While guiltily watching an episode of “Dollhouse” the other day (the reviews lied, it’s not getting better), I witnessed for the first time a pop culture reference to the Kindle.
Some guy (played by Patton Oswalt) is talking about a court case, and he says that, in the age of the Internet, the judge “will throw the Kindle at you.” Now, mostly this is a silly, awkward joke made on a silly, awkward show, but I think it’s also a sign that an average American associates the Kindle—and only the Kindle—with reading digital books.
Language is malleable, but rarely controllable (Stephen Colbert being the exception). Words are constantly entering and leaving the dictionary, driven more by usefulness than design. So, I harbor no illusions that we can do anything at all about whether or not “Kindle” becomes the generalized word for ereader. I just hope it doesn’t happen, because it would play right into Amazon’s hand.
When a trademarked brand name joins the lexicon as a generality (such as Kleenex, Dumpster, Chapstick, or trampoline), it points, for one thing, to a lack of other satisfying options. What else would you call a trampoline? Circular bouncy stretchy cloth-thing? (People were actually supposed to call it a “rebound tumbler,” which is even more awkward.) This is definitely true for dedicated digital book reading devices: some people (me included) say “ereaders,” some say “e-book readers,” some people say “dedicated digital book reading devices.” All these options still sound… wrong, somehow.
Generalized trademarks also connote popularity and imply superiority. Kleenex is, by virtue of its popularized name, thought of as the best facial tissue (or snotrag or whatever the generalized term is). In fact, I couldn’t name another brand of snotrag right now if my life depended on it.
While Kindle is probably the most popular ereader, it’s definitely not the best. It has its advantages (whispernet), and its disadvantages (no library books), and physically it’s nearly identical to all the other ereaders. An ereader newbie, however, might think the Kindle is the best device simply because they recognize the name. That’s not good, primarily because it gives Kindle little incentive to discontinue practices that are terrible for ebooks (practices like proprietary formatting and DRM crippling).
Companies often fight against the generalizing of their brand names, because eventually, like “trampoline,” they’ll lose their trademark. Amazon, on the other hand, seems to want Kindle to become synonymous with ereaders. In fact, I think it goes beyond that, I think Amazon wants to be synonymous with ebooks. (Ideally, they want to be synonymous with all books, but that’s taken, so they’re making a grab for all ebooks.)
Competition among ebookstores is key if readers of ebooks are to get a fair shake. We need big companies like Powell’s, and lesser known stores like A1 Books. And most of all, we need ebookstores that aren’t maintained by ereader producers—like Amazon—whose goal is to create customers for life by force.
My major concern with the Kindle is still that it’s a closed system. You cannot buy ebooks for a Kindle from anywhere except Amazon, which simply gives Amazon too much power over its Kindle customers, especially as Kindle becomes more and more popular.
Through the lens of generalizing the word “Kindle” I can see a future I’m afraid of: one where you cannot buy books from anyone but Amazon, period. Amazon alone decides which books get published and how much authors make. Amazon essentially becomes the entire publishing industry, fore to aft. That is not a world I want to live in.