Kindle Fire: What Amazon Got Right

Kindle Fire
Image by Dekuwa via Flickr

Amazon’s recent launch of the Kindle Fire, priced at $199, and the entry of the low-end Kindle at $79 is a very interesting strategy.

When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, it built upon the architecture and infrastructure of the iPhone, which launched in 2007. Even the iPhone built upon the success of the iTunes infrastructure which supported earlier iPod models. Amazon is likewise dealing from a position of strength, building upon the technology of the Kindle ereaders, and Amazon’s existing delivery and hosting infrastructure.

Amazon ships much more than just Kindle books. The Amazon MP3 store has been an iTunes competitor for several years now, and was the first to offer music without Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. Amazon now also offers instant movie downloads as rentals or purchases, as well as Android application sales. Amazon offers a comprehensive alternative to the Apple iTunes infrastructure, and the Kindle Fire is another key part of this strategy.

The next key step of the Kindle Fire’s introduction is how Amazon differentiates this new tablet from the iPad. Like several other tablet manufacturers, Amazon is launching a smaller 7 inch tablet. While this form factor is not unique (the BlackBerry PlayBook, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the HTC Flyer all fit this size), Amazon has also cut the price point for the Kindle Fire. At $200, it is clear that Amazon is entering the low-end of the space, not directly competing against Apple at the moment.

When you consider the HP Touchpad fire sale in August, where a drastic price cut finally saw another tablet outselling the iPad, there is clearly a market for a lower-end tablet. One where Apple isn’t actively targeting.

If Amazon can successfully lay claim to this part of the market, you can expect to see future attempts at Amazon launching into the higher upscale market that the iPad now claims. One thing is for certain, Apple is watching Amazon very closely.

Amazon may have a razor-thin margin on the Kindle Fire, but the important thing to note is that it will drive sales to the Amazon store, where the real money is made. Just as Apple takes a 30% cut on sales on the Apple App Store, I expect Amazon will take a healthy cut off anything sold through their online store, while at the same time depriving the Apple economy of sales.

Amazon sent a clear message to other tablet manufacturers: This time, amateur hour really is over.

How do you cite a Kindle ebook using the MLA?

For a recent essay, I was referring to two Kindle edition ebooks. While I found text highlighting in the ebook to be extremely natural, and extremely easy to cross reference, there is very little guidance as to how to make essay citations to these works.

The problem is that Kindle ebooks do not maintain the pagination of a print book. The theory here is that different zoom levels would change the page number being show. Instead, Amazon decided to use a location number, which actually provides a more precise indication as to the actual reference.

The nice thing about these location numbers is that when The kindle app shows the list of your highlights, it also gives you these location numbers. Less fortunately, the Kindle application doesn’t make it easy to get your highlighted material out of the app. Copying and pasting is denied, and there are also limits as to the number of highlights that Amazon will export to the web. For some books, such as one of the two I was reading, no highlights were exported.

As to my citations? I decided to use Amazon’s location numbers, like so: (McKee, loc. 42). I think I heard that Amazon is planning on adding print pagination into their books, possibly to address this current project, but I saw no evidence of this yet on the desktop application.

Choosing Electronic or Print Books for Academic Research

As someone with 200 books within arms reach of my desk, without counting those in the bookshelf behind me, I obviously have a fondness for the written word. When reading a particular text closely however, what advantages are there to an electronic format over a physical format?

While portability of an electronic text is often cited as an advantage, as the ereader can hold multiple books in a relatively small space, I believe that the true strength of an electronic text is the search functionality. With proper bookmarking, one can quickly refer to key sections of the text, and search for other similar passages.

This isn’t really a new technique. Many popular academic texts have comprehensive indices and supplementary notes, and with a little work, one can mark passages in any physical book for later reference. In some ways, this actually helps one understand the text at a deeper level, as it requires a deeper engagement with the text.

Ulysses notes

Another key aspect of using an electronic text is an easy way to mark up the text, and make meaningful notes. While I don’t usually mark up fiction I’m reading for fun, my academic texts have lines underlined, words circled and squared, and margin notes. This is something I’ve started recently, especially for passages I’m trying to more deeply understand.

If I was studying a book with an electronic edition, it would be great if I could highlight, or otherwise mark up the text, and have my selections exported to my word processor for essay writing, with full citation support in whatever format I require (MLA is the citation format I most often use for writing in the humanities). I would love for the pagination of the online version to reflect a print version, even if it is displayed in a different format on the device. Sadly, not all texts are available in ebook format, and when they are, there are often regional restrictions on availability. Robert Fagles’ contemporary translation of The Odyssey is available on in print, but the Kindle edition on is unavailable to Canadians. A sad state of affairs, and not likely Amazon’s fault, as there are licensing restrictions put in place by the rights holders.

I’m pleased that a number of scholarly presses and consortiums are planning changes and advances in etext publishing, as reported on sites such as Library Journal. I’m generally pleased by what I’ve heard about these initiatives, I only wish they were available now.

Why Isn’t This Available In Canada?

I was browsing some free, public domain science fiction ebooks on Amazon. While I don’t have a Kindle ereader, the Kindle app is available for the Mac, the iPad, and the BlackBerry. To my surprise, a number of these titles are not available for customers from Canada. Seriously? Get with it, Amazon.

Books of interest that are unavailable in Canada include, but are certainly not limited to:

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

The War of the Worlds [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

The Time Machine [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

A Princess of Mars [Kindle Edition]. Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions [Kindle Edition]. Edwin Abbott Abbott.

All of these are available free of charge to American readers, and are in the public domain in the USA and in Canada. While it’s understandable (although extremely frustrating) for books still under the original copyright protection to be unavailable in Canada in electronic form, such as Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s simply baffling as to why these works are unavailable in Canada.
I would suspect that the party responsible for formatting the text in the kindle file format has added an extra layer of red tape. Perhaps someone forgot to check a box. Either way, it’s an inconvenience.

Perhaps there is far more involved in properly typesetting these works for the Kindle format than I realize. However, the text has already been completely digitized, and included in multiple formats already on the Gutenberg site, in multiple formats which also include kindle-ready files. I’m suspicious of any moral rights to these “official” kindle editions over and above any work done on the Gutenberg site. I recognize that Gutenberg does not assert any copyright over the text of the works, even going so far as to say that “If you strip the Project Gutenberg license and all references to Project Gutenberg from the ebook, you are left with a public domain ebook. You can do anything you want with that.”

When republished with new material, such as a new introduction or forward, placing the work in context, the work can be protected again under copyright. Perhaps this is what is being done here. Interestingly, the publisher on record for at least some of these Kindle editions is “Public Domain Books”.

Basically, it comes down to this: Why aren’t these available in Canada, and in other parts of the world where they are public domain?