Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (5 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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To attract and retain the best hardware engineers, Lab126 would be located not in Seattle but in Silicon Valley. The Lab126 offices were originally in a mini-mall across the street from a music studio and a slightly sleazy jewelry store. But due to the number of new hires, the lab quickly grew out of its old space and moved to Cupertino, right in the heart of the Valley. Moving to Cupertino put them in the big leagues—they were now in the same city as Apple.

After a year running Kindle’s ebook software team, I was asked to take the lead in launching Kindle as its program manager. That meant I had to know everything about the Kindle hardware, so I started flying down to Lab126 on a regular basis. I went to bridge the gaping cultural chasm between Amazon and Lab126. Everyone in Cupertino understood hardware, and everyone in Seattle understood the web, but neither understood the other. Amazon understood web services; Cupertino understood consumer electronics.

And the combination of the two: ebooks? It was new territory for everyone. Almost no one in the company had exactly the right set of qualifications to help Lab126 and Amazon speak to and understand each other, with one exception: me. I used to work at Motorola making cell phones and internet routers, so I could speak the language of hardware people, but I had also built websites for companies like Home Depot and Walmart, so I could speak the language used at Amazon.

On visiting Lab126 for the first time, what you’d notice would be the stark contrast in floor layout between Amazon’s offices and Lab126’s. Amazon has a messy organic layout. All the floors are open, with people at desks sitting side by side in a vast room without walls, like a Southeast Asian call center or some fly-by-night dot-com’s tech support division. The Lab126 offices resemble a printed circuit board, in keeping perhaps with the mentality of a hardware engineering company. All the cubicles and hallways are aligned at right angles, with efficient pathways in between. Being at Lab126 was like being on the circuit board inside a Kindle.

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Much as I wanted to read on my Kindle while flying on a plane every week between Lab126 and Amazon, I couldn’t because Kindle was still such a secret. I couldn’t even bring the Kindle through airport security, in case the security personnel needed to examine it. Plus, I feared that journalists or competitors might see my Kindle in the few seconds that it would be in plain view.

I spent two years traveling back and forth between Lab126 and Amazon. When you’re a kid, the years have a way of passing quickly. All you can seem to remember when you look back are summer nights, fireflies, and snowball fights. The same was true of me with Kindle. When I look back at the years leading up to the Kindle launch, it’s like I was a kid, moving happily from one day to the next, one challenge to the next.

One of the challenges required Jeff’s personal attention and had to do with the Kindle ebook format. Nobody else on the Kindle team believed it was important enough to merit his attention, but I did, so I set up a meeting with Jeff to discuss it. (I suspect that the days when someone can set up a meeting willy-nilly with Jeff are over, now that Kindle has grown so large.)

Now, just because you had set up a meeting with Jeff didn’t mean it would actually take place. To get to Jeff’s office, you had to get past his executive assistants. They have offices of their own, and in a Kafkaesque way, you’d have to talk your way past the first executive assistant to see the next one and then talk your way past her to make your way to the third assistant, and so on. Eventually you got to Jeff’s office, where you’d probably find him gone and realize that they’d neglected to say he was out for the day.

The day of the meeting, I made it to Jeff’s office a little early, before he had arrived from another meeting elsewhere. I looked through his windows and tried to understand the way he saw things. He had a telescope in his office and pictures of his kids on the wall. It was a small office, actually, dominated by a giant work desk with tidy stacks of papers.

I imagined him looking out through his telescope at his far-flung workers, spread out as they were through Seattle in different office buildings, and I imagined him perhaps aiming his telescope at his fulfillment centers in Kentucky or Nevada, yearning to see the incessant shipments of everything from books to Beanie Babies, DVDs to diapers.

Protected by his executive assistants and sequestered in a tower in Amazon’s headquarters, Jeff’s office was a little like a walled garden. It’s an appropriate metaphor, because what Jeff and I discussed that day, and on days and weeks to follow, had to do with Kindle’s own walled garden.

When you’re reading about companies like Amazon and Apple, you often come across the “walled garden” metaphor. I want to explain it to you with a visual metaphor, because I’m a visual guy.

Imagine the wall of a medieval fortress. There might even be a moat around it. It’s a tall wall, made of stone—a wall to keep the enemy out. There’s one way into and out of the fortress, and that’s over a drawbridge that comes clanking down to let you across the moat, through a hole in the wall, and into the city inside. You can think of the city as being everything good that the wall is supposed to be protecting—all the people and gardens inside. This wall protects you from the dragons outside, from the Vandals and Huns and would-be conquerors.

In tech terms, the
is the arrangement of software and hardware and file format that makes it almost impossible to get to what’s inside unless you go over the drawbridge, the officially sanctioned way in.

Look at the iPod. It relies on a proprietary format, a proprietary way of getting content into and out of the device. And yet it’s successful because the walled garden is tended so carefully.

Amazon has a similar walled garden for the Kindle. The only way you can buy a book and read it on the Kindle, according to Amazon’s walled garden approach, is to buy the book from the Kindle store. Are there other ways of reading a book on a Kindle? Yes, but they’re equivalent to the Vandals and Huns laying siege to the city by running ladders up its ramparts and then climbing those ladders with axes and grappling irons. In modern tech terms, this kind of attack is piracy. Or if not outright piracy, it’s that gray area related to digital rights management (called DRM)—the restrictions used to keep people from copying or sharing ebooks for free.

DRM works against most would-be pirates because it’s often too difficult and exasperating to break. Difficult, but never impossible. It’s a game of cat and mouse, and there’s always a genius who outsmarts the current DRM that’s out on the market. And then the software people at Amazon and Apple and elsewhere respond with patches and updates to make their walls more secure. Apple, for example, releases about ten updates a year to its iTunes software, and most of them include anti-piracy measures.

As ethical readers, you and I don’t need to worry much about what DRM means, and it’s not likely to affect us. But because occasional readers do try to pirate ebooks, we’re all penalized by the increased cost of ebooks and the inconvenience in copying them to other devices. That process should be easy, but often it’s painstaking. I think everyone agrees that it’s sad that we have to live in a world with DRM, but it’s a consequence of the technical nature of ebooks.

Likewise, there’s another technicality with ebooks called “file format” that we don’t have to worry about with printed books. There’s only one format for a printed book, and that’s paper. You can pick up any printed book and read it, as long as you know the language. The format of the book is no barrier to reading.

But imagine having to wear special glasses to read books by different publishers. Imagine you needed one pair of glasses to read Random House books and another to read Simon & Schuster books. Each pair of glasses would be sensitive to the invisible inks each publisher used. Well, that’s what it’s like with ebooks now.

Amazon has its own ebook format, and Adobe makes another ebook format called
. There are many formats on the market. If you live in Japan and want to read ebooks, for example, you have two incompatible ebook formats to choose from.

Formats make things difficult. There’s no way I can take a book I bought for my Kindle and copy it onto a Sony device—not unless I use some technical wizardry, some illegal tools that can be downloaded from the shady side of the internet. And most consumers aren’t going to learn how to use these obscure wizard’s tools. Like you, they’ll be confronted with a choice of e-readers, which locks you into the format of the books you’re able to read. And once you’re locked into the format, you’re locked into what kinds of books you can read. You may find that a book you want to read is only available for Kindle, but if you have another device, then you can’t purchase the book until it eventually becomes available on that device.

The Kindle has its own proprietary format. And it’s an old format, one that dates back to the 1990s and applications written for PDAs. Now, I worked at Amazon, and I know the Kindle format inside and out. I couldn’t have told Jeff this at the time—but as much as I hate to say this, I believe the Kindle file format was limited and made for poorer-quality ebooks.

Here’s how to think about ebook file formats: think about their fidelity to printed books. When we speak of music, we often speak in terms of lo-fi or hi-fi, that is, low or high fidelity. The same terms are appropriate for ebooks. Think of a print book as the gold standard for quality. A book in the Kindle format would be able to reproduce most of the text (though not all the accent marks and sometimes obscure symbols) and is often able to reproduce the margins or the page breaks in the print book.

I estimate the Kindle format to have achieved something like 50 percent fidelity compared to print. It’s on the lo-fi side. But I think formats that launched in the years after Kindle, such as the one being used in both the Nook and iPad, are more hi-fi, because they allow designers to do typographically compelling high-design flourishes, as well as embed fonts and complex equations into the ebook. These formats approach 90 percent of print fidelity.

I’m a book lover, and I cared a lot about improving the file format when I was on the Kindle team. But to Jeff and others, file format was just one of many issues that needed to be taken into consideration in launching Kindle. And besides, in the early days, most people on the Kindle team didn’t worry about these lo-fi and hi-fi details, because Kindle was targeted at readers buying genre fiction like romance books and sci-fi and bestsellers. Even in print, these kinds of books aren’t stylistically nuanced.

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I dealt with crises of all stripes and sizes as we prepared to launch Kindle, but all the issues eventually got solved, one by one.

Before I knew it, there was just one day left before Kindle launched.

We don’t know what it was like for Gutenberg in the hours before he unveiled his Bible and the secrecy was finally lifted. Until then, was he furtive, fearful that any secret would be stolen and copied? We don’t know how he or his workers felt. Sure, we know that pies were introduced in the 1450s, and we can imagine Gutenberg going outside with his workers that day and serving them celebratory slices of quail pie and glasses of plum gin or something special from his larder.

Some of his workers were no doubt hungover from the night before, drunk in a corner and being licked by the dogs after celebrating their victory, but maybe others could see how important the printed book would be. Because truly, Gutenberg had launched something at once commonplace and innovative—a humble Bible, but one set in beautiful, printed type. He unwittingly launched the Protestant Reformation, as well as a shift in reading so profound that we’re feeling aftershocks of the original tremor even now, centuries later.

Five hundred years later, on the eve of the ebook revolution, I settled in for sleep the night before we launched the Kindle. But sleep was impossible; there was the nagging worry that I had surely forgotten someone or something important. I kept getting out of bed to check my email. I finally managed to get an hour’s rest before being awakened by a team in India looking for help with some last-minute problems.

After helping them, I stayed awake in bed with prelaunch insomnia, looking out through the window and thinking. Tomorrow, once Kindle was launched, things would never be the same again for anyone. Amazon had a lot of power, and ebooks would surely capture people’s imaginations.

I stayed awake through the early morning hours of November 19, 2007, wondering about the Kindle. What would ebooks mean for literacy, for reading, for the book itself? Would the Kindle hasten the decline of the book—a decline that had started with radio and movies and had accelerated with TV and video games and the internet—or would it instead revitalize books and breathe fresh life into them?

Such questions still keep me up at night. I have answers for some of my old questions, but now I struggle with new ones. On the morning of the Kindle launch, I looked through the bedroom window until I had to get dressed and go to work at 4:00 a.m. There was a rare break in the gloom-clouds over Seattle, and I could see a few stars, bright enough to be planets or maybe omens.

The next few hours saw me running the show in Seattle, while Jeff Bezos was on stage in New York announcing the Kindle. The launch was timed to the minute; I had a clipboard and a stopwatch. I was like the mission-controller in the movie version of
, the one with the sweater around his shoulders who made sure each team was “go” for launch.

We didn’t want anyone saying, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” which is why the launch was scripted and tested in advance. The script was flawless. It was a dream launch. We got the store and services running at almost the exact moment when Jeff said, “Introducing Amazon Kindle,” in front of thousands of reporters and bloggers.

And then, Kindle was live.

Everyone in the Amazon offices in Seattle, sugar-addled since 4:00 a.m., started cheering.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
4.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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