family Technophobes

The appeal of the whole “Post-PC World” concept that accompanies is rise of the Tablet PC is the extreme simplicity of use.  The lack of power inherent in the portable design doesn’t come into play as much as one might expect, since you are obviously limited from the start to things that don’t require heavy use of full keyboards, mice, etc.  This basically means that devices like the Kindle Fire are ideal from conception as a means of leisurely computing and nothing more.

Now we all know somebody, no matter who that might be, who is either unwilling or incapable of using a computer in any meaningful way.  My family has a couple of them.  I figured that the ideal way to gauge the user-friendliness of the Kindle Fire‘s interface was to get them to take a test drive on it.  The results were impressive. To understand the nature of the reviewers here, it is worth noting that one of them initially refused to even consider it because of how confusing and overwhelming trying to use an iPad was.  I’m told that birthday gift didn’t last a week.

Reviewer One:

It’s fun.  I can get all my stuff by clicking on the word for what I want and then next time it’s waiting on the screen for me.  The buttons for the game look silly next to my books, but if you read a few things they go away.  The best part was the button shelf (Favorites Bar), so that I didn’t lose the important stuff.  The magazines don’t make sense though.  The screen is too small for that.  I think I’ll be keeping mine.

Reviewer Two:

I really only want something to read on.  I tried the old Kindle, but it was too dark for me.  This one is pretty good.  I figured out how to get books from the library and they’re easier to read at night.  I don’t think I’ll ever watch movies on it.  They look good, but the screen is way too small.  I’d rather use my TiVo.  I’m glad they made a Kindle like this that was small enough to read on still.  I’ll probably take it with me on planes.

Reviewer Three:

This one is a lot easier to hold than the iPad.  I know people like that one, but it just did a lot of things I don’t care about.  This lets me check my email, read books, and doesn’t make it seem like I should be doing more.  I’m going to give it a try and maybe even learn how to take it to the library.

Obviously I prompted a little bit there about likes and dislikes, but you get the picture.

In terms of the Kindle Fire‘s simplicity of use, not much else could have demonstrated things better for me.  It’s going to be a common gift this holiday season as a result.  Remember that Amazon has a 30 day return policy for Kindles, making it possible to audition even when you’re not 100% sure that it will go over well.  I don’t think that the family I talked to are getting every possible use out of their new tablets, but that doesn’t mean they failed to enjoy.

A Kindle Conversion: Why The EPUB Argument Stopped Mattering

Amazon made what appeared to be some fairly big opponents in the earliest days of the Kindle.  All they had to do was decide to go with a closed format.  Unlike some companies who might have decided that a strong DRM scheme was plenty of protection, they made sure that Kindle owners were locked in by consciously failing to support the industry standard eBook format.  It struck many people, myself included, as manipulative and more than a little bit condescending.

Thinking back, many of my earliest complaints about the Kindle revolved around the EPUB format.  I was ideologically supportive of the Nook in a very strong way as a result.  They might have wanted to lock in customers via DRM, but at least things like outside purchases and library books would work if the user wanted to make the effort to access them.  MobiPocket format was already too outdated in many situations.

Oddly enough, in principle the objections remain to this day.  The difference is that now customers aren’t expected to buy into an unproven platform with no guarantee that success was ahead.  Keep in mind that the Kindle was not the first E Ink eReader.  Sony was already doing a fairly good job of fizzling out by then and has been taking a back seat in the field ever since as a result.

My own change of opinion regarding the importance of the eBook format conflict stems from purely practical matters.  We have reached a point where there is literally nothing you can’t do with a Kindle that can be done on another device.  Library books are plentiful, no author or publisher is likely to boycott the Kindle platform in favor of the competition, and on the off chance that you find a DRM-free eBook you want on your device you can convert it for free with Calibre (a practical necessity for the eBook enthusiast in case you haven’t adopted already. Google it!).  In a situation where the format itself offers no particular advantage inherent to itself, there is no longer much reason to cling to it.  There is a reason you don’t see much use of HD-DVD anymore, or Betamax before that.

As we move forward into the next generation of formats, HTML5 forms the underlying structure.  Kindle Format 8 looks to allow for as much, or as little, formatting as the person producing a given publication desires as a result.  This will improve Amazon’s ability to present their media equally well on practically any size display, which makes sense given speculation regarding future Kindle Tablet options.  Nobody else seems to have really adopted an equally versatile approach yet, and even if that happens it won’t necessarily change anything.  There is only so much you can do in order to essentially show off text in an attractive manner.

What it all comes down to is that customers will go where they get the best experience.  EPUB might be better than Mobi, but with the Kindle providing the better hardware and Amazon backing their product with strong infrastructure and a great book store that didn’t matter enough.  It’s one more format war down.

Amazon Kindle Daily Detail Now Available In UK

Let’s face it, Amazon has not been great up until now about making sure that customers outside of US markets get access to their products and services in a timely manner.  The Kindle Fire will be a long time coming to other countries due to its strong ties to an infrastructure that hasn’t been built up anywhere else yet, Amazon Prime has yet to carry quite the same incentives for everybody, and many of the promotions that Amazon runs don’t quite make it to any of their sites besides Amazon.com.  It’s always good news when this changes, though, even if only slightly.

Amazon has recently announced that their ongoing Kindle Daily Deal promotion will be extended to the UK’s Kindle Store.  Amazon.co.uk customers will be able to enjoy specially discounted Kindle Edition eBooks on a daily basis.  Each book will be available at this price for 24 hours before reverting to its normal number.  In the US Kindle Store, it has not been unusual to see heavily discounted titles in a variety of genres and it is hopes that this trend will continue now that the offer is being expanded.

Sadly, while as I mentioned this is definitely a step in the right direction, it does little to address the ongoing problem.  The newest Kindles have not yet been given much of a presence outside of US markets.  While, for example, you can buy the new Kindle 4 in the UK you cannot order a Kindle Touch, or even a Kindle Keyboard without 3G.  Prices are still noticeably higher due to a number of factors including the lack of Special Offers integration, and this has not been changing at the rate we might expect.

Clearly Amazon is responding to a number of pressures.  I could reasonably see it being difficult to justify having a Kindle Keyboard WiFi if consumer demand in a particular country leaves them sitting on a shelf while orders come in for the 3G model.  The Kindle Touch, due in particular to its much-touted X-Ray feature, requires access to Amazon technology still in its early stages.  As such it might be worth working the bugs out before implementing it elsewhere.  The Kindle Fire relies on all sorts of media streaming avenues that will require years of time and more money than anybody likes to think about to make happen in new markets.  Each new market, in fact, will be the same headache all over again since global media rights are not exactly simple to secure.  There is a lot that goes into getting something ready for international release on any large scale.

That said, all of this is insufficient to really justify the continuance of the problem or Amazon’s lack of comment on user demands.  It is nice when they come up with something like the Kindle Daily Deal, but in the end it seems like audiences outside the US are almost an afterthought.  If Amazon hopes to secure any significant presence beyond what it already has in hand, the only option is to start pushing for more equal treatment of these customer bases.  Or so it would seem to me.

The Unexpected Perks of Kindle Ownership

When you decide to pick up a Kindle for the first time, there are a lot of factors that can play into it.  The first ones that come to mind are also probably the most important.  You’ve got instant access to any book you want to buy no matter what time you want to buy it at.  You can carry around hundreds or thousands of books at a time in your pocket.  Chances are good that you’ll save money overall on your book purchases, if you’re a regular reader.  That sort of thing.  There are a few things that have come up that one might not expect, however.

Something that many people perhaps don’t expect is an actual reduction of clutter.  Many Kindle owners find themselves replacing paperbacks with Kindle Editions over the course of their ownership.  The eBook is more durable and harder to lose.  This can result in a great deal of space saving over the course of dozens of book replacements, many of which can be at least partially subsidized through resale of the used copies unless you’re a fan of library donations.  eReading can come to mean that the only books you actually have to keep track of are the ones you like enough to want to display proudly in hardcover.

Another plus I’ve encountered, though I probably wouldn’t want to put it to the test in any major way, is the durability of the eReader.  I’ve heard plenty of arguments that consolidating to a Kindle means that if you break one thing then you’re out of luck until you replace it, but they have proven difficult to damage in a number of situations.  Moisture generally isn’t a problem, kids can’t tear their pages, and short falls do no damage.  On that last point, maybe it is just me, but every time I drop or knock down a book it seems to fall in just the right way to bend half the pages.  Anybody else find that annoying?  Moving on…

The most outstanding example that I am aware of is probably restricted to the Kindle 3G.  In the aftermath of the string of tornado that made their way through the US in the past few months, many people found themselves without power, let alone internet connectivity.  Thanks to the long life of the Kindle’s battery, there were a number of people that I’ve heard of who were able to find information that they needed and reassure friends and family of their safety in situations where doing so would otherwise have been very difficult.  Cell phones simply don’t often last that long, no matter how conservative you are with their battery life.

Now obviously these aren’t selling points.  The extra functionalities, if you can even call them that, are highly situational.  I’m always interested in perks that can make what was already a great acquisition even more valuable.  There’s more use to be found things like a Kindle than you can generally find on a spec sheet, if you look for it.