From Services to Products

I’ve been thinking about last week’s debacle with the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. The company discovered that some of the titles it had sold for the device were actually un-licensed by the copyright holder. Amazon’s solution was to remotely delete the titles (which included Orwell’s 1984) from any Kindle that was connected to the network and credit the account for the original purchase price. The next morning people were surprised to find their purchases unceremoniously revoked.

The Kindle is a clear example of how a product can be turned into a service. From a consumer electronics point of view it’s unquestionably a product (in the same vein as the Sony eReader) but the addition of a subscription to content blurs the line and pulls the Amazon device into the realm of service. People are only belatedly discovering that Kindle e-books aren’t products in the traditional sense but more of a subscription service like a cellphone or cable TV.

In a lot of ways I prefer the dependability of good old-fashioned products. Something about subscriptions doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t like the idea that my product’s functionality is out of my control. That it will only continue to work as long as the service provider remains in business and I stay in their good graces. It’s comforting to know that I can pick a book off my shelf that I haven’t thought about in ages and it’ll still work as well as the day I bought it — without asking the publisher’s say so.

I’ve seen people touting the un-networked nature of the Sony eReader as an advantage in light of recent developments. And some people seem perfectly willing to hobble the Amazon service ecosystem if they can regain the stability of a traditional artifact relationship by simply turning off network access. They’ve transformed the Kindle back into a product. It’s an interesting development for service designers to consider.

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