Why Amazon monopoly accusations deserve a closer look (Fortune)

As with other one-time high-tech leaders (IBM, Microsoft, Google) Amazon’s dominant market share suddenly seems too much. In letters to the Justice Department, the authors’ and retailers’ groups claim that Amazon is squeezing publishers, punishing writers, driving bookstores out of business—and violating antitrust laws. They want Justice to investigate. Is there anything to their arguments?

The TeleRead Take: Nope! Well, actually, this article is a lot better than the usual “Woe is us! Deliver us from Amazon!” piece. The author is cognizant of his own prejudices, for one thing, and does his best to separate them out from the rest of his arguments. And he does look askance at some of Amazon’s adversaries’ more ridiculous claims, such as that Amazon is “[impeding] the free flow of ideas in our society.” He acknowledges that modern anti-trust law is meant to protect consumers, not other businesses, but suggests that Amazon “delisting books” from publishers during negotiations (as, he says, Amazon did with Hachette) should be worthy of having the Justice Department take a closer look at it.

The thing is, he oversimplifies what happened with Hachette. Amazon didn’t “delist” the books; it just stopped ordering so many of them in advance, because that was a co-op benefit and since Hachette’s contract had expired it wasn’t paying co-op fees anymore. That didn’t make it impossible to get the books; it just meant that they would have to wait until Hachette’s inefficient warehouse shipping could get more of them to Amazon. But then, both sides can probably argue the matter until they’re blue in the face. They certainly did while the Hachette contract dispute was going on.

In the end, Passive Guy probably says it best: “PG suggests this [anti-trust concern] is a legal veneer for I’m afraid and I want the government to protect me.

AlphaSmart: A History of One of Ed-Tech’s Favorite (Drop-Kickable) Writing Tools (Hack Education)

The word-processing keyboard was designed to be just that – a device that would strip away the distractions that had come to accompany writing on a computer – fonts, colors, layout. Instead, says one of the AlphaSmart inventors Ketan Kothari, students should be able to “focus on the words.” So should writers, of course, which goes a long way in explaining why this remains such a beloved product in certain circles.

The TeleRead Take: An interesting write-up of the history of this device. I hadn’t realized there was quite so much to it.

There’s a library-shaped hole in the Internet (The Boston Globe)

Librarians understand the context in which books make sense, how they go together, what are the canonical readings, and what are the dissenting works worth reading. Library information systems may not know as much about users’ behavior as Amazon does, but even highly anonymized usage records can say a lot about what a community values: which works people are reading, which ones they like or think are important, and even the relations they see among the works. In essence, the library can hold a mirror up to the community, allowing it to get a clearer and stronger sense of itself.

That means libraries should seize the initiative to fill that hole in the Internet with everything they know and are allowed to make public.

The TeleRead Take: David Weinberger suggests libraries need to open up their information to software developers via APIs so that they can make better tools to help the Internet make sense of what they do. It’s an interesting point. On the other hand, it seems like there’s a little bit of “If you build it, they will come” thinking here. Just because libraries have lots of data that could be useful doesn’t necessarily mean anybody actually wants it. They’d have to know they needed it to want it. Whereas most people just seem to want to know stuff about “movies, […] the world’s roadways, song lyrics, or Pokemon characters”.

Twitter is deleting stolen jokes on copyright grounds (The Verge)

[Freelance writer Olga Lexell] added that most of the accounts that were reusing her tweets without accreditation were “spam accounts that repost tons of other people’s jokes every day.” This also isn’t the first time Twitter has complied with a request like this: Lexell tells The Verge that she’s filed similar requests for other jokes. Twitter staffers typically remove the offending tweets “within a few days” without asking Lexell any follow-up questions.

The TeleRead Take: Seriously? If your stupid 140-character joke is that important to you, maybe you should consider just not tweeting it in the first place? I’m not entirely sure what’s more lame here: that she would take the time and effort to search Twitter for people reposting her joke, or that Twitter would take the time and effort to zot those tweets once she found them. Sheesh. There are more important things in the world to worry about. (Yes, I know, under copyright law, she probably is entitled, and they probably are required to follow through. But still, it just seems so asinine.)

Technology Is Magic, Just Ask The Washington Post (TechCrunch)

Not everyone can or should be an engineer. And as Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Our collective network of pocket supercomputers, communicating almost instantaneously across the globe, comes pretty close to “sufficiently advanced” on its good days.

But “technology is magic” is a dangerous meme. It makes non-engineers begin to believe that technology really can do anything its wizard-engineers desire. It causes them to not understand that they don’t understand. And so it leads to Very Serious People making risibly embarrassing–and potentially dangerous–mistakes.

The TeleRead Take: This particular case of fluffy magical thinking has to do with the idea that software developers should build law-enforcement backdoors into their software. Honest to goodness experts—legends, even—in the info security field have spoken up in chorus that this is an extremely bad idea, but a Washington Post editorial says the software companies should just do it anyway. As TechCrunch’s Jon Evans notes:

But that kind of engineering analysis doesn’t mean anything to people who don’t understand technology, who think that it’s magic. Magic, after all, has no limitations–and to the Washington Post’s editorial board, there is apparently no meaningful distinction between technology and magic.



  1. Chris, you wrote: “In the end, Passive Guy probably says it best: ‘PG suggests this [anti-trust concern] is a legal veneer for I’m afraid and I want the government to protect me.'” From the tenor of your article, I would guess this reflects your view as well.

    The flipside is that has always been the reason for antitrust investigations. Consider the breakup of AT&T — I remember the excellent telephone service we had before the breakup and the mediocre service thereafter. The prices we pay for cell phone service are outrageous compared to Europe, yet when AT&T was in charge we had some of the cheapest service in the world.

    Or consider the IBM bust. Was it to protect consumers or to protect competition that didn’t necessarily benefit consumers but did benefit other companies? Same with the Microsoft investigation. Ultimately, who really benefitted — and who really initiated the complaint (remember Netscape, which was the original complainant?).

    Amazon should be looked at for antitrust violations. Maybe there are none, but it should be looked at. My biggest disappointment with Teleread is that it has moved from a purveyor of objective fact and opinion as regards Amazon to an outright lobbyist for Amazon. It would be, in my opinion, much better if Teleread stepped back from being an Amazon cheerleader and considered that maybe everything Amazon does isn’t good for anyone but Amazon.

  2. I love my AlphaSmart(s) — I have both the Neo and the Palm-based Dana. They are *perfect* portable writing machines and can often be had on Ebay for $30.

    While the screens are small, the keyboards are wonderful and the form factor is excellent. Because of basic elements like using regular AA batteries and simply using a USB cable to “send text” to your word processor (instead of relying on a special program), there is no concern about them being outdated by changing technology. Because they are so durable, I would have no hesitation at buying a used unit, unlike most electronics.

  3. Twitter needs to consult a lawyer. If I recall correctly, you can’t copyright a joke or a recipe. For one reason, they’re typically brief. For another, I suspect the courts simply don’t want to be bothered with comedians (and chefs) suing one another.


    I should comment on Adin’s remark that when we had the AT&T monopoly, we had some of “the cheapest service in the world.” I remember that era well. Long distance was so expensive, it was almost never used by anyone outside business and then only briefly. And ordinary phone service wasn’t cheap by the standards of the day. It was just that state regulators insisted on a cheap widow’s service that was heavily subsidized by the rest.

    Between the regulators and the phone companies, it was also downright weird in pricing. In the 1990s, when I had a mild case of identity theft, I suspect the source was my phone book entry. I considered dropping the listing, but discovered doing that cost $5 a month. Someone who’d worked for the phone company claimed that was to cover the cost of having an operator put a call through in an emergency. That was nonsense. It was merely the regulators and phone company grossly overcharging for one service to subsidize another. Once upon a time, only rich people wanted to be unlisted and they could afford that ridiculous fee. By the 1990s, lots of other people needed it. I opted for just yanking my address from my phone listing.

    Today, much of that regulatory/subsidy madness is gone. Even basic cell service comes with a host of features including free long distance, caller ID etc.

    Also, I would not make much of those Europe v. U.S. comparisons. Those doing them often play a little game. They find the cheapest rates in Europe and compare them to much publicized, heavily advertised U.S. rates. You can get service a lot cheaper here if you look around. I get more Verizon service that I will ever need for half Verizon’s rate through a reseller.


    Those who find the Alphasmart intriguing for their writing will find that, as schools shift from them to tablets, people are selling them priced in the impulse purchase range. At this time, someone is selling the best-of-the-series Neo and Neo2 for only $15 and up:


    It’s worth that much simply to have a way to keep writing when the power goes out.

    –Mike Perry, author of Senior Nurse Mentor

  4. Chris, you’re so, so right about library priorities: “Just because libraries have lots of data that could be useful doesn’t necessarily mean anybody actually wants it. They’d have to know they needed it to want it.” Exactly!

    The Digital Public Library of America, which David Weinberg helped on the technical side, should continue its great work with APIs and the like. But along the way we mustn’t forget basic literacy needs—including those of the info-literacy variety (along with other basics such as family literacy).

    For that, there is no replacement for tech-savvy librarians and teachers and others, not just to impart facts to parents and children but also to encourage them on the scene.

    Having worked in tech support, you know the issues here. Oh, and this very much ties in with the Kindle sideloading issues that you and Diane Duane so intelligently discussed during TeleRead’s podcast on Talk Shoe. How sad that the average person cannot even deal with the fundamentals.

    With examples like the above in mind, I believe that the best solution in the U.S. would be not one but two national digital library systems—one devoted to mass needs, one to those of academia, even though the two should share a common infrastructure and many terabyte of content, as well as a common catalog for those wanting to use it. Otherwise academics devoted to the arcane will dominate at the expense of the masses.

    Current spending on public library content in the U.S., by the way, is only around $4 per capita. As for other sources of books and other items, yes, I see a continued role for Amazon and other vendors, including commercial subscription libraries.

    Here’s to a mix of business models while at the same time helping public libraries and their patrons adjust to the new technology and take full advantage of e-books and other offerings! Just the tech itself can’t do the trick. People must be enticed to come to this field of dreams.

    Meanwhile, later today or tomorrow, I’ll be posting on the need for the DPLA to take the open-sourced Live Writer and turn it into a true creation tool for the masses and academics alike (with training offered locally!). No comments from the TeleRead community on that yet, please. Let me post the actual commentary.


  5. Mr Meadows’ clear writing and ability to synthesize information impresses me. Regularly, though, I find his dismissive and snarky tics exasperating. The lack of empathy expressed above (‘Seriously? Asinine‘) has me thinking that I should just avoid his byline altogether.

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