Notes on the Kindle Orwell affair

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As you may have heard, Amazon recently decided that they shouldn't have sold electronic copies of two George Orwell novels and deleted them from people's Kindles (found via TGDaily):
In George Orwell's "1984," government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the "memory hole." On Friday, it was "1984" and another Orwell book, "Animal Farm," that were dropped down the memory hole - by Amazon.com.

In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.

An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. "When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers' devices, and refunded customers," he said.

Amazon effectively acknowledged that the deletions were a bad idea. "We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances," Mr. Herdener said.

Customers seem pretty surprised that Amazon has this capability, and I admit that I'm a little surprised that they have it as a built-in feature, but a Kindle isn't like a PC, or even an iPhone: it's basically a device that Amazon controls that you just happen to have in your hands. Here's how software updates from Amazon happen:

All Kindles are designed to automatically check for and download updates when one is available. If an update is available, your Kindle will download and install the update the next time the wireless connection is activated and Kindle goes into sleep mode.

During the update, you'll see screens that show the update progress. The update should take less than 10 minutes and is complete when Kindle displays the Home screen. Do not power off or reset your Kindle until the update is complete.

So, even if the current software load doesn't include remote control features, tomorrow's load could, and you don't really have the option of refusing the update.

Of course, this is just a generalization of what digital rights management software has always done: outsourced control of some of the functions of your computer to whoever (allegedly) has copyright over the contents you're displaying. With a typical DRM scheme this just extends to stopping you from making copies, maybe exporting to untrusted devices, etc., but you still generally have control of your own computer, and the terms don't suddenly change in unexpected ways after you've bought the thing. In principle, of course, Microsoft or Apple or whatever could force new updates on you, but in practice they always seem to ask you whether you want to install an update. But in the case of a Kindle, Amazon controls it more or less completely. As you've just seen, we don't have any real idea of what Amazon can do at the moment and as I said they can change the terms at any time.

Addendum: This is twice in a week that Amazon has had to walk back some customer-unfriendly move (the first was cracks in the case due to Amazon's protective cover, where Amazon was initially going to charge $200 to fix the screen). The general pattern from Amazon and companies in general (think Apple's $200 price cut on the first generation iPhone), it seems like the vendor generally starts by ignoring fairly obvious customer dissatisfaction and then having to fold due to bad PR. Any readers have a sense of the cost/benefit analysis here? Do companies consciously decide to blow the customers off and figure they'll just weather the bad press or is it one of those things where they just have lousy customer service policies and it doesn't get escalated to a high enough level until after the PR situation has gotten pretty bad?

5 Comments

My guess is that "fairly obvious customer satisfaction" only rarely leads to enough "bad PR" to force a change in policy. After all, customers complain about lots of things all the time, and it's actually pretty difficult to tell in advance which of the thousands of annoyances associated with using a particular product or service will rise to the "PR disaster" threshold. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the company should have known they'd have to back down once the customer outrage level got high enough, but that's because we don't hear about the many things that we might have guessed would have caused similar customer outrage, but somehow didn't.

Whoops--I obviously meant, "fairly obvious customer dissatisfaction". (I don't *think* reader outrage at my error would have reached a critical level. But the cost was so minimal, I issued a correction anyway. On the other hand, if it had required a multi-million-dollar patch development effort...)

How is this different from Apple's iPhone? Unless you've hacked the iPhone, Apple controls it completely.

Well, it's not entirely different. The carriers and Apple do exert a lot of control over the iPhone, and there was a lot of fuss a while back about an iPhone "kill switch" for apps in the app store. However, as far as I know Apple doesn't force you to take iPhone software updates, and that doesn't seem like an insignificant difference.

The BlackBerry has long had an "IT policy" feature, wherein when you register with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server it loads policy information on your device, which restricts what you can do -- whether or not you can load software, make phone calls, send email, and so on. If you want to use the service, you have to accept the policy control on your device. And someone at the server end can remotely "wipe" your device at any time.

It's intended for use within a company, of course, and my mobile provider (T-Mobile) does not use an IT policy on their server. But they could.

More and more, as we go to these "smart" devices and electronic services, we're ceding control......

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