November 21, 2007
Thoughts On Amazon's Kindle Reader
Amazon announced the availability of the Kindle book reader on Monday. This is a proprietary device that offers wireless access to DRMed text from books to newspapers to selected web sites such as Wikipedia. The device sells for $400 and apparently is exciting enough for enough of the literate public that Amazon notes that the item is temporarily sold out due to heavy demand. Reviews on the site breathlessly declare that this is the future of reading. Perhaps.
Amazon is trying to do for reading material what Apple did to music, which is to create a reader with a store tied into the product. Whether there will be enough critical mass to make this a go remains to be seen, but Amazon certainly has the business acumen to pull this off. Sony has its own reader but Sony products are always plagued with unique formats that the general public ignore. Amazon is banking on the fact the reader is light (10.3 ounces) and can hold over 200 titles among other key features. Texts are $9.99 per download which is cheaper than the physical book. It can get electronic editions of newspapers. The rest of the features are here.
I feel compelled to state that I never understand the utility of these devices in a world where the production of printed materials has increased despite the "convenience" of electronic storage and portability. The quantity of books sold in the United States in 2004 was 2,996,200,000. That increased in 2005 to 3,078,900,000 and projected to grow to 3,228,200,000 in 2009. Amazon has never really stated that they expect the Kindle to replace book publishing. Nonetheless, capturing even a small part of that market in electronic form represents a significant chunk of change even compared to the overall.
Contrast this to the most recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts on American reading habits. The executive summary states:
• Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.
• The percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book fell 7 points from 1992 to 2002.
• Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.
• The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period. Yet the amount they read for school or homework (15 or fewer pages daily for 62% of students) has stayed the same.
• Although reading tracks closely with education level, the percentage of college graduates who read literature has declined.
• 65% of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all.
• The percentage of non-readers among these students has nearly doubled—climbing 18 points since they graduated from high school.
• By the time they become college seniors, one in three students read nothing at all for pleasure in a given week.
• By contrast, 15- to 24-year-olds spend 2 to 2½ hours per day watching TV. This activity consumes the most leisure time for men and women of all ages.
• Literary reading declined significantly in a period of rising Internet use. From 1997–2003, home Internet use soared 53 percentage points among 18- to 24-year-olds. By another estimate, the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds with a home broadband connection climbed 25 points from 2005 to 2007.
• 58% of middle and high school students use other media while reading.
• Students report using media during 35% of their weekly reading time.
• 20% of their reading time is shared by TV-watching, video/computer gameplaying, instant messaging, e-mailing or Web surfing.
• Although nominal spending on books grew from 1985 to 2005, average annual household spending on books dropped 14% when adjusted for inflation.
There are other conclusions that are just as unflattering to habits in reading for pleasure by various segments of the American population.
So who is the market for the Kindle? Amazon must have something in mind, otherwise they wouldn't go through with the project. This doesn't sound as if it is a mass market product as much as the company would like it to be. Look for the upscale reader who can afford the price for the convenience of unit and who tends to read a lot. That may sound obvious, but that doesn't sound like the general population, even those who are gadget happy. This thing has to compete with general functionality items such as laptops that people may carry anyway. But, of course, laptops or tablet PCs may not be able to access Amazon content without a Kindle. But there's plenty of other disposable content on the web that may be just as good for the casual reader.
Another issues that comes to mind with a $400 reader is the lock-in. Amazon holds the content in the cloud, so the books never evaporate per account. But what happens when the next version of the hardware comes out? It's another $400, or $300, or whatever to re-buy the "paper" when its time to upgrade. Books have a certain quality as an artifact that may be better suited to the general population than a proprietary electronic reader. They can be lent, resold, or disposed of in ways that electronic copies may not. Books don't depend on wireless connections or batteries, and they typically don't have DRM restrictions in them.
Amazon is right to copy Apple's model with the iPod and the iTunes Store. The flaw here is that listening to music is a passive experience more or less. Reading is a little different. Amazon will probably make money from this venture, but whether it is the future of reading, I'll withhold judgment.
November 19, 2007
Tor Traffic Apparently Compromised
One of the inventions of the privacy and anonymity crowd on the Internet is the Tor network. All traffic is encrypted and sent over circuitous routes to maintain the secrecy of content and sender. Sounds like the perfect thing to keep dissidents out of the hands of hostile governments who stifle democracy. Could we be thinking of China, perhaps? Sounds great until we come across the case of one Dan Egerstad. He pulled off a neat little trick that exposed a weakness in Tor and possibly one that is being exploited by government sponsored intelligence agencies.
Egerstad apparently set up five Tor exit nodes in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Traffic coming off the nodes becomes unencrypted and easily intercepted. Egerstad did this and posted about 1,000 login account details for embassies, corporations, and human rights organizations. The web site has been taken down.
Sweden, however, took an interest in Egerstad when it received complaints from at least two foreign countries. One is reported to be China. Speculation is that the traffic Egerstad picked up was possibly that hacked by a foreign intelligence agency and monitored over Tor. He was merely reading the same traffic as diverted by the spy.
This suggests that the encrypted and anonymous network as a weapon of democracy can fall a little short if governments put effort into attacking its weaknesses. If China indeed monitors Tor traffic, dissidents would not be shielded from the regime. The United States probably has some interest in this as well for the same intelligence reasons as anyone else. I'll just add, though, how ironic it is that one one hand Congress can rail against the companies such as Yahoo for cooperating with China in dissident prosecutions while considering immunity for U.S. telecoms who routinely (allegedly) turn over the entire Internet stream to the National Security Agency without a court order. If anyone is using Tor, be advised that a government, somewhere, is probably trying to listen in, and probably with some success.