About six weeks ago Amazon.com did something so incredibly stupid it could easily have been mistaken for satire: It reached into people's Kindles and deleted copies of Orwell's "Animal Farm" and "1984," saying the publisher who sold them (for 99 cents apiece) did not have the rights to do so.
At the time I gave Amazon hell for this ("Careful what you read, Big Bezos is watching") and so did my readers ("Write and wrong: Amazon's Orwellian nightmare"). About a zillion bloggers also jumped in and slapped Amazon about the head and shoulders.
[ Also on InfoWorld: "Careful what you read, Big Bezos is watching" and "Write and wrong: Amazon's Orwellian nightmare" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
The company was then sued by a high school senior who says he lost the notes he was keeping in his Kindle for a school assignment based on "1984" -- thus making him the first teenager in recorded history who could credibly claim something else ate his homework.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos issued a public apology -- something he does about as often as it rains donuts in Seattle -- and Amazon issued refunds for the books it "unsold." But that's as far as it went.
Yesterday, however, Amazon quietly made amends. According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal's Digits blog, Amazon is giving Kindle owners the option of having the books restored free of charge, getting a $30 gift certificate, or receiving a check for $30. (Kind of along the lines of what I suggested they do -- do you think they read Cringe, too?)
First reaction: Great news. This is exactly what Amazon should have done in the first place.
Second reaction: Why did it take them six weeks to get around to it? Has Amazon learned nothing in its 14-plus years of existence about customer service? It's one of the truisms in the customer service racket: If you screw up but make up for it well (and quickly), people like you better than if you'd never screwed up at all. Making up for it months later when everyone's moved on to other things is unlikely to have the same effect.
Then there's the bigger question of how Amazon will treat similar situations in the future. All Bezos said about the matter is that Amazon will "make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission."
If Amazon really does want to become "Earth's most customer-centric company," it's got to do a better job of explaining its DRM policies. Do Kindle users own the books they've paid for, or are they just renting them at Amazon's largesse? Why can't people who've paid for digital books sell them, trade them, or give them away, as they can when they buy books from Amazon made from dead trees?
If publishers are afraid "used" e-books will cannibalize sales of "new" ones (because you can't dog-ear a digital book), why not create a marketplace that lets Kindle owners sell their old e-books -- but just once per copy? Would that really be so hard?
I think Amazon needs to move beyond the obvious restore/refund/rebate option and define what rights it thinks its customers actually have. That process should include asking customers what rights they think they ought to have. That's what "customer-centric" means.
And not just Amazon. It's anyone who sells or publishes digital content -- books, music, movies, and so on. They need to stop thinking they can continue to dictate to consumers and start listening instead. Because without us, they're nothing.
Does Amazon's make-good make you want to buy a Kindle? What rights do you think customers should have? Post your eloquently expressed opinions below or e-mail them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org.