O'Reilly: Amazon must open the Kindle

Does Amazon need to open up the its e-book reader in order to succeed? Despite Tim O'Reilly's argument, the answer isn't so clear.

O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly makes a provocative claim relative to Amazon's successful e-book reader, the Kindle: embrace open e-book standards, or be run over by them.

It's a bold prediction, considering what Apple has demonstrated with the iPhone. It may also be wrong.

Indeed, though I'd like O'Reilly to be right on this, I think that the iPhone, which he uses to prove his point, actually demonstrates against it. O'Reilly writes:

(Apple) seems to have a knack for balancing the benefits of both open and closed architectures that Amazon has yet to discover. While Apple maintains tight control over what goes into the App Store, there's a loophole big enough to drive a truck through: Any Web page can act as an application for the iPhone.

O'Reilly then explains that the Kindle doesn't provide this same loophole (i.e., allowing open-formatted e-books to be read on the Kindle in the same way that the iPhone enables Web applications to run on the iPhone, and in which the iPod encouraged MP3s and other free formats to flourish on the iPod).

I don't think I agree. On my Kindle, I read a variety of books that I downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg, and I suspect that this will only increase as more and more free content is formatted for the Kindle.

O'Reilly's argument is much stronger when denouncing Amazon's "you must buy it from us" mentality, because it by definition limits the size of the market. Some, like Apple, may be able to execute against such a vision, but the odds of getting the world to beat a path to one's door--in the way that Microsoft did for Office and Apple did for the iPod--is difficult, indeed.

O'Reilly is right that Amazon has better odds in going with open standards. Just look at how well Sony has fared in e-books. But that's the risk Amazon is running, and it's one that has the potential to pay off big-time, if the company does it well. I believe that open standards are the right way to go, but Amazon may feel that its up-front investment in creating a device worthy of the e-book market justifies a winner-take-all strategy.

O'Reilly is right to argue this:

Open allows experimentation. Open encourages competition. Open wins. Amazon needs to get with the program. Or, like AOL and MSN, Amazon will wind up another online pioneer who ends up a belated guest at the party it planned to host.

But it's easy to see why Amazon might disagree and why maybe, just maybe, it may succeed to the industry's detriment. Open standards do tend to win over a market. What they don't do is guarantee a winner, which is likely why Amazon is content to play its hand rather than the open-standards hand that has yet to win over the market, just as it failed to win the emerging digital-music market.


Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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