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Suggestion for Amazon: Open source the Kindle apps

Open source development could lead to a world class set of ereader apps.

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“Reader Apps vs. Dedicated Book Apps“). It’s republished with permission.

Today there are typically two ways of publishing and reading ebooks on mobile devices. You either use a reader app, often from a device maker (e.g., Kindle, iBooks) or you use a dedicated app written on that platform for that particular work (e.g., The Elements or Solar System for iPad). Some of those dedicated book apps are terrific, but I think they’re a symptom of one of the more significant problems in the world of ebook evolution.

I love it that there’s so much experimentation going on now with apps, but oftentimes they’re one-offs that require a reinvention of the wheel for each new product. I also hate the fact that we’re creating a bunch of book apps that don’t talk to each another. One of the simple features I’ve been asking for in reader apps is the ability to search across a library. It’s far more likely we’ll see that implemented in the Kindle reader, for example, before we’ll ever see all these individual apps communicating with each other.

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What really needs to happen is for the reader apps to evolve much faster than they are today. Apple just added the ability to separate your ebooks into different shelves in the iBooks app. What a concept. The Kindle app has been around much longer than iBooks and it still doesn’t support something as simple as this.

A while back I suggested that Amazon ought to get out of the hardware business and focus all their efforts on making their reader app the finest on the planet. Even though they’re not taking that advice, I’ve got a new idea for them to consider:

Turn the Kindle apps into open source projects and enlist the help of the community to enhance and improve them.

Imagine how many great new features would be implemented in this model. Rather than being limited by the fixed (and apparently small) number of developers assigned to the internal Kindle apps dev team they’d suddenly have access to as many developers as they could recruit to the open source project. They could create a world class set of apps and quickly distance themselves from the competition.

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  • Tamara Joost

    Good idea. But you may notice that Amazon STILL DOES NOT SUPPORT LINUX. I think this is the most evil thing that Jeff Bezos ever did. And, I have to note, I am a huge fan of Amazon and Kindle and want to see it take over the world, want to see all big-box bookstores shut down, want to see the whole world reading books on handhelds and on the computers etc. But why is the Kindle app only available for Windows, MacOS, all these different phones, and NOT LINUX? That’s really sick, because Windows, MacOS etc is not what made Kindle. Kindle RUNS Linux. The backbone of Kindle is Linux. Without the free software revolution, Bezos would have nothing. And he can’t support us Linux people at all. That has got to change.

  • http://www.whatsthebeef.org whatsthebeef

    The popularity and quality of the kindle app specifically on Amazon’s hardware can’t be argued with. The main motivation for Amazon to make any such changes is to ensure they aren’t resting on their laurels. This can be very dangerous in this age but as Amazon are relatively inexperienced in the field it may be a trap they fall into. In this respect opening up the kindle software might be an affective way to tackle such a issue.

    @Tamara Joost, I am in complete agreement, it does seem a crime that the kindle app isn’t supported on Linux

  • http://mark.atwood.name/ Mark Atwood

    While I agree that this is a good idea, Amazon will never do this, and can’t ever do this, as long as the the AZW format is DRMed. An open source AZW reader would render the DRM moot.

    Of course, it’s moot already, as AZW DRM is already completely broken, but Amazon has to continue pretending to the publishers that it isn’t…

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  • Travis Truman

    I’m still in awe at how few of the e-reader apps have decent social integration. I’ve tried several and finally settled on Kobo reader on iPad because they have nailed the social integration in terms of Facebook updates.

    That said, social integration in e-reader apps should really also include the following: book reviews, book club creation and membership, personalized e-book recommendations driven by library contents, browsing activity, annotation and notes within books. I have no doubt that open sourcing some of the popular reader apps would lead to an acceleration in feature development along these and many other lines.

  • Info Serf

    What of the B&N “Nook-Color” reader? Aren’t they working on opening it up for Google Android apps?

  • http://nataliaventre.com Natalia Ventre

    In the Kindle, it’s possible to organize the books in collections, so if Amazon doesn’t add that feature to the Mac/PC/etc version is because they don’t want to, not because they don’t have enough developers.

    I don’t think making the Kindle app open source will lead into any major improvements. I prefer that people with lots of experience in the books industry (like Amazon) take the decisions, they know better how to deal with publishers, and having more titles available it’s better than a fancy feature. In the end it’s about reading, I don’t want an app with 100 useless features.

  • Andrew Hilborne

    I wonder if Joe Wikert even has a Kindle?

    I’m not an evangelist for Amazon – I’ve had a couple of Kindle crashes – but I do still like them a great deal. Amazon have managed to go a long way towards recreating the experience of reading a book, but on their light-weight device.

    There are a bunch of compromises which have been made on the Kindle (for example, black-and-white only) and there none of the CPU-intensive operations that what Joe is asking for are likely to entail. But these compromises mean that it will last for three weeks between charges, is extremely light and, well, handles pretty much like a book :)

    I have far more concerns about attacks on the principle of first purchase of e-books. I want to be able to borrow them and lend them to people and I don’t want Amazon _ever_ to delete them from my collection. None of these things are true at the moment and, given the technological limitations, they may never be, but I still don’t like the idea that, legally, I am in some sense leasing an e-book.

  • http://www.joewikert.com Joe Wikert

    Andrew, yes, I do indeed own a Kindle. I don’t use it much anymore though as I’ve switched to an iPad. I do almost all my ebook buying and reading with the iPad’s Kindle app though, so I’m still a big fan of the platform, just not on Amazon’s hardware. I agree with you that the lending and, more importantly, reselling ability of ebooks needs to be addressed. As consumers we should be able to resell our “used” ebooks just like we can our print books. It’s another feature I’ll bet an open source community could help implement much faster than the closed model could today.