Burning The Page Excerpt: Jason Merkoski's Inside Story Of The Kindle (Part 4)

The following is part four of a five part excerpt from Jason Merkoski's Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (click here to read Part One and here's Part Two, and here's Part Three). Merkoski was an early innovator on Amazon's Kindle team, and his new book discusses how ebooks came to be, as well as where they're going. This excerpt is about the inside story of the Kindle:

When you’re a kid, the years have a way of passing quickly. All you can seem to remember when you look back are summer nights, fireflies, and snowball fights. The same was true of me during the development of the Kindle. When I look back at the years leading up to the Kindle launch, it’s like I was a kid, moving happily from one day to the next, one challenge to the next.

One of the challenges required Jeff’s personal attention and had to do with the Kindle ebook format. Nobody else on the Kindle team believed it was important enough to merit his attention, but I did, so I set up a meeting with Jeff to discuss it. (Back then, Amazon was a more intimate operation; I suspect that the days when someone can set up a meeting willy-nilly with Jeff are over, now that Kindle has grown so large.)

Now, just because you had set up a meeting with Jeff didn’t mean it would actually take place. To get to Jeff’s office, you had to get past his executive assistants. They have offices of their own, and in a Kafkaesque way, you’d have to talk your way past the first executive assistant to see the next one and then talk your way past her to make your way to the third assistant, and so on. Eventually you got to Jeff’s office, where you’d probably find him gone and realize that they’d neglected to say he was out for the day.

The day of the meeting, I made it to Jeff’s office a little early, before he had arrived from another meeting elsewhere. As I waited, a little apprehensively, I looked through his windows and tried to understand the way he saw things. He had a telescope in his office and pictures of his kids on the wall. It was a small office, actually, dominated by a giant work desk with tidy stacks of papers.

I imagined him looking out through his telescope at his far-flung workers, spread out as they were through Seattle in different office buildings, and I imagined him perhaps aiming his telescope at his fulfillment centers in Kentucky or Nevada, yearning to see their ceaseless shipments of everything from books to Beanie Babies, DVDs to diapers.

Protected by his executive assistants and sequestered in a tower in Amazon’s headquarters, Jeff’s office was a little like a walled garden. It’s an appropriate metaphor, because what Jeff and I discussed that day, and on days and weeks to follow, had to do with Kindle’s own walled garden.

When you’re reading about companies like Amazon and Apple, you often come across the “walled garden” metaphor. I want to explain it to you with a visual metaphor, because, well, I’m a visual guy.

Imagine the wall of a medieval fortress. There might even be a moat around it. It’s a tall structure made of stone—a wall to keep the enemy out. There’s one way into and out of the fortress, and that’s over a drawbridge that comes clanking down to let you across the moat, through a hole in the wall, and into the city inside. You can think of the city as being everything good that the wall is supposed to be protecting—all the people and gardens inside. This wall protects you from the dragons outside, from the Vandals and Huns and would-be conquerors.

In tech terms, the walled garden is the arrangement of software and hardware and file format that makes it almost impossible to get to what’s inside unless you go over the drawbridge, the officially sanctioned way in.

The only way you can buy a book and read it on the Kindle, according to Amazon’s walled garden approach, is to buy the book from the Kindle store. Are there other ways of reading a book on a Kindle? Yes, but they’re equivalent to the Vandals and Huns laying siege to the city by running ladders up its ramparts and then climbing those ladders with axes and grappling irons. In modern tech terms, this kind of attack is piracy.

This was just one of many issues we had to prepare for before we could launch Kindle. They all eventually got solved, one by one. Before I knew it, there was just one day left before Kindle launched.

We don’t know what it was like for Gutenberg in the hours before he unveiled his Bible and the secrecy was finally lifted. Until then, was he furtive, fearful that any secret would be stolen and copied? We don’t know how he or his workers felt. Sure, we know that pies were introduced in the 1450s, and we can imagine Gutenberg going outside with his workers that day and serving them celebratory slices of quail pie and glasses of plum gin or something special from his larder.

Some of his workers were no doubt hungover from the night before, perhaps drunk in a corner somewhere, being licked by dogs, after celebrating their victory. But maybe others could see how important the printed book would be. Because truly, Gutenberg had launched something at once commonplace and innovative—a humble Bible, but one set in beautiful, printed type. He unwittingly sowed the seeds for the Protestant Reformation, as well as a shift in reading so profound that we’re feeling aftershocks of the original tremor even now, centuries later.

Five hundred years later, on the eve of the ebook revolution, I settled in to sleep the night before we launched the Kindle. But sleep was impossible; there was the nagging worry that I had surely forgotten someone or something important. I kept getting out of bed to check my email. I stayed awake in bed with prelaunch insomnia, looking out through the window and thinking. I wondered if this is how Gutenberg felt the night before he unveiled his creation. Tomorrow, once Kindle was launched, things would never be the same again for anyone. Amazon had a lot of power, and ebooks would surely capture people’s imaginations.