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An Apology

For those who don’t know me, I’m a long-time free software developer and advocate. I wrote software for Wikipedia. I wouldn’t be caught dead with a Microsoft or Apple product in my house. I build my own computers. I void warranties for fun. I gave one and got one for the OLPC project, and I actually use the XO as my only laptop. I even run open source firmware on my MP3 player and my network router. And last week, I did something that will disappoint many of my friends and others who fight for freedom in the digital world: I bought an Amazon Kindle 2. Philosophically, this is roughly equivalent to an orthodox Rabbi buying stock in a pig farm, so I believe I owe my friends an explanation.

First, a brief description.

The gadget itself can’t be opened: the battery can’t be replaced, the memory can’t be upgraded. It contains cell phone hardware, but that is not accessible to the user except to download content from Amazon. Its most “open” feature is a standard USB port, used to charge the device, and which makes some of the device’s storage available to the computer it is attached to, but even this is a subset of what’s actually stored on the device—no access to the software, or even to the screen-saver images, for example.

The books available for download (about 1% of Amazon’s total catalog) are delivered in Amazon’s proprietary “AZW” format encrypted with DRM. You’re not actually buying a book—you’re buying a limited right to read the book on one device for as long as they choose to allow you. You can’t give the book to anyone or sell it, or move it to another device—even another Kindle that you own. You must “register” your Kindle with Amazon to associate its unique ID with your Amazon account. It keeps records of everything you send to your Kindle “in the cloud”, and gets software updates automatically delivered and installed over the cellular connection. The entire contents of your device is thus under the remote control of Amazon, so you don’t really own the device any more than you own the books on it.

AZW format is based on Mobipocket e-book format, which itself is loosely based on the open ePub standard. The Kindle does not, however, support books in ePub format, and while it will attempt to display content in Mobipocket format, its barely proof-of-concept quality software will fail to correctly render any but the most simply formatted text. Even something as basic as the MobileRead blog, for example—the most popular blog for owners of e-book readers—will not display correctly on the Kindle, losing text off the right margin. This does not deter Amazon, however, from charging you $.99 a month to conveniently deliver this blog to your device, which it can’t display. The software for managing your collection of books, audio books, podcasts, and music is even more primitive than its renderer. Better library management can be found on $30 MP3 players.

It has speakers and a headphone jack for audio books or speech synthesis of those books for which it is allowed, and some minimal support for music. It does support free MP3-format audio books as well as DRM-encumbered ones from Audible. When Amazon bought Audible more than a year ago, they made the empty promise to reconsider the use of DRM if users requested it. Not only does Audible continue to sell books with DRM, they will only sell DRM’d books, and refuse to offer non-DRM books even from those authors who want to offer them.

So why did I buy one?

My reasons boil down to this: it is a sign of things to come, and I want to be involved in the future that this device will help create. I am convinced that cheap ultra-portable connected gadgets with good displays and simple controls are the future of text publishing, and will take over many of the markets now served by dead trees: not just bestsellers, but also textbooks, newspapers, and many unforeseeable new markets that these devices will create.

I intend to create content for these devices. I plan to create software for creating and managing content for these devices. I plan to continue writing about these devices. And to do all these things well, I really need to have one in my hands to see what its users see, to feel what they feel. The Kindle serves this purpose well for two reasons: first, popularity. Like it or not, the Kindle is likely to have the largest market share for a while. Eventually, cheaper devices will be created with better displays, more memory, better software, and support for open formats. Other devices like cell phones and PDAs will add these capabilities. But for the time being, the Kindle experience is the e-book experience for most people. Second, the limited screen and brain-dead software I complain about above make it an ideal least-common-denominator testbed: if content looks right on the Kindle, it will look right on anything.

So I held my nose and pressed the patented “one-click” purchase button, sending $359 to Amazon for the privilege of later sending them more money for books I won’t own and blogs I can’t read. Maybe I’ll do penance by donating some money to Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive. Maybe I’ll write some more software for Wikipedia. I wish there were a better alternative. I hope I can make some better alternatives. But sometimes you have to be a part of the world you want to change. So just as Stallman found a way to use copyright law to undermine the evils it helped create, I hope my purchase of the Kindle will help me create the world Amazon fears: Terabytes of quality content available to everyone, everywhere, for free.

Please forgive me.

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