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The coming e-book armageddon

I may be jumping the gun a bit here, but with this WSJ article on the potential pricing models for e-books on the Apple Tablet, I am very worried about the future of e-books. Books used to be these paper things that you could get just about anywhere, not require a specialized device to read, lend to your friends, borrow from a library, scribble in, or use to prop a door open. It seems clear that paper books are about to go the same route as the compact disc, but the e-book industry is getting it all wrong by tying themselves to proprietary, closed formats that only work on certain devices from certain vendors. It seems like I hear about a new e-book reader every day on sites like Engadget, but every vendor has the same problem: getting content and agreements with the publishers to support their device. Amazon has done a great job establishing those relationships for the Kindle, and now it seems Apple is going to have to do the same legwork for their tablet. It seems inevitable that we're going to end up with a VHS-versus-Betamax style format war between the two platforms. This does not bode well for the e-book industry.

Let me make it clear that I love e-books. I've been doing a ton of reading on the Kindle App for the iPhone, having recently read Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (and a few other not-so-great books that don't need my endorsement here) exclusively on the iPhone. (Yes, the tiny screen works - I can actually read faster with a narrower horizontal view of the text.) I particularly like having a half-dozen or so full-length books in my pocket at all times: if I weren't so busy reviewing papers for program committees I'd probably do more "fun" reading this way. But I really don't know if the Kindle e-books have any staying power. I certainly won't be able to hand them down to my son when he's old enough to read them. And will I have to buy them again, in a different format, for a different device, ten (or five or two) years from now when the next hot e-reader device comes on the market? What a pain.

Publishers should have learned their lesson from the music industry. Anybody remember the early digital Walkman that required you to encode your music in a DRM format and "check out" music from your library on the PC to the portable device? It was a total failure. Although Apple's AAC format is closed, iPods are quite happy to play MP3s, and arguably MP3 won the format war. I know full well that MP3 is far from the "best" format from a technical perspective, but pretty much every device I own knows how to play it, and it seems likely that it will stick around for a while. Better yet there are plenty of open source implementations that can encode and decode the format, so my music library is not locked down.

My final worry is what closed e-book format mean for accessibility of books and (to risk hyperbole) the wealth of human knowledge. In a decade, maybe only the rich kids with fancy Kindles or iSlates will be able to read the good stuff like Harry Potter, while the poor kids with only access to crummy public libraries will have to make do with yellowing, dog-eared paper (!) copies of Encyclopedia Brown novels. If books are really going all electronic, I think we need to think now about how to avoid creating a technology gap that closes certain people off from getting access.


  1. So long heart-felt inscriptions from the grandparents...

  2. Several ebook readers also support open formats. Unlike VCR you just download new ROM code to update formats supported (e.g., Sony has done this --I have 3 ebooks -- ordering #4 in a few hours).. It isn't as dire as you predict. If people prefer open, they'll demand. Already hacks to open DRM. It may follow music and start closed and move to open.

  3. It's going to be a very, very long time before you see the death of paper books. They're relatively cheap to manufacture, require no investment in an interpreter on the part of the reader, have infinite battery life, and their encoding is not going to become obsolete.

    Plus, as John implicitly suggested, there's a psychological aspect to physically having a book that shouldn't be underestimated. Half the time the content of the book isn't the important part; it's the object itself that carries emotional weight as a gift, that helps define identity of the owner sitting prominently on some bookshelf, etc.

    In some ways I think you could argue that the functions of a physical book and an e-book are complementary.

  4. True, these e-books manufacturer's and investors MAY have gathered useful information from the fall of music retailing. PIRACY is everywhere.


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