Apple iPod vs. Amazon Kindle: An Examination of Lock-In.


I have to admit I was intrigued by the idea of the Kindle, and awaited details anxiously. Now that the details are well known, it’s hard for me to look on the device with any enthusiasm.

I wanted something analogous to an “iPod for books.” The idea that I could buy books and store hundreds on one device is great. Going on a trip? Don’t worry about what book to bring; grab the device and go. Waiting at the Dr.’s office? Don’t read that six-month old magazine; you have everything with you. The idea of a portable reader is a good one to me.

Unfortunately, the Kindle is so badly implemented I’m not sure I can say anything good about it. Amazon’s mistakes (along with the obvious stupidity and paranoia of the publishers) is apparent everywhere.

It seems the only “good” news from the Kindle announcement is that it reveals the distinction between a “closed” and “open” system. The Kindle environment is in fact what others have been claiming (wrongly) the iPod/iTunes environment to be. It clearly shows the iPod system is not what ignorant pundits, bloggers, and sour grapes competitors have frequently claimed.

Consider the following:

For the iPod, the primary content is music. There are numerous sources for this:

  • Can be purchased through iTunes. While many of these files are “open” (i.e., DRM-free), the majority (for now, see note below) contain DRM; but it’s easily stripped and the file turned into an “open” MP3 or AAC file.
  • Can be purchased from any “open” online store such as eMusic and AmazonMP3.
  • Can be purchased as physical CDs and ripped to the device as “open” files.
  • Finally, of course, there’s no requirement to purchase anything at all because your existing CDs can be ripped to the device as “open” files.

NOTE: The iTunes store is currently over one-third (>2M out of 6M titles) “open”, and that number is increasing. As the labels allow Apple to do so, more and more iTunes tracks are sold as “open”.

To play the above files, you have numerous options:

  • All Apple DRM files can be played on an unlimited number of iPods, up to five computers, and burned to CDs for play in any CD player.
  • All files bought from an “open” store (or as “open” from iTunes) can be played anywhere and shared.
  • All files ripped from CDs can be played anywhere and shared.

As for other formats, aside from standard MP3 and AAC files the iPod also supports Audible format (audio books), AIFF and WAV.

For the Kindle, the primary content is ebooks. There is only one source for the kind it supports:

  • Purchased through Amazon. They contain DRM that cannot be stripped.

To “play” these books, there is only one option:

  • Can be “played” on your Kindle. They cannot be shared or played elsewhere.

Other ebook formats? Standard IDPF (formerly Open eBook Forum) files are not supported. Oops.

Now let’s take the above and extrapolate from it…

If Apple shut down the iTunes store tomorrow, you’ve lost nothing in terms of purchased music. You may need to strip DRM from some iTunes-purchased files, but that’s easy and a (statistically) small percentage of your music collection. All your music is ultimately playable on any player of note.

If Apple starts selling crappy iPods tomorrow, can you buy a different player and use that? Absolutely, go right ahead since the “open” MP3 and AAC formats are supported by any player worth its salt. Heck, you could even buy a Zune.

If Amazon shuts down the Kindle store, what recourse do you have for books you’ve purchased? At present, none. Once your Kindle dies you’re screwed.

If Amazon stops selling the Kindle, or starts selling crappier ones, can you buy a different reader and use that? Nope, you’re screwed.

So, do you see the difference now? I’m talking to you, Thurrott, Wilcox, and countless others who’ve posted ignorantly about a “lock-in” with the iPod system. Now that there is a bona-fide example in the real-world of an environment that actually has the kind of lock-in you decry, DO YOU SEE THE DIFFERENCE?

Sadly, many of them won’t, or can’t admit to it since they’re just posting at Microsoft’s behest, or strictly to Apple-bash. Still, if you know of any rational individual who somehow believes iPod/iTunes represents some kind of lock-in, point them to this post.

4 thoughts on “Apple iPod vs. Amazon Kindle: An Examination of Lock-In.

  1. Legally, you have no more ability to strip the DRM from iTunes than you do from the Kindle content. The only reason that the DRM has been cracked from iTunes is because it has a much larger user base and has been around longer. Kindle DRM will likely be cracked quickly – especially if access to the content goes away – making the lock in from a DRM standpoint equal. In both cases the real threat is legal and not technological. DRM is a poor means of controlling content and time and time again we see that it is just a means of enacting bad laws and violating fair-use and not a means of actually stopping the dissemination of content.

    Also keep in mind that iTunes is just another RSS aggregator while the Kindle includes a full cellular service agreement included that is paid for through the Amazon downloads. There really is a significant difference in the services that should not be overlooked.

    I am not justifying lockin in anyway, it’s awful and people should be smart enough to buy nothing that has a DRM on it. But if we can’t educate people enough to realize that the King of Nigeria doesn’t really need them to launder money for him then we can never make them even comprehend what DRM is let alone why it is bad.

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