Another New E-Book Platform? Please, No, Stop It!

Barnes and NobleTheStreet.com is reporting that book-retailing behemoth Barnes & Noble may be hatching a plan to build an e-book device of its own, possibly partnering with Sprint to deliver books wirelessly. I don’t know if there’s anything to the rumor, but it would be stunning if B&N wasn’t formulating some sort of strategy for dealing with the prospect of a world in which most (all?) books are digital. If it doesn’t, it’ll turn into another Blockbuster sooner or later.

If there is a Barnes & Noble e-reader, it’ll have plenty company. There’s Plastic Logic’s upcoming device. Fujitsu is about to release its fancy FLEPia in Japan. Magazine publisher Hearst is working on an e-reader. Rupert Murdoch is making noises about jumping into the market. And then there are the gadgets that are already here: Amazon.com’s Kindle 2, Sony’s Reader, and dark horses such as the iRex iLiad.

All of which leaves me thinking one thing: I wish that the publishing and technology industries would take a deep breath, step back, and declare a moratorium on new e-book gizmos and platforms until they can agree on one file format for e-books that’ll work on every reader. It would be nice if that format was free of copy protection, but I’m willing to settle for DRM as long as it works well, and works with everything,

The books I’ve bought for my Kindle will work on the Kindle and other devices Amazon chooses to support, such as the iPhone. (Which means that even if another company comes up with a gadget that’s ten times better than the Kindle, I’m unlikely to switch,) The books Sony sells work on Sony’s reader. We don’t know what formats a Barnes & Noble e-reader will work with, but I’m guessing it doesn’t want Amazon or Borders selling tomes for its hardware. And so on.

One of the multiple wonderful things about human eyeballs is that they’re compatible with everything you can look at: I’ve got books I’ve owned since I was two that I still pull out from time to time. But e-books that are tied to a particular platform are dead ends: You’ll be lucky if you can still read them five years from now, let alone a few decades into the future.

I cheerfully admit that I’m pretty much ignorant when it comes to what’s going on with open e-book standards. I just know that I’m not going to get too excited about any new e-reader until I know that any digital book or magazine I buy anywhere will work on it…


18 comments

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  1. Kirk Augustine April 8, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    I agree, I don’t mind multiple platform, in fact I encourage it. I want an open standard before I buy one though.

  2. Mike from Vashon April 8, 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    I’m not yet convinced users know what they want ’em for, so a common file format might be presumptuous or even detrimental.

  3. Bill Grant April 8, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    The fact I’m not even sure I’ll be able to open a GIF or a PDF in 25 years time leaves little hope for these DRM’d formats. And if a company offering the media goes out of business, what incentive do they have to unlock it for me? Apple has shown that companies may feel it is appropriate to charge more for an unlocked version of _the same media_.

    I similarly feel about this with software that goes to the Internet to unlock for me. What if your website goes down temporarily? Permanently? Didn’t I buy a license in perpetuity?

  4. Andrew Edsor April 8, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

    I won’t be buying any of them. I’ll be very happy with paper books for entertainment and a computer screen reading an ‘open’ standard (.pdf) for reference books. The whole business of e-books is a blind alley which will be dead within 10 years. I’d put money on it!

  5. Keith Shaw April 8, 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    The analogy comparing B&N to Blockbuster is a little bit of a stretch – people at B&N are going there for the coffee, pastries and the ability to read books for free – people will still end up buying physical books and magazines. Now, if there was a Netflix-like service for an easy way to get books delivered to the house with no return dates (unlike a library), then B&N (and even Amazon) could be in trouble.

  6. Harry McCracken April 8, 2009 at 5:51 pm #

    To clarify, I don’t think that Barnes & Noble is in danger of becoming Blockbuster any time soon–for one thing, it seems to be a well-run company, as far as I can tell. But I think that physical books are going to be meaningfully less relevant than they are today, starting soon–and that’s going to spell big trouble for B&N unless it evolves into a very different company. People aren’t going to hang at B&N if they simply don’t care about books and magazines printed on dead trees.

    Maybe Virgin Megastores (not bad, and going out of business even as we speak) would be the more appropriate comparison…

    –Harry

  7. Felix Pleşoianu April 9, 2009 at 2:00 am #

    Two words: plain text. Want two more? Project Gutenberg. And if you absolutely, positively need fancy formatting (or maybe just embedded pictures), HTML and PDF are both open standards, with countless independent implementations.

    Oh and, ‘DRM that works’ is an oxymoron.

  8. Paulo Sargaço April 9, 2009 at 3:48 am #

    I have mixed feelings about ebook readers. I like reading books from an electronic device, but if on the one hand laptop screens are awfully tiring for the eyes, on the other I don’t really want another gadget to haul around. Plus, I don’t understand this absurdity with ebooks. With music you’ve always had walkmans, cd players, full stereos, whatever, and you were never tied to Sony’s or any other label’s cassettes or CDs. Why this insistence on making devices that will force you to buy books from A or B?

    Another thing with ebook readers is that, in the end I don’t really want a device dedicated to books. What I really wanted is my PDA to have a full colour electronic paper foldable screen… for the price I got my second hand HTC Touch Dual. I guess I’ll have to wait a bit.

  9. pond April 9, 2009 at 4:42 am #

    Hear, hear, Harry!

    And I further call on the computing industry to take a deep breath and stop producing any new computer until they get the OS and security and all other things perfectly right so that they will never again have to change for the rest of time.

    After all, if 64K of memory was good enough in 1982, why should we ask for any more now? If punch cards got a man on the moon, surely they should be able to get men on Mars as well!

    Just because Barnes & Noble bought a big ebook publishing company, doesn’t give them any cause to actually, you know, want to produce devices on which to read those ebooks. The Palm Pilot is quite good enough to read them, thank you very much.

    And oh yes, Harry? I’ll thank you to mail these posts somewhat earlier in the day, my mailman is having a hard time delivering them for some reason. Must be because his horse is getting old.

    /sarcasm

  10. Mark Mayerson April 9, 2009 at 5:40 am #

    This is a job for the open source community. The only way e-books are ever going to become successful is if buyers of books and devices are confident that they are not tied to a company’s survival. Let the creators of hardware concentrate on making e-reading the most pleasant experience possible and let the publishers of e-books concentrate on making them as widely available as possible.

    Having books available in proprietary formats is a giant step backwards. It’s a threat to the idea of public libraries and freedom of expression. If we don’t trust governments to regulate speech, why should we trust corporations who are doing it?

  11. Felix Pleșoianu April 9, 2009 at 7:32 am #

    @pond Pray tell us, what advantages does a proprietary, DRMed e-book format have over, say, PDF *from a consumer’s point of view*? And why should I buy a dedicated e-book reader (that can’t do anything else) for the price of a smartphone or netbook that can do countless different things? At least give me a *cheap* e-book reader.

    /seriousness

  12. tom b April 9, 2009 at 7:47 am #

    Why are these idiots even trying? Even if they CAN make a usable E-book reader, it won’t do near as much stuff for the money as an iPod Touch, which is very nearly a handheld computer. E-book readers are like those 1-function, dedicated poker or chess handhelds you see advertised in the back of Parade magazine, next to the Franklin Mint ad; or the stuff you see in SkyMall magazine.

  13. Judy K. April 11, 2009 at 3:38 am #

    Andrew, don’t put your money on e-books being dead in 10 years! In 1993 LOTS of people were saying the same – EXACTLY the same – about the Internet. Sign on to a few e-book-forums and see how nobody who reads on an e-Ink screen ever, ever wants to go back to reading on a backlit screen. Look at the industry stats: we are at the start of an exponential curve: http://www.idpf.org/doc_library/industrystats.htm

    10 different file formats are a pain in the *** but there are free programs out there that organize your e-book collection and convert formats to whatever you read on, on-the-fly (like Calibre). I’ve got a few hundred e-books in 6 different formats and am confident I’ll be able to read them all – whichever reader I finally buy. Yes, I’d be happy if I didn’t have to double-click on the conversion program’s icon before I could download to my reader – but it isn’t SUCH a big deal!

    What am I waiting for? Oh yes, like others here have said: for an 8″ or 10″ screen that can handle books and newspapers, has a wifi connection (not a proprietary Sprint or AT&T or expensive cellular one), an e-Ink screen or other non-backlit screen of course… and sells for less than $300. Worldwide, not just in the States. And it would help if the screen weren’t breakable and/or the price included the protective cover. I’m figuring I’ll be buying around this time next year.

    e-books are where the Net was 15 years ago – we don’t even imagine, yet, what we’ll be able to do with them. e-book readers are where PCs were 15 years ago – whenever you buy, you know there’ll be another model out in 6 months that’s twice as good for half the price

    In general this technology passes my Microwave Test – a gadget that before buying it you say “whatever would I need it for?” and a month after buying it you say “how on earth did I ever get by without it??”

  14. Cathy April 16, 2009 at 2:16 am #

    Come join us at Booktaste or Smashwords where ebooks are supplied in all and every format!

  15. Cazneau April 18, 2009 at 5:21 am #

    I’m excited about the possibilities of these e-readers, but not ready to jump in yet. As a college professor who spends a lot of time grading papers, I’m waiting for an e-reader with a screen as big, or almost as big as a standard sheet of paper for reading student papers submitted electronically. And, of course, the ability to mark up these papers and send them back to students. The closest thing to this so far appears to be the Irex Iliad, but it still seems a bit slow and buggy, with poor customer support.

    And I, too, would not waste a lot of money on proprietary, DRM books that are likely to have a “lifetime” of 5-years or less. I understand that Kindle 2 buyers are finding that some of their Kindle 1 purchases don’t work on it–and they are required to purchase the “Kindle 2” version if they want to use it on that device. What a scam!

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