Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Kindle's Impact on the Music Industry?

The two most interesting things to me about the new Amazon e-book reader, the Kindle are:

(If I understand Bezos correctly...)

A) Once a person makes an e-book purchase, Amazon allows the buyer free access to all his or her purchases via storage on their server, at no additional cost. So if you own 300 e-books and carry around 200 at any given time, you can always swap out any titles any time you want to. In effect, your library rests on their servers.

B) Kindle is completely self reliant, no personal computer required.

Therefore a person can purchase and own all the e-books they want, forever, so long as they pay for them once; and so long as he or she accesses the content via hardware which isn't connected to the Internet, thereby preventing the copyright content from unauthorized duplication.

To me, this actually sounds like a reasonable model for distributing music files and other digital media.

I don't mean to suggest consumers should be prevented from amplifying the music they own from more than one device. Rather, if one allows that one can dock an iPod, for instance, on a variety of playback devices, from boom box to home stereo to car audio system, then allow that another similar device might also allow the consumer to amplify the music anyway they cared to, without also permitting them the capacity to move the actual files themselves from drive to drive.

This is unlike a subscription model whereby consumers 'rent' music, and lose access to it if they stop payment. Some suggest subscriptions as a viable future distribution method, but I like the Kindle plan better, where consumers pay once and retain free access to their music forever.

It follows that as long as one has unlimited and eternal access to his or her music, and the capacity to carry on their person as much as can fit on a given device at any given time –hundreds and thousands of selections– then both music producer and music consumer are served.

One member of an online discussion where I first initiated this idea (Kindle's Impact on Music Industry) queried how this model differed from previous protection technologies, such as copy protected CDs and DRM?

Here's the answer:

Consumers resist Copy protection on CDs because they want to be able to rip CDs to portable hard drives in order to customize playback. Of course, some also want to be able to copy content so that they may freely distribute it to others. I suspect that widespread general resistance to the format weighed more heavily on the former, although I do not have sufficient data to argue one way or the other. In my own case, I thought: if you can't listen to the music on your iPod, then what good is it?

I think it's also fair to say that even CD manufacturers don't believe copy protection works, or doesn't work for long anyway. Sooner or later, someone always cracks the code.

But even if it did, such CDs (at least as music transportation devices) would still only protect new music recordings, not recordings already ripped. Not to mention that generally speaking, CDs are simply becoming obsolete as the world goes increasingly digital.

As for Digital Rights Management, does DRM even work? Again, certainly not for files you’ve already ripped from your own CDs.

An ideal content distribution scheme must be easy, acceptable and convenient for producers, manufacturers, distributors and consumers alike, –even as it secures the rights of copyright holders.

As it happens, the Kindle appears to promise just that to authors, publishers and readers of the digital equivalent to novels, e-books.

The actual physical device aside, the content distribution and consumption model created by Amazon for Kindle content rests on these three points:

1) Consumers own the e-books they buy; free digital copies remain accessible on Amazon's server: They must purchase content from an authorized seller; in this case, obviously, Amazon. But once they do so, they are free to the change the content on their playback device at will, provided that the content –the e-book files– rest either on an Amazon server, or in their Kindle. Since a Kindle can hold upwards of 200 novels, plus access to a dictionary and Wikipedia, readers are guaranteed a virtual bookshelf of books and references to carry with them at any one time.

2) Proprietary file format: If a consumer purchases more than 200 e-books (@$9.99/e-book), the e-books that do not fit on their Kindle are stored on an Amazon server. The device is outfitted with a USB connection and spillover can also be stored on an SD card, but it's not as though you'll be able to open those files on Sony's e-book reader, Sony Reader. Back in September the New York Times explained "Amazon is using a proprietary e-book format from Mobipocket, a French company that Amazon bought in 2005, instead of supporting the open e-book standard backed by most major publishers and high-tech companies..."(NYT: Envisioning the Next Chapter for Electronic Books).

So, one wonders if the convenience of free storage at Amazon will be enough to dissuade consumers from trying to crack the files in order to make their own digital copies –if they know they can go back to Amazon at any time in the future in order to swap out any number of e-books for other previously purchased selections, at no extra charge, as many times as they like, forever (provided the number does not exceed the Kindle’s physical storage capacity). Further, one doesn’t actually swap out books off the Amazon server. The Amazon server preserves a copy of the e-book. Like the iPod, swapping off the Kindle amounts to deleting the file in order to make room for new content.

But the fact remains: You bought the book, and therefore you own it. Your copy simply and perpetually sits on Amazon's bookshelf, rather than your own hard drive (where it is subject to damage and accidental erasure, by the way). There it remains until you want to read it, which you may do as many times as you like, now and in the future.

3) Free wireless broadband distribution. Can you lend a book to a friend? Sure, the device allows you to email excerpts, but if you want to loan out an entire novel, just give them your Kindle –as you would a physical book. However, consumers are not given the capacity to rip Kindle content to their computer's hard drive, thereby making wholesale unauthorized distribution theoretically impossible.

Instead content is swapped in and out of the Kindle, and to and from Amazon, via a cellular connection. In this case by way of a direct EvDO radio connection to Amazon (and for which the book consumer need not sign up with Sprint to enable). Amazon makes the transfer of content from their store (or your library) to your Kindle as transparent as possible. Buying a book is just like getting a ringtone.

The bottom line: Consumers get access to all the books they can afford (at a fair price). They get unlimited access to all the books they purchased, anytime they want, forever. Perhaps most importantly, they can experience the books on a portable device that apparently fulfills reader experience expectations in every way that matters.


Of course, we can't literally use a Kindle because while it plays mp3s, its slow E Ink display isn't the optimal choice for navigating through a music library. Nor can we use the current Apple or MSN (or other) set-ups. We need a new device that operates within a suitably closed system: Let’s call it a 'kPod' (although I’d rather call it a Cryptonomicon [nerdy humor alert]), and you fill it up with content at the kTunes store. (For the sake of this overview: Despite some cries of monopoly, Apple's iTunes/iPod set-up is defined as an open system here because although Apple's AAC files are theoretically copy protected, a consumer's own files are not; not to mention the set-up is connected to the Internet, allowing files to move freely).

I imagine that a consumer might access the kTunes store via a Mac or PC in order to peruse selections, make purchases and manage their library. But the kPod itself will not connect to one's computer. Rather the Ktunes store sends the kPod content, just as Amazon sends the Kindle content, over a free wireless cellular broadband service.

As consumers retain eternal access to their purchased content they can therefore access previously purchase content at no additional cost. You bought the music; you own it.

If a consumer damages their kPod, they will certainly be liable for the cost of a kPod replacement, as they would be with any consumer purchase. But they will not be required to re-purchase music that they already own. All they have to do is log into their kTunes account and download their content from their library.

While the kPod is incapable of burning CDs, or making readable copies to external drives, secondary kPods or home computers, consumers will nevertheless be able to dock their kPod to any number of commercially available playback devices, such as their home stereo, a car sound system, or some other 3rd party amplification system. Docking will allow consumers to amplify the audio from a kPod, but it will not allow them to actually transfer digital files from a kPod to another device (capable of reading those files).

The bottom line is:
Consumers get access to all the music they can afford (at a fair price). Unlike a music subscription, they get unlimited access to all the music they purchased, anytime they want, forever. They will certainly have to pay for any new music they desire, but they will only have to do so once. They will never again have to purchase the same song twice. Perhaps most importantly, they can experience their music on a portable device that fulfills listener experience expectations in every way that matters, and still protect the rights of copyright holders.

Add to that a store that offers every single recording ever made, from anywhere in the world, and free content from the public domain, and you may be on to something big.

One question remains: How will current owners with existing digitized collections of music get this content into the kPod without giving the kPod reciprocal ability to export content to distribution channels? Maybe there is no way (to do so). Or maybe imported content will be automatically transformed into the kPods proprietary file format before becoming functional (which in effect would also take care of DRM).

Whatever the decision or method, if producers of music can convince young consumers to choose kPods over iPods, they can offer those consumers something Apple isn't even doing: They can help a new generation begin building non-destructible music collections, and from a very young age, saving every title they purchase for future and unlimited use, on and from a perpetually accessible server, in an account in their possession –if not on their person– for their entire lifetime.

Or maybe music should just be free.

No comments: