Amazon got some well-deserved criticism for yanking copies of Orwell’s 1984 from customers’ Kindles last week. Let me spare you the copycat criticism of Amazon — and the obvious 1984-themed jokes — and jump right to the most interesting question: What does this incident teach us?
Human error was clearly part of the problem. Somebody at Amazon decided that repossessing purchased copies of 1984 would be a good idea. They were wrong about this, as both the public reaction and the company’s later backtracking confirm. But the fault lies not just with the decision-maker, but also with the factors that made the decision more likely, including some aspects of the technology itself.
Some put the blame on DRM, but that’s not the problem here. Even if the Kindle used open formats and let you export and back up your books, Amazon could still have made 1984 disappear from your Kindle. Yes, some users might have had backups of 1984 stored elsewhere, but most users would have lost their only copy.
Some blame cloud computing, but that’s not precisely right either. The Kindle isn’t really a cloud device — the primary storage, computing and user interface for your purchased books are provided by your own local Kindle device, not by some server at Amazon. You can disconnect your Kindle from the network forever (by flipping off the wireless network switch on the back), and it will work just fine.
Some blame the fact that Amazon controls everything about the Kindle’s software, which is a better argument but still not quite right. Most PCs are controlled by a single company, in the sense that that company (Microsoft or Apple) can make arbitrary changes to the software on the PC, including (in principle) deleting files or forcibly removing software programs.
The problem, more than anything else, is a lack of transparency. If customers had known that this sort of thing were possible, they would have spoken up against it — but Amazon had not disclosed it and generally does offer clear descriptions of how the product works or what kinds of control the company retains over users’ devices.
Why has Amazon been less transparent than other vendors? I’m not sure, but let me offer two conjectures. It might be because Amazon controls the whole system. Systems that can run third-party software have to be more open, in the sense that they have to tell the third-party developers how the system works, and they face some pressure to avoid gratuitous changes that might conflict with third-party applications. Alternatively, the lack of transparency might be because the Kindle offers less functionality than (say) a PC. Less functionality means fewer security risks, so customers don’t need as much information to protect themselves.
Going forward, Amazon will face more pressure to be transparent about the Kindle technology and the company’s relationship with Kindle buyers. It seems that e-books really are more complicated than dead-tree books.