As you might have heard, there is a new application coming out of Google Labs, called Fast Flip. I’m not going to explain what it does, go and see for yourself. But I got exactly this question in my Facebook News Feed. So, here is what I think:
At the face of it, I’m not impressed. I use RSS feed reader to aggregate news feeds, including one coming out of Google News, not to mention Twitter, Facebook and Friend Feed. That’s pretty much all I need to keep my finger on the pulse.
On the second thought, however, it really does seem interesting. Not so much as a piece of technology (image browser? c’mon) but as an indicator of where Google is heading. Let’s put the pieces together:
- Google has been at odds with the copyright owners for years now (remember Google News lawsuits and the recent discussion around Google Books settlement?). Finally, striking a deal with the publishers and stopping the legal battles might not be bad for Google after all. And could improve Google’s position vis-a-vis Amazon.
- Google has also unveiled a plan to roll out a system of micropayments (as a part of Google Checkout) some time next year. This system will be well-positioned to become a standard for charging for content online. Apparently Google is reaching out to publishers and helping them to collect the pennies millions of Internet users might be willing to pay for copyrighted material. Google will get their share, of course. A hint: think of iTunes and Amazon Kindle…
- Google Checkout will also be used for selling content via Google Books for which Google needs good relationship with the publishers anyway.
What this all says to me is: Google wants to help copyright owners in order to create symbiotic relationship in which everybody gets their share of profits. Using their scale Google will create an ecosystem for paid content in the Internet (or should I say the ecosystem?). Regardless of whether the book is sold for $10 or a news article for a penny. It is volume that counts. Which puts them on a collision course with Amazon, obviously but goes far beyond that. When it comes to paid digital content distribution the leaders today are Apple with iTunes and Amazon with Kindle. Here enters Google… without manufacturing, logistics, warehouses, etc. It’s going to be exciting to see how it develops, but expect there will be more digital content and less paper in your life soon.
Today I tried to order the famous Amazon Kindle 2. What I got, was the message “We’re sorry. This item can’t be shipped to your selected destination”. I wanted it to be sent to Warsaw, Poland. This is the place where I live, so this was pretty natural shipment destination to me. Sorry Amazon for the inconvinience.
Image courtesy of PlasticLogic
Of course, I’m aware that there is no way I can get it to download e-books via Whispernet in Europe or anywhere outside the U.S. I’ve read that there are some mysterious “import/export laws and other restrictions” that are forbidding me to get a Kindle. On a second thought, however, I would actually appreciate Amazon telling me what actually those laws and restrictions might be. I’m not accustomed to that. But in fact, what I wanted to see is the way Amazon tells their regular customer that my interest in their superior product is not really appreciated. Plain and simple: I don’t like what I saw and that’s the reason I’m being sarcastic. But seriously now…
I really appreciate Amazon’s effort to bring the e-books to the main stream and I think Amazon’s shareholders need to be rewarded for that. I understand the strategy of Amazon leading ultimately to securing their return on investment. They are playing it by the book (actually taking a page from the Apple’s iPod book for dominating digital music). I’m not saying that all content should be free and I fully understand the complexities of the delivery channel for e-books with the DRM at the center. The publishing industry has been struggling with this for years if not decades. Actually vertical integration of the e-book distribution might have been the only way to create a real market for e-books. As a customer however, I have a feeling that this is getting too far towards Amazon’s market dominance. Today I can’t get a Kindle, tomorrow maybe some publishers decide not to publish paper books anymore and I won’t be able to get their content either. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it is just an illusion of freedom of choice that I’m loosing, but still it feels bad. But it costs nothing to make my voice heard.
I heard Jeff Bezos saying “We try and figure out what customers want, and then give it to them”. Allright, here is what I want.
- For starters, I would appreciate a freedom of choosing an e-book reader that works best for me. As excellent as the Kindle 2 might be, there are other options and there will be more of them coming soon. Some people might prefer Sony Reader, others might want to read e-books on their PC or Mac, iPhone or Android, etc. One thing I know is that competition works towards improving products and services. More importantly, lack of competition results in lack of innovation and ultimately, degradation of quality.
- I would like to be able to choose a seller that offers the best price or service, according to my personal preferences. I see no reason to fork out $359 for a device that is hardwired to this or that particular retailer. Amazon, if you keep me happy with your service the way you do with paper books (yes, you do!), don’t worry, I will come over for e-books as well. But it is the freedom of choice that counts. Economists call that ‘the love of variety’.
- I know that for a publisher it costs close to nothing to produce an e-book in one, two or more formats (see for instance O’Reilly e-book bundles). I think it is fair to expect that whatever e-book reader I choose, I will be able to purchase content from multiple vendors in the format which works with my reader. Someday I might want to read e-books from Google Books on the same device I read e-books bought at Amazon. Furthermore, I would like to be able to switch from one device to the other without loosing access to the content I purchased.
- With the e-books coming into play, I tend to think of a book in a way that separates content and intellectual property associated with it from the delivery medium or “packaging”. Content might be wrapped in the form of paper or in some digital “wrapping” (ePub, PDF, you name it). While I will willingly pay for intellectual property, I would like to pay it only once (unless it is licensed under a kind of pay-per-use model), while I might want to have it in many different “wrappings”. I would gladly pay for the paper the book is printed on, shipment, handling and any reasonable price of the effort of all middlemen that make that possible. I see no reason why I should be restricted in my ability to have my content that I paid for available in print, on my e-book reader, PC and mobile at the same time.
- I understand why complicating things with DRM is important to copyright owners and for that reason I’m not asking to remove DRM from the picture completely. I’m reluctantly agreeing to sacrifiy some utility in order for the author or publisher to feel more secure. But I know that it can be designed in a way that it does not necessarily have to ruin my user experience.
I know that this wish list sounds a little naive. But I think that we – the customers – should be pushing industry players towards creating environment that encourages creativity and competition. A few decades into this digital era we have been there many times. We know that the answer is “open standards”. Without open standards there would be no Internet in the first place. Unfortunately, the party that should be most interested in opening the e-book technology stack – the publishers – are surprisingly quiet. Clearly, the ePub standard helps but does not solve the problem. In my opinion it’s right about time to do something about it.
What is your take on that? Am I missing something from my wish list?
Check out an account of Ian – a Kindle user whose Amazon account has been terminated.