Booki.sh: A Potential Australian Alternative

Widely reported in Australian book news over the past couple of days is the decision by Melbourne indie bookstore Readings to use a new Australian start-up’s web technology to launch an ebook initiative. This is big news for essentially everyone in the trade in Australia, not because the offering is especially mindblowing, but because of the relief we all felt on reading this that at least this particular piece of news had nothing to do with Amazon.

The new start-up is called Booki.sh and is a Google Editions-esque web-based ebook platform. Essentially what this means is that instead of using an app (like the iBooks or Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone), or a dedicated reading device (like the Kobo, Sony or Kindle reader), you access your books directly from your web browser. The service uses HTML5 technology, the newest implementation of the programming code that underpins the web.

A significant feature of HTML5 is that it allows websites to store files on your device. This means that when you first buy a book on Booki.sh through the website, your web browser downloads the book files in the background, so that even when you’re not connected to the internet, you can still read that book through your browser: on the iPad and iPhone, you can even add the book to your homescreen and access the book whenever you want to read it. The service even works with the Kindle 3; I tried the demo through the browser on my Kindle 3 and although it wasn’t quite as smooth as reading a native Kindle book, it was nothing like viewing a web page through the Kindle’s terrible browser – it even utilises the Kindle’s turn page buttons!

The demo service that Book.ish has made available is not without its kinks. Although it’s fairly slick, it’s not quite as slick as using an app or a dedicated reading device to read your ebooks. It’s also missing some pretty key features that I have started to rely on – like an in-built dictionary, annotation and highlighting. It’s also missing bookmark syncing, though you have to assume that when an account system is built in it will include this fairly obvious feature (ie if the book is already on the web, you may as well be able to sync bookmarks across every device that accesses it). It’s also not clear just yet whether readers will be able to use their own documents on Booki.sh, like the Kindle Personal Documents service.

Nonetheless, this is a very promising proof-of-concept that could become something quite interesting with the support of indie booksellers and a bit more development. Whether they’ll be able to compete with the likes of Google Editions, once Editions launches, is another thing entirely – but we have to hope that the little guys like this still have a chance. There’s also the concern I’ve raised in an earlier post about cloud-based services, and whether readers will be OK with not owning a ‘thing’ when it comes to reading – but rather access to a thing. Either way, this is one to watch.

What is Google Editions and Why Should You be Excited?

I’ve heard a whole range of responses to the announcement of Google’s answer to the ebook question, from the pessimistic (this won’t change anything), to the hysterical (this development is going to single-handedly save the book industry worldwide!). As with most of the stuff I cover on this blog, the answer is probably somewhere between the two.

To begin with – what the hell is Google Editions? Editions is Google’s response to the current ebook retail solutions. Hardly surprisingly, it is very Google-ish. Instead of a single device that reads books sold through a single store (like both Apple and Amazon), Google Editions will be as open as possible. It will be accessible from launch on any device with access to the web through the login most of us already have with Google. They’ll do this by hosting their ebooks in ‘the cloud’ – a fancy way of saying on the internet, specifically on Google’s vast server space. They’ve already got the content – when they launched Google Books a couple of years ago they got the books from scanning a vast library of out-of-print and out-of-copyright paper books, and have spent the time since cementing relationships with publishers and authors in order to get more recent books (and the permission to use the books they took it upon themselves to scan in). When they launch they’ll likely have a bigger library of ebooks than any other retailer on the web. More importantly than any of that, Google will be opening up their library of ebooks for sale through other retailers, acting as the backend for independent booksellers and other booksellers who, for whatever reason, lack the resources or wherewithal to put their own ebook store together.

In theory, this should mean that those of us who read exclusively digital nowadays will still be able to support our local indie bookstore and continue to read ebooks. It wouldn’t even need to be done through a website. In the most optimistic view, I imagine a world in which I head in to my local bookstore, browse the selection they have there and come across a couple I’d like to read, then proceed to a terminal or the front desk to order them sent to my personal digital library in the cloud to read at my leisure later. That would combine the singular experience of browsing a bookstore (far more enjoyable, in my opinion, than any ebookstore has yet managed to create) and the convenience of ebooks.

So what’s the catch? Well, the cloud solution to ebooks is nice in theory, but it stretches the software licence idea of ebook ownership to a new level for consumers. When you buy an ebook from Amazon, you’re not really buying the file you download, you’re buying a licence to use that file and cannot legally use it in any way contrary to that licence. This is completely different to a physical book, which, after you’ve purchased it, you can do anything you like with – including sell it on to another person or a secondhand bookstore. Google Editions wouldn’t be any different to the existing ebook offerings in that regard, but you wouldn’t even be downloading a file – you’d be accessing that file through the internet. It remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace this difference or not.

Other question marks hang over the Google Editions project as well. If the file can only be accessed from the cloud, what do you do when you’re not connected to the internet? Does that mean you can’t read the book? One presumes this isn’t the case, Google have been experimenting with ‘offline’ apps (such as offline Gmail, Calendar and Docs) for years now, but people still tend to fundamentally think of books as an offline, almost anti-internet experience – and I wonder if that will make a difference to how Google Editions is viewed.

At any rate, Google Editions is a welcome addition to the offerings already out there, and has the potential to do some very interesting stuff to the industry, especially to independent booksellers.

Is the real-time web helpful for books?

Business Insider reported last week that the half-life of YouTube videos is now hovering around six days. For those who aren’t scientists or web developers, what this means is that 50% of the average YouTube clip’s viewers see the clip within the first six days that it is put up on the internet. This number has dropped from fourteen days in 2008. The half-life of YouTube clips is getting shorter – and we can theorise that a big reason for this is the real-time web. The ‘real-time web’ is a fancy way of saying Twitter, and the way that Twitter has affected other social media platforms. You could say (if you wanted to be entirely simplistic and make a crude generalisation based on these statistics) that we are now so efficient at instantaneously sharing and distributing pithy little videos around the internet that the majority of us never see something unless we see it within a week.

What, you might ask, has this to do with books? Well, with the increasingly close integration of social media and books (the latest firmware for the Kindle includes the in-built ability to post what you’re reading and quotes to Twitter and Facebook) we might reasonably expect the shelf-life of books to decrease along with other digital media.

Or can we? Interestingly, Google is putting a lot of effort into trying to turn web video into an experience that mimics television. Particularly regarding how much attention we pay to television – and for how long we watch it. The web – which by its nature privileges active browsing over passive viewing – is not very easy to monetise. This is obviously very important when your primary income comes from advertising. With the announcement of Google TV this week, we can see that the next frontier for the search giant is colonising our living rooms.

Is it reasonable to draw a similar line between Google and TV and Google and books? Shelf-life (or at least profitable shelf-life) for books that are published today is about six weeks at the maximum. Books that haven’t sold much in six weeks are very unlikely to sell more. Can the publishing industry survive a shorter shelf-life? Or will it just mean we buy more books (and perhaps read less)? Or are books by their very nature entirely different to other kinds of media – and therefore immune to the vagaries of the real-time web? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.