Monday, January 2, 2012

If *I* Was Amazon

There has been a lot of requests from one or two people for "parental controls" on the Kindle e-reader, and even more for controls on the Kindle Fire. The problem is that different people have different concerns: for some, it's avoiding accidental (or unauthorized) purchases of any kind, for others it's blocking access to erotica or other genres and still others are have more general concerns about all kinds of content available to the device's web browser.

A common suggestion for dealing with unauthorized purchases is the application of yet another password for authorization in a pre-purchase state. I see two problems with this: first, Amazon's business model revolves around making purchases easy - they even have a patent on one-click purchasing, so there are clear commercial arguments against it. Secondly, the questions on the Amazon Kindle customer forum indicate that people often forget passwords and get confused over which password to use when (a point I've already addressed in the context of wi-fi configuration).

Blocking access to the Kindle Store on a per-genre basis is also fraught with problems. First is the fact that, in order to increase their visibility to potential purchasers, publishers will list their books in as many genres as possible. It's entirely likely that, in the face of widespread filtering, erotica publishers would move many of their titles - especially free samples - into "romance" or similar genre classifications. In response, users might start to block multiple genres and before long, we'll have an unwieldy interface and more load placed on Amazon's servers (and slower response times, too).

If I was Amazon (and I'm not, but I do have some insights, since I teach a course on e-commerce technologies) my top priority would be allowing multiple sub-accounts. A sub-account would represent one person and their reading devices, while the master account would be used for billing and administrative purposes (adding/deleting sub-accounts, authorizing/disabling purchasing by sub-accounts, etc.). This would not require any modification to the Kindle firmware - all the development would be at the server end - but it's non-trivial.

The number one goal for this would be to attract education and corporate accounts, e.g. teacher/librarian could purchase books and then distribute to students' Kindles, etc. As a revenue-generating enhancement to Amazon's product offerings, this is far more likely to get done.

Now, this would require negotiation with the publishers as it would break the current model where one account = one reader = one sale. It would open the possibility of a new bulk-purchasing or -renting model for institutional accounts, with corresponding pricing. However, for small group use - e.g. sharing within the family - it's not a huge extension to the notion that a single book can be on six devices; it just means the six devices could be six different people within one family. Nonetheless, it does have legal/marketing ramifications which would require a) rewriting of existing T&C/licenses, and b) a small leap of faith on the part of publishers.

After these enhancements have been introduced, Amazon would have a flexible platform which would meet many of the needs of concerned parents, who could then selectively purchase books for their children's sub-accounts. It would also meet the needs of couples who often want to share their books and have long done so with paper books.

However, I don't see any kind of "rating"-based or genre classification-based parental controls system as being practicable, at least with current technology.

More Detail

 The way I see it, you would allocate devices to accounts - just like we do now - but with the definite understanding that an account represents a person (after all, that person can log in with their email address and password to manage their account, within the limits set). Then we'd allocate the accounts to the "master" account, which is also associated with a payment device (i.e. credit card).

Then the master account could do things like creating collections and granting the sub-accounts access to each collection, enabling sub-accounts to buy or not, etc. Creating collections would be more versatile and easier than allocating individual books to sub-accounts, although I think that should be possible, too. The archive for each sub-account/person would contain just those books in those collections to which they've been granted access.

Here is what we software architects call a use case, in a parental controls context: Mom creates the master account, adds credit card information and then creates sub-accounts for Alice, Bob and Carol. Since these are sub-accounts and have no credit card, they have purchasing disabled by default. Then she creates a "YA" collection and buys a few carefully-selected books which she puts in there, and then grants A,B, and C access to the "YA" collection. They can choose to download those if they want, and they probably will. Carol is 18, mature and trustworthy, and so Mom might grant Carol the right to buy books and add them to the YA collection, too, using the master account credit card (Mom always gets the "Your purchase" email so she knows what's going on").

It would be beneficial if Mom didn't have to create the sub-accounts, but could simply nominate an existing account as a sub-account. This would make upgrades easier, particularly since some families (like ours) already have separate accounts for each person. In this case, the linked "child" account could perhaps have an option to retain ownership of its own books, or to transfer some or all of them to the "parent" account. By doing this, I could create a "family" account, then my better half and I could link our accounts under it, transfer those Peter Robinson "Inspector Banks" novels we've independently bought to the "family" account, and share like we did with all the paperbacks for many years. (I defy any publisher to tell me this would be an unreasonable thing to be able to do!)

And of course, Mom and Dad's "Adult Fiction" collection would be off-limits to the kids - only Carol has even thought what that might be and doesn't *ever* want to conjure up *those* images again. (I'd name that collection "Parenting Manuals" anyway.) Visibility of collections to which access is not granted is an open issue - if Alice and Bob want to know why they can't have access to the "Adult Fiction" collection, Mom (or Dad) should have an explanation necessary. I rather like that. If the kids are studying "Human Reproduction" at school and want a book about it, then Mom (or Dad, but I bet it's Mom) will have to be involved in selecting an appropriate book and putting it in the correct collection.

I would would allow a "master account" to configure the one-click purchase option on the device/sub-account to operate in one of three ways:
  • buy (in other words, the current operation)
  • do nothing (one-click purchasing disabled, for use in schools and institutions)
  • add product to a wish-list
Now everyone wins. Parents could disable one-click buying altogether - the kid either doesn't get the option or can click uselessly on the button. Or they can let little Bob and Carol click to let Mom & Dad know they really want something - Mom can review and approve (i.e. "gift") the purchase, or use the wish-list to choose birthday and Christmas presents. Amazon is happy because kids can use the wish-list to exert "pester power", increasing Amazon's sales. And the existing status quo is maintained for master accounts or perhaps disabled by default on sub-accounts.

Amazon already has the code to add things to wish-lists with a single click - their internal systems are based on what IT people call a "service-oriented architecture" anyway, so this wouldn't be too expensive to set up. Way better than the "stick a password on it" approach. 

For the classroom, the collections idea could be used to group all the books to be used by a particular class, or to group all the books suitable for a particular age group, or related to a particular topic, etc. An obvious related convenience would be the ability to create "classes", i.e. groups of sub-accounts, so that all the kids in 3B could be referred to as "3B" and then "3B" is granted access to collection "3B" plus collection "Plants & Animals" and so on.

Obviously, the sub-accounts in a school would not be able to buy books, but they could certainly download the books from the archive collections to which they have been granted access. The teacher or school librarian would have buying authority for the master account.

This would make Kindle use in the classroom significantly more attractive to schools. At the moment, a few brave teachers are literally collecting all the Kindles, taking them home, and then one-by-one turning on wi-fi, downloading the right books, turning off wi-fi and then taking the Kindles back to school the following day - an onerous task that I'd consider above and beyond the call of duty. With the scheme I'm outlining, the Kindles could remain in the school, with all management being done via the web interface for the master account. The kids themselves would connect via wi-fi and download the books they need.

By the way, I've used the term "sub-account" but really this is just the existing Amazon account, with some extensions. What I'm describing is two things, from a technical perspective - the establishment of a parent-child relationship between the existing Amazon account structures, plus the addition of some access control functionality, with the ability of the "parent" account to set the access controls or permissions for the child account. Accounts could even have many-to-many parent-child relationships - for example, an individual's account might be a child of a "Family" account for household sharing, but also a child of a "Book Club" account which allows the members to share access to a book they're reading and discussing. In essence, this is a generalized architecture to manage sharing of digital content with controls to meet the needs of both publisher and customer, in a variety of situations.


Which raises the issue of licensing. For family use, I could make a pretty convincing argument that it would simply legitimize and make manageable what people have been doing for years by putting multiple Kindles on one account and sharing books under the "six devices" rule, and hence would have minimal impact on publishers' revenues, while creating goodwill. In some jurisdictions, such as Australia, copyright law already recognizes the right to make copies of some digital content for personal use within the household. However, I can't see any way of getting this done without publisher involvement - remember, we customers don't buy ebooks, we buy a licence to read them and the current license does not provide for what I'm describing. And the same mechanism should apply to all other forms of digital content - I've been describing this in terms of books, but it can and should apply to movies, music and apps.

Licensing should ideally be handled on a per-device basis, like now, with the notion of a "site license" as currently used for software. A family could probably be accommodated within the existing "six-device" limitation we have today - a large family might have 8 sub-accounts, but 6 of those are the kids, and so there wouldn't be more than 6 copies of the "YA" collection books in use at one time (after Mom has returned her copy to the archive). Effectively, the publisher really has to agree to the terms of the licence and set a realistic price - from that point on the technicalities of enforcing the licence is all down to Amazon, so the publishers needn't get involved.

Obviously, a "site license" for a school would require enough simultaneous device-copies to accommodate an entire classroom plus teachers, etc. although not all copies of all books need be in use at any one time. Amazon already has a book lending mechanism which can be used to remove books from a Kindle after the loan period has expired, and this could be used within an institutional environment to provide library-style functionality, with a certain number of books "loaned out" at any one time and automatic "recall" if a new borrower requires a book after the loan period has expired.

If I Was a Publisher

If publishers don't get to grip with these kinds of requirements, they're going to starve. I believe specialist textbooks publishers can already do it, although I don't know what their terms are. Ultimately, though, the economics of market forces are going to to corral the publishers into the right direction, because if the publishers don't respond, this will create an opportunity for new agents and publishers to move in and provide representation and marketing services to existing trad-pubbed authors, in part by getting to grips with these challenges and opportunities. Competition will then force the remaining traditional publishers to break ranks and - there's no better way to say it - get real.

If the publishers fear the market dominance of Amazon, then they should seize the initiative in doing what I described above: offer innovative licenses which allow sharing and within-account lending, whether for institutions (big $$$), families (smaller $$$) or whatever. And then let online retailers - whether new entrants or established players like B&N, Amazon, etc. - compete to provide the best implementation, service and functionality within the terms of those licenses.