Kith and Kindle

Amazon’s personal electronic reader cannot go it alone. Here is an idea for the Kindle to become part of the social media landscape. Let’s call it Kindle’s Family and Friends plan.

Similar to a few cell phone plans, let a Kindle user share books for free with up to five members of their family or friends. Once you identify your friends and family, you can share any e-book you’ve bought with them. This addresses one of the major issues raised by early users.

In the beginning, this sharing has marginal impact because there are so few Kindles in use. However, sharing content helps to build a library and more significantly, create social interactions around that library. Think of the Kindle not as a personal reading device but as a personal library that you’d want to share.

Why is this important for Kindle’s long-term viability? The true test of Kindle, especially for its publisher stakeholders, will be not whether enough people buy Kindle but whether the first group of people who buy Kindle use it regularly and often. (I have a Sony book reader which sits idle.) Sharing expands and encourages usage for the Kindle, and this is ultimately good for publishers. Note that I can share music I buy through iTunes with five other “devices,” which in my case are the computers of my wife and children in my own home. This same music can also be shared by streaming it over the local network, something that happens widely in offices. Content should not be locked to a single device, whether it’s an iPod or the Kindle.

People who enjoy a book naturally want to share it with others. Just today, my wife was sending a book she had enjoyed reading, “Dreams From My Father” by Barack Obama, to her mother in Chicago. This gifting of a book is part of what makes a book valuable in the first place. If the book didn’t retain this value once we consumed it, we would throw it away. By sharing a book with a relative or friend, we cultivate those relationships. It gives us something in common to talk about. Inevitably, this conversation spills out into the marketplace, a good thing for the author and publisher. (Again, the alternative is the book is thrown away, and never used again, and the conversation may never get started.)

Family and Friends is the first step in building peer networks of Kindle users who share long-form content. What about co-workers on the same project at a company or team members working together from different companies? Amazon needs to encourage ways for these users to organize their own information as shared libraries for small groups. This library might be a combination of published information, private communications and internally produced or self-generated publications. A team working on a project might want to share thick specifications, project proposals, company policy manuals, reference manuals, business plans, and standards documents. Oh, yes they might share books, too. Make it easy to build a library that can be created from lots of different sources and tools and shared with a known set of users. Make it possible to sync a library across a group of peers. (Ray Ozzie of Microsoft knows this area better than anyone as he previously created the groupware platform Groove Networks.)

One reviewer of the Kindle on complained about a lack of PDF support and said that he did not want to replace books. “What Amazon does not understand,” he wrote, “is that I want something that could replace my *laptop* so I can review work related PDF files without printing them out.”

The Kindle does support sending Word files to the device via email (I do not have a Kindle and have not tested this.) I might forward to the Kindle a long Word attachment because I don’t want to read it then and there on my laptop. I may not need to read it now but at some point in the future. That’s also true of longer content I encounter on the Web, which I’d like to able to forward as well. Perhaps I want family and friends to be able to forward reading material to me, even if it’s the equivalent of clipping a page out of a magazine. The Kindle could maintain a queue of my required reading.

When I look at my rather messy desk, I see this mixture of private communications, drafts of documents in various stages, printed Power Points, mail, reports, binders, etc., all mixed in with magazines and books. On my laptop, the same kind of content also exists in an disorganized array of folders. One of the problems I have is not knowing whether to keep something and where to put it if I do need it in the future. (I don’t file.) Most often I am trying to retrieve a document by searching my email. At other times, I have to fetch an internal document from the intranet, trying to remember where I saw it last. Or I ask someone who might know.

Kindle users should be able to store a wide range of free materials mixed together with published materials, just as they blend together on my desk or on my bookshelf. Most of what we read everyday is not published. It’s private communications, and a lot of it is email. It’s easy to read short-form content on a laptop but a reading device can be useful for longer, more structured documents, which may be held for some future use. Wouldn’t the Kindle be more valuable if used as a repository for personal and published information but one I can share with family and friends as well?

I will add that I have given similar advice to our own online books initiative, Safari Books Online. I think it’s crucial to the success of Safari that it be designed as a repository not just for O’Reilly and Pearson books but materials generated by its users and shared for them as a small group. Safari understands the concept of library; it needs to help users organize material that doesn’t originate with publishers. A group of programmers that developed an internal manual of programming guidelines could have that information on the same shelf as published guides on programming languages.

So my advice to Amazon and its publishing partners: forget strict controls and think of mind share.