Penguin, Overdrive, and Amazon: Kindle Library Lending Gets Complicated

Kindle owners found themselves targeted recently in a fairly unpleasant way.  Penguin USA, one of the largest publishers in the world, decided that it would be a smart business move to pull their entire collection of publications from libraries across the country for Kindle owners.  Everybody else, including owners of competing eReaders like the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch, could still get these books.  Now, while things have been temporarily dealt with since then – Penguin has temporarily stopped singling out the Kindle users entirely – new Penguin books will not be made available anymore and there is reason to believe that the event will recur unless Penguin and OverDrive (the service providing eBook lending services for most libraries these days) are able to work out a deal by the end of the year.

Neither Penguin nor OverDrive has said anything about the exact details of Penguin’s problems.  OverDrive was simply sent word to disable the “Get for Kindle” functionality for all Penguin eBooks immediately.  There was not even a warning sent to the affected libraries before the change took effect, which led to a great deal of ill will.  These libraries purchase each copy of the eBooks they rent out and as such were left sitting on the results of essentially wasted money that could not be lent out despite Kindle-owning customer demand.  The expected outcry for massive refunds, which would certainly have garnered a great deal of public sympathy, might well explain Penguin’s temporary capitulation.

Many have believably argued that this is a direct response to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library that Amazon launched recently for their Prime members.  The timing certainly fits.  Amazon got around the fact that major publishers have refused to buy into this new program by focusing on their KDP titles, smaller publishers, and by outright purchase of each rented eBook that they could get their hands on through wholesale arrangements.  This last move is what causes the ill will since many publishers and authors feel that this exceeds the scope of their current relationships with Amazon.

While nobody involved in the Prime lending library is directly losing money, a major worry in the industry is that eBooks will lose perceived value.  If customers start thinking of eBooks as somehow inherently cheaper that printed books, then printed Book sales will suffer and publishers would be forced to rely on sales of the eBooks, which means being subject to Amazon and Barnes & Noble even more than they are now.  This is the same sort of reasoning that brought on the behind-the-scenes deal with Apple to fix prices of eBooks around the time the iBooks store opened up.

I would say that this is going to go poorly for Penguin.  While their need to react is understandable given that they feel wronged, the targeting was off a bit.  Instead of attacking Amazon directly, they have gone after their own readers.  Yes, the Amazon deal with OverDrive increases the incentive to purchase a Kindle, but going after libraries doesn’t do a lot to make you look better to a customer base that loves to read.  The Kindle is unlikely to be pushed out of the #1 slot in eBook Readers any time soon, even if all the major publishers pulled out of the library system in the same way.  It’s difficult to understand what Penguin is still hoping to accomplish here.

Nook Tablet’s Larger Storage Offers Less Than Kindle Fire

In the eyes of many, the Kindle Fire didn’t have much of a chance of competing with Apple’s technically superior iPad tablet.  That remains to be seen in the longer term, of course, but for now it’s all just speculation.  Regardless, this shifts the focus of people watching for active competition to the Kindle vs Nook battle.  They have been ongoing rivals in the eReader world, of course, and now they both offer budget priced tablets that will do a lot more than help you read.

On paper the Nook Tablet is quite possibly the better device.  It has the same processing power, more RAM, and most importantly twice the local storage of the Kindle Fire.  This last alone was enough to get many people to declare it a clear winner before either device hit shelves.  Now that we can use them both side by side, the situation has drastically changed.

The Nook Tablet, despite having 16GB of storage space (~12GB available to users), severely restricts what users are able to do with that space.  To such a degree that the idea of purchasing the device as a video player without the intention of rooting it is fairly laughable.  Users will find that Barnes & Noble has chosen to allow a mere 1GB of storage for the loading of outside content.  While the remainder can be filled by anything B&N sells, the fact of the matter is that right now they don’t offer nearly enough content to justify the choice.

There is not, for example, a video store for the Nook Tablet.  Neither is there an MP3 service.  You can, of course, access services like Netflix or Pandora for all your media consumption needs, but should you desire to watch or listen to things that you yourself own already then chances are good there is a problem.  Basically the only thing available in any quantity besides apps, and the scarcity of Nook apps is another complaint to address at another time, is reading material.  It simply does not justify this.

While I think that anybody would agree that the Kindle Fire‘s 8GB on-board storage is one of its weak points, Amazon at least manages to expand your options.  Sure you might have trouble loading everything that you want onto the device at once, but you can always stream it or store in their provided cloud storage until it is needed.  This is in addition to also offering equally functional access to Netflix, Pandora, and basically everything else that the Nook Tablet is using to make up for its lack of media store integration.

What probably should have been a clear win for B&N has turned their device into a joke for many prospective buyers.  We can hope that as time goes on this will be changed via a software update of some sort since the Nook Tablet is honestly a decent piece of hardware for just $250.  It is ridiculous that to get any decent amount of storage space a new user should feel compelled to purchase a memory card when the drive is just sitting there more than half empty.

Amazon Confirms Apps For Hulu Plus, ESPN, and More!

Clearly the Kindle Fire is creating some buzz in the tablet community, and among people who just generally like these sort of gadgets in general.  With the announcement of the new Nook Tablet, though, some people had started looking more closely into potential shortcomings for the Amazon offering and quite possibly the biggest one was the external services tie ins.

While the Nook Tablet is completely giving up on offering its own unique video service in favor of letting customers find their own way among companies like Hulu, Netflix, Rhapsody, etc., Amazon kept touting their own library selection and the advantages inherent in the integration with this library.  Surely, the thinking goes, Amazon would be pointing out that they were allowing seemingly competing companies a place on their new device if such were the case.  I’ve often seen this cited as a reason for the Nook Tablet’s superiority since that device was announced, in fact.

Naturally this relies on incomplete information.  As I have mentioned previously, companies like Netflix and Pandora were among the few to have preview copies of the new Kindle Fire before it was officially announced and blocking access to the services these companies offer was never indicated in any way.  To head off these rumors, Amazon issued a press release this week emphasizing the large selection of media based apps that we can expect to see ready for their new tablet.

In the week to come, Hulu Plus and ESPN ScoreCenter apps can be expected to appear in the marketplace.  A Netflix app is confirmed as well.  There will be games from popular developers like PopCap, Zynga, and EA.  A number of music streaming apps from companies like Pandora will be around as well.  Across the board every effort has been made to draw in app developers who might bring customers what they want on the new device regardless of how that might cause increased competition for Amazon’s own products in the long term.  Pretty much the only apps you are unlikely to see on the Kindle Fire are those from more direct competitors like Apple and Barnes & Noble.

It also demonstrates Amazon’s fairly impressive confidence in their own offerings, when taken with everything together.  As a digital retailer, Amazon serves up games, movies, music, and eBooks to Kindle Fire users.  The fact that they still anticipate making money off of the device, which they are selling at or near the cost of manufacture, indicates faith that customers will find value in what is being offered.  I would say that this has to be based on more than simply the convenience of one-click buying integration throughout the interface.

Amazon will continue to inspect all of their App Store submissions before releasing them for the Kindle Fire, but clearly this will not be to weed out the competition.  Users will enjoy the full benefits that a tablet like this has to offer, which should reassure some people who have been hesitant to join up with a platform that may have seemed at first glance to be considering emulating the Apple model.  No more reason to hesitate over this matter.

Kindle Fire Rooting Likely To Come Quickly

So, Amazon knows that some of you will be rooting the Kindle Fire by now.  It’s hard to imagine otherwise at this point, given the state of the competition and the community of Android enthusiasts who love to unlock the full functionality of the OS.  What’s fairly unusual about Amazon’s approach to this, though, is that they don’t really seem to care and won’t be making any major moves to prevent it.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “rooting” a device means gaining unrestricted access to the device’s software in order to, among other things, install a fresh or custom version of the operating system that is more in line with what you are personally interested in.  The Nook Color, for example, was widely regarded to be an impressive budget tablet after rooting despite its less than impressive default feature set at release.  Rooting is common practice on Android devices, especially when by default these devices prevent users from accessing the Android Marketplace or when manufacturers stop supporting software updates for older devices.  This is essentially the same process as Jailbreaking your iOS devices and the results are comparable.

Amazon representative Jon Jenkins, director of the Silk browser project for the Kindle Fire, admitted “It’s going to get rooted, and what you do after you root it is up to you.”  In the same interview he admitted to not even being sure if the bootloader was locked, which is just one of the many ways that Android is closed off to potential hackers.  This doesn’t mean that Amazon will offer any special support for such endeavors, and indeed it will still most likely result in a breach of warranty for anybody who chooses to go this route, but they don’t seem to see much profit in staying on top of any potential exploits and holes in the security.

It’s a novel approach for a major developer.  For the most part companies tend to overreact to what they view as a threat, often to the point of forcing normal users into less enjoyable experiences as a result.  It also implies a certain level of confidence in the experience being delivered.

Amazon is essentially gambling on the idea that the Kindle Fire’s unique interface and distinctness from the generic Android experience will be enough to keep users locked in.  They have spent a great deal of time and effort, by most accounts, in creating something distinct that customers will feel worth investing in.  Of course it will probably help that without the Kindle Fire‘s OS it will likely be difficult to make use of Amazon’s cloud services.  If the Silk Browser is genuinely faster than the competition as it claims to be then that alone would be enough to make you hesitate to switch.

Basically, if all you want is the hardware then you’re in luck.  Grab it, root it, play with normal Android all you want.  It provides a decent amount of power for the $199 price.  What many of us are hoping for though, and what I think Amazon is banking on, is that they have done a good enough job to make it not even worth the effort.

Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader Comes To Firefox

Kindle Cloud Reader

Kindle Cloud Reader

While Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader app might have been a response to Apple’s restrictive app store purchasing rules, it manages to be one of the best examples of the potential inherent in HTML5 applications.  Users are able to enjoy all of the benefits of a local Kindle reading app without going through those pesky app stores and their associated complications.

Normally those complications are minimal, of course, but after Apple almost put an end to the Kindle app for iOS users it’s probably a good thing to break away.  The one major complaint for users is that up until now only Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome browsers were supported.  Now even more customers will get to join in.

Users of Mozilla Firefox can now access the Reader so long as they are running version 6 or later.  This significantly expands the user base for the app by bringing in the most popular web browser worldwide.  By most estimates Firefox is more popular than Chrome and Safari put together by a fair margin yet, even with Google making their presence increasingly known.

As has been the case previously, users of the Kindle Cloud Reader app will enjoy pretty much every basic feature they are used to from the Kindle platform both online and off.  This includes the ability to read in a variety of font sizes and styles, a couple different color schemes, and the ability to bookmark.  You can choose which of your Kindle books to keep locally for times when web access is questionable or simply not desired.

The only real downside, assuming that you aren’t a big fan of Internet Explorer who is therefore still left out of the fun, is the inability to annotate and highlight.  Supposedly this feature is expected to be implemented in the future, but as yet nothing is there.  You are, of course, able to read and access any and all annotations and such that you might have entered via another device or app.As always, I can’t say there’s any substitute for an actual Kindle eReader, if for no other reason than the major advantage they have in the E INK displays, but this brings a significant level of functionality to virtually any personal device.

The Kindle Cloud Reader, along with Amazon’s other cloud services, will be especially important in the near future as the Kindle Fire finally begins to ship.  The company’s dedication to cloud computing and digital media delivery is a large part of the motivation behind the release of the tablet in the first place.  While Firefox is obviously not a factor with the device itself, this move indicates an obvious continuing interest in updating and expanding the feature set of the app.

Users interested in checking out the Kindle Cloud Reader can access the device in any major non-IE browser at http://read.amazon.com or http://www.amazon.com/cloudreader or through the direct link in the Kindle Store.

Kindle vs Nook: DC Debacle Spurs B&N To Dumb Move

It’s no real secret that Barnes & Noble has quickly come to depend on their Nook eReader line, which by extension means it isn’t really too surprising that they might overreact when that is threatened.  A recent spat with DC Comics over a limited term of Kindle Fire eComic distribution exclusivity for a segment of the publisher’s current titles has resulted in just such an overreaction, though, and their failure to see the mistake may well provide difficulties going forward.

The underlying complaint on the part of Barnes & Noble is that DC has had the audacity to offer eReader exclusivity on 100 or so titles to Amazon as a temporary means for Amazon to promote the Kindle Fire.  While there is no information yet, to the best of my knowledge, as to how long this deal will remain in place, both DC and Amazon have acknowledged that it is not intended to necessarily be a long term arrangement.

As a result, Barnes & Noble has pulled all DC titles from their stores.  This includes every physical copy of the Amazon digital exclusives from DC Comics.  No notice was given to customers initially, simply a blanket email to all stores requiring them to remove the books.  To pull the gist of the eventual published statement from the Brick & Mortar book giant: “Regardless of the publisher, we will not stock physical books in our stores if we are not offered the available digital format.[…]To sell and promote the physical book in our store showrooms, and not have the eBook available for sale would undermine our promise to Barnes & Noble customers to make available any book, anywhere, anytime.”

On the surface, one has to applaud the effort.  Maybe this was an instance of Amazon throwing their weight around that required a significant response from a major retailer to help publishers see that such behavior is unacceptable.  That sentiment lasts right up until the realization that at this time Barnes & Noble does not in any way offer electronic comic publications.

The chain has decided that they are so dedicated to the principal on this issue that they are willing to turn away customers at the door rather than allow Amazon’s Kindle Fire access to something the Nook Color has not even tried to exploit after a year on the market.  Now not only with B&N customers not be able to download their comics, they can’t get physical copies except through the B&N website.  Stores have even been instructed to turn away special orders.  No copy will be allowed to enter the store, no matter how much you want to give your money to Barnes & Noble.

In the end, I see this hurting nobody but B&N, their customers, and the creators of the works in question.  Nobody wins but Amazon and customers have one more reason to avoid dealing with anybody else.  While this could have been quickly remedied with a quiet apology for initial overreaction, there is no excuse for letting it continue and treating customers this poorly, especially at a time when they are faced with a superior competing product.

Has The Kindle Fire Opened Amazon To Patent Lawsuits?

Up until now, Amazon has done a fairly good job of avoiding patent lawsuits.  Sure, they’ve run into a few over search technology and such, but overall they’ve been small and unsuccessful.  With the release of the Kindle Fire, though, they may have entered into the murky world of mobile computing litigation.  What this means for the future of the company’s hardware development line remains to be seen, but there are a few things that we can be quite sure of over the next several months.  One of these is that Amazon will rise to the challenge.

In 2011 alone already Amazon has been hit with 11 lawsuits over 30 alleged patent infringements, two of which have been dismissed completely.  The majority of them have been in relation to the technology being put in place to pave the way for the launch of the Kindle Fire.  This includes cloud computing (admittedly even more useful in other areas, but vital for things like the Kindle Fire’s Silk web browser), streaming services, site personalization, and a number of things that relate to other Kindles as well.  Last year, they didn’t face a third so much attention over patents.

As the 15th of Nov. rolls around, whole new areas of vulnerability open up.  Android has thus far been a highly disputed OS.  Apple has been particularly active in using legal tactics to beat down any potentially successful competing tablets, both in the US and abroad, but they are not the only ones.  Microsoft has managed to convince Samsung to pay royalties over supposed Android related patents, for example, though MS has not as yet brought any major action against the source.  It’s possible that Google is too big to attack at the moment?  That says nothing of the increasingly common “patent troll” crowd that exists for no reason other than to acquire intellectual property and make money suing people over it.  The mobile device market is their favorite playground.

While there is a great deal of criticism of the patent system floating about at the moment, chances are good that any reform of that system is a long way off.  For the time being this is the environment we are stuck with no matter how much it would seem doomed to stifle any form of innovation in technology.

We’ll see where things go in the next year.  Some have predicted Amazon acquiring HP’s WebOS and the associated intellectual properties as a way to bolster their position in the event of extended legal battles.  Google made a similar move in acquiring Motorola’s mobile division, so there’s certainly precedent for such a move.  Whether or not that happens, though, Amazon has expressed an intent to defend themselves against all comers.  This could be enough to scare off potential complaints.  Nobody interested in repeating lawsuits for income wants such a high profile case setting precedent against them. The Kindle Fire isn’t likely to be blocked as easily as some other tablets and cell phones have been before now.

Kindle Fire’s Silk Browser Raises Security Concerns

Amazon’s Kindle Fire does a few things that surprised people when it was announced a couple weeks ago, but probably nothing shocked people more than the inclusion of the new Amazon Silk internet browser.  The idea behind it is sound, allowing most of the work for web browsing to be done in the cloud so that the user experiences vastly reduced loading times and a generally superior browsing experience.  Obviously, however, the fact that the processing is being done by external computers raises some concerns in terms of privacy that need to be addressed.

Some have worried that Amazon would use customers’ browsing habits to customize sales pitches.  Others are concerned that once acquired this user data becomes a commodity that Amazon can hope to turn into profit.  Enterprise IT is definitely concerned with the presence of the Kindle Fire in the workplace this November for a variety of reasons.  Even Congress has gotten involved, making the assumption that Amazon would be collecting as much data as humanly possible about everything going through their servers.  In response to these concerns, Amazon has released some information to the Electronic Frontier Foundation regarding what data will be collected and how it will be used by the company.

The biggest concern for many people, especially those focused on their online privacy, is being forced to use the Amazon Cloud acceleration.  Worry no more: You CAN turn it off at any time.  In addition to opting-out by the user, anything encrypted will be routed from your Kindle Fire directly to the origin server.  This means that anything going on over HTTPS will remain totally off limits for Amazon by design.

In terms of what data is being stored, each session will be logged individually for 30 days.  This log will contain nothing more than requested URLs and timestamps.  In no way will names or user accounts be connected to these logs, nor can they be according to Amazon representatives.  Data may in some instances be even more secure than it would otherwise be since the connection to Amazon’s servers is always going to be encrypted regardless of what you are doing.

Is there still some reason to be concerned?  Of course.  Mostly, however, it requires far fetched scenarios.  Since each session is logged individually, it is unlikely that search history could be used to identify the user from logs.  That doesn’t mean impossible.  Amazon will also suddenly have access to a vast amount of information about browsing habits in general which could be used to inform future business moves.  There is even the chance that law enforcement will find ways to coerce the company to provide cached information for one reason or another.  In terms of individual user safety, however, it seems that things are looking pretty good.  Being singled out is all but impossible.

If you are still concerned, just remember that you can tell your Kindle Fire not to use this feature.  Even without it on, the Silk browser is reported to deliver a speedy experience.  It’s always better to be aware of what information you are letting out about your habits on the internet, however mundane those may be.  Overall, though, Amazon seems to have gone out of their way to avoid intruding on your privacy.

Amazon to Collect Sales Tax in California and Beyond

For as long as eReaders have been around, it seems at times, people have complained that they aren’t available for under $100.  They’re finally getting there, with the Kindle available for as little as $114 new.  We might even see a $99 Kindle by the end of the year.  An important question to ask the people who came up with this number might soon be “Is that before or after tax?”

There is obvious competition between online retailers and the brick & mortar set over taxes.  While it is technically true that somebody buying a Kindle on Amazon.com should be paying the same taxes as somebody grabbing the same product from the local Best Buy, it isn’t surprising that most customers somehow forget to file the forms to pay those taxes at the end of the year.  These stores aren’t the only ones affected, of course.

Most states have begun to take notice of the problem, with some targeting Amazon directly due to its prominent status and high sales figures.  It’s a matter of hundreds of millions of dollars per year in revenue that the state governments rightly feel they should have access to.  Amazon’s response, which is either due to the inconvenience of keeping up with unendingly complex local sales tax interactions and iterations or due to the fact that it makes their store more appealing to customers to be able to avoid sales tax (depending on your current level of cynicism and trust of a major corporation’s word on the matter), has been to withdraw their physical presence from nearly any state that has tried to enforce collection requirements on them.

Now, in an arrangement with the California government, not only will Amazon not be pulling their presence from the state, they will be working openly to resolve the issue of sales tax on inter-state commerce due to the rise of the internet.  There’s a bit of back story to the arrangement, with both the state government and Amazon making threats over the issue, but essentially it seems that a compromise was reached.  Amazon, and online companies in general, will be given until July of 2012 to persuade Congress to adopt some form of nationwide measure for the collection of internet sales tax.  Should this not come to pass, there are fallbacks to allow for California to collect beginning in 2013.

While it would seem at first glance to be not in the company’s best interest to cooperate, they have simply gotten too large to avoid notice at this point.  Increasingly, Amazon will be singled out as iconic of the problem with online retailers.  The only safe path for them will be to seek a system that can catch their competition on all levels in the same net, to keep anybody from getting a major advantage.

The knowledge that this was coming could be one pressure that has pushed Amazon to focus on digital media distribution recently, giving them products that cannot be conveniently purchased locally.  Whether or not that is the case, however, it seems a safe bet that Amazon won’t be driven out of business by the inconvenience of it all or the price bump that customers should be paying for already anyway.

Kindle Fire Sets New Tone For Tablet Industry

So, the big news has finally broken and we now know all there is to know about the new Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet.  If anything, it exceeds much of the high expectation surrounding the initial hype.  Everything from the drastic undercutting of competition pricing to the well thought out theme of the interface seem calculated to dominate a currently scattered industry.  With something like this available, even the iPad might have more to worry about than previously expected. That said, there are some other things going on here that aren’t entirely apparent at first glance.

A couple things go a long way to guaranteeing that Kindle Fire customers will remain Amazon customers as long as they own their device, for example.  For one, while nothing says that you definitely cannot import content from other sources, and indeed it seems almost inevitable that you will be able to do so, the integrated storage is fairly limited and only Amazon content will be given unlimited storage space on their cloud servers.  Will it be possible to stream content, especially video, over your home network to the tablet?  That remains to be seen.

We also have to assume that a great deal of the functionality, as far as content access and even web browsing go, would be lost with the rooting of the device for whatever reason.  Amazon has been concerned enough with piracy in the past to make this something they will have taken into consideration, even if it means that some legitimate users will be inconveniences by it.

For your average user, still not really a bad deal.  You have access to movies, music, magazines, and even books, all at a reasonable price.  The Amazon Prime functionality becomes almost mandatory to get the most out of things, but it provides value far beyond its cost. Kindle Fire’s even light enough for one-handed use and can multi-task enough to play you music while you read or browse the web.

What would have made it even better?  In the future people are definitely hoping for a larger viewing area, expandable storage, optional 3G capabilities, and longer battery life.  Some of that fell to the side in order to allow the Kindle Fire to be priced so low.  Some of it, like the battery life, just isn’t reasonable yet.  Of course if we’re speculating about hardware that does not exist yet then I suppose full color, low power, non-backlit displays would be nice.  These things will happen when the tech is available, I would assume.  Better to do it right with what is mature right this minute than jump in too soon.

Should this take off, and I think we can all be pretty sure that it will after today’s reveal, expect to be seeing a larger, more powerful Kindle Tablet on the horizon.  Amazon supposedly spent time and manpower getting a 10″ tablet designed already, and they’ll need it to top this offering.  The competition will need some time to adjust, in the meantime.  It’s unlikely we’ll see such an affordable yet functional tablet from anybody else in the near future.