What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

Has the focus on reading – and reading anything you want – been swept aside in order to make it easier to buy content? Until very recently, relatively speaking, e-reading was all about what digital text you could get your hands on. Most of it was free, out-of-copyright stuff from the web. Some of it came via longform journalism (also on the web). And some of it, yes, came from piracy. Although nowadays content can be purchased easily from multiple sources, I would argue the e-reading experience as a whole has not improved as much as Apple, Amazon, Google and their ilk would have us believe.

I first started reading ebooks and other digital content on a Palm Zire in 2003. It had a tiny screen, no wireless capabilities, and the only two stores you could buy content from were Mobipocket and eReader (both of which have since been bought out and absorbed by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively). At the time there were virtually no books available on these stores that I actually wanted to read, so my reading was heavily supplemented by free material from elsewhere. To add my own reading material, I had to convert the files manually, plug the device into my computer and transfer them across. Although wireless and screen technology are light years ahead of my old Palm Zire, the process of reading non-standard material  has not really changed dramatically since then.

At the time I owned the Zire, I also had a first generation iPod, which seemed to me to be the most amazing piece of technology ever. Just plug it in and fill it up with music. Conversion and transfer was all handled through iTunes, which could also organise your music library and play your music for you when you were at your computer. People have had their share of complaints about iTunes, and I certainly have issues with it in its current incarnation, but to begin with it was an incredibly freeing experience. The iPod was portable digital music. To your iPod, the music you got from a CD (or free off the web) was no different to the stuff you could buy (much later) from iTunes itself.

So where was the iPod moment for e-reading? It has never come. Although the Kindle ecosystem has come the closest to recreating the ease of use of the iPod it’s still not there yet, and may never be. Primarily it is a device intended to be used with purchased content – and that content has to come from the Kindle store. Can you imagine if you were only able to load songs onto your iPod if you’d bought it from Apple first? The iPod would never have achieved such a dominant position with such a narrow focus.

Where is the device out there that puts the act of reading at the centre of the experience? Where is the device that doesn’t care where your text comes from, but just wants you to read? My list of demands is not unachievable. Completely wireless loading and conversion of any piece of text I’d like to read; a built-in dictionary; highlighting and annotation (and wireless export of these annotations); Bookmark syncing between devices; and, of course, the sharing of passages and annotations through social networks. Most of these features are available to readers if you buy your books through Amazon or Apple and only read on a Kindle or an iPad – but what about other content? Reading has never been just about blindly buying what’s served up to you in a store – it’s an organic, social experience. And none of the major reading platforms cater to that.

My ideal reading platform has not been created yet. All the major players are far more interested in locking you into the device they make and the content they provide than wanting you to have an ideal reading experience. But I suspect that when that platform comes along, there will be another iPod moment. And the way things are going I very much doubt it’s going to be Apple or Amazon.

What do you think? What do you want from your e-reader? Are you happy with what’s already out there? Or do you think I’m just being a giant early-adopting whiner? Sound off in the comments.

The Perils of Convenience

Around the blogosphere, especially among gadget-obsessed early adopters, you hear a lot about what various content industries that have latterly gone digital “should be doing”. They (and sometimes me) justify everything from breaking DRM to piracy by saying that if the industry in question were only doing things right – making things convenient for said gadget-obsessed early adopters, and thereby everybody else – then they would have an alternative to cracking, pirating, dodging restrictions and other apparently nefarious deeds.

This doesn’t apply just to books. Rightly or wrongly, music, movies, games, books and software are all under threat because they haven’t adapted to the changing digital sales environment quickly enough. Some are doing better than others. And you can see from looking at a few examples that those that are recovering are often doing so because a single player has risen up and utterly monopolised the industry, making it easier for content producers to sell their product to people in a way they find convenient. This is true of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, and it’s becoming increasingly true of Amazon and the Kindle.

It’s also true of Google Book Search. For those who don’t know, Google Book Search is exactly what it sounds like. It allows you to input a string of text from any book that Google has in their database and find out what book it is, often giving you a chance to buy it or, if it is what’s called an ‘orphaned work’ (a book whose copyright owner cannot be located for some reason) it allows you to read the full text online for free.

Clearly this is an excellent state of affairs on one level, because it means that works previously abandoned to time can be rediscovered and shared with the world – and the revenues will eventually trickle back to authors and publishers. The problem, as Cory Doctorow points out in a recent Boing Boing post, is the way that Google acquired its massive database of books. It scanned them. Just bought a whole bunch of books and scanned them, then used its software to index the text. When the Authors’ Guild (the US one) found out what was happening, they sued Google. They have now reached a settlement, the details of which are complicated and not relevant to my point. This now means, as Doctorow points out, that the only way for another organisation to ever hope to compete with Google in both the indexing and searching of books and making orphaned books available to the public is to “illegally scan the books and then hope for a good outcome when slapped with a class-action suit by all the country’s publishers”.

So my question for all of you is this: is it worth it? Is the price of convenient, easy access to content and services worth the perils of a monopoly? There are a lot of people, for example, who’d like to see the Kindle succeed in the way the iPod has succeeded in the music world – and they aren’t all employees or stockholders of Amazon. Some people just want to be able to buy an ebook, and then not think about it. I love the idea of Google Book Search, but have we (or rather, the US Authors’ Guild, on our behalf) just invested in Google the may-as-well-be-exclusive use of all the world’s published knowledge? Or am I just being hyperbolic? (Spoiler: I usually am). What do you think?

The Future Is In The Past And Present

I’m not normally one to weigh in on the e-book debate, partly because I think others can say it better than me, partly because I’m bored.

I should explain that boredom with the background that I worked for the music industry on and off over the last 10 years as I put myself through uni. It’s perhaps also why, while publishers’ concern over the fast-moving changes sweeping the industry is warranted, it feels a little groundhog day-like for me.

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to gain an insider’s perspective on how not to tackle the advancing electronic era. And if there’s one lesson I have learned from observing objectively from the inside, it’s that the key to the future of the publishing industry is in the music industry’s past and present.

In the music industry’s defence, the changes were swift and previously unexperienced, so it’s unsurprising that they handled things badly. But the publishing industry? They’ve had some forewarning, and what I don’t understand is why they haven’t been pinning down and picking the brains of music industry professionals—those who survived, those who didn’t, and those whose developments changed the game. Because if I were pinned down and brain-picked, I’d put it this way: it’s not about the packaging—it’s whether the content, be it words or music, is delivered in a format the suits users’ needs. Ultimately it’s about providing them with what they want, how and when they want it.

Let me explain. The concept of the music ‘album’, replete with 12-ish songs, was created not by musicians or demanding fans, but by record companies who saw it as a way to bundle more content together and make more money. What it meant, though, was that artists released music less regularly as it took them a long time to come up with 12 good songs, albums were very often padded out with not-so-great ones that arguably decreased the overall value, and fans were forced to buy whole albums when they very often just wanted one, single, solid track. And that’s not counting the impracticalities of carrying around a bazillion CDs to parties or overseas. In short: the packaging and delivery didn’t suit users’ needs.

Then advances in technology gave users an easy, affordable alternative. Yes, for the most part that was an illegal one, but I’d argue that while illegal downloading was always going to appeal to some, there was a percentage of people who did this simply because they couldn’t get the content in the format they were after.

While artwork and having a physical CD to show off on your shelf were ok, they weren’t the driving reason why people bought CDs. The driver was the content: the music. What Apple recognised and what the iPod and iTunes, in particular, enabled people to do (like a revelation), was pick and choose tracks. They made music portable and placed the how and when and why decisions firmly back in users’ hands.

Which is where the publishing is—and should be—heading, with or without publishers’ tacit agreement: towards formats that are more in tune with users’ needs.

The look and feel of a book is important, but it’s not the sole book-buying driver. I buy a book because I want to read it. And I want to read it in a manner that suits my lifestyle, which is one that involves a lot of travel with a lot of heavy gear. For this reason, too-heavy, too-cumbersome, easily damaged hardcover books are completely impractical for me. But audio books that I can listen to while on a bus, train, or plane (times when ‘traditional’ reading normally makes me motion sick) or multiple e-books I can take overseas without having to worry about the weight of my luggage are perfect. Moreover, e-books that bookmark pages to remind me where I’m up to (a battle I constantly face as I can never seem to remember the exact page number and stalwartly refuse to buy bookmarks that only fall out anyway) are a godsend. Finally, it feels as though someone’s thinking about how I use (and need to use) books.

The publishing industry is focused on trying to resuscitate the book, as if it’s on its deathbed. They’re blaming the terminal e- and audio-book illnesses for its passing and are so caught up in grieving and making funeral arrangements, they’re not seeing the situation for what it is.

Books aren’t dying. The format they come in is just being updated or, indeed, not even that—just being joined by complementary electronic versions. The sooner the publishing industry understands that—and the sooner they recognise that the key to the publishing industry’s future is in the past and present lessons of the music industry—the better off we’ll all be.

Mark My Words: The E-Book Will Never Be Victorious!

It seems like everyone is talking about Amazon’s recent emission that e-books have surpassed the sale of hardcover books. Our fellow blogger, Joel Blacklock, has been writing some fabulous articles on the whole phenomenon. Til now I have attempted to stay out of this debate, but I feel that the time – to step forward and offer my own two cents on the matter – has come.

Let me get one thing straight first – I don’t want e-books to fail. They represent an important movement in reading books that I embrace wholeheartedly – anything that purports to make reading easier and more accessible has a two-thumbs-up from me! So they’re preaching to the converted! But they’re also preaching to the wrong type of audience. Sure, there will be readers who enjoy being ‘up’ on the latest technology and so will be the first in the lineup for the latest Kindle or Sony e-book-related product. But unlike the fact that pretty much everyone likes to listen to music (the iPod) or talk to others (the iPhone), it’s a sad truth that not everyone likes to read books.

Reading’ll probably always be considered the archaic art that has the characteristic of the mythical phoenix, seemingly dead but rising from the ashes with renewed vigour with every passing generation.

Rather than it being an either/or scenario, I feel like e-books will become part of the book industry, and some readers will find it most convenient to gravitate towards this medium. I am sure the e-book will experience significant growth for consumers, but it ain’t gonna happen for a while yet. Society is experiencing nostalgia as well as progress – it’s why things like Harry Potter (based in an era where magic rules and the computer is exchanged for spell scrolls) and Twilight (based on the supernatural goings-on in the small town Forks where I bet they only just got wireless broadband) have succeeded for the Y Generation. Fantasy is never really about the present – magic concerns the past long-gone, Sci Fi is about the future, and dystopian fiction is an undesirable view of the future. We may be the generation that enjoys progress, but I like to believe we’re all for freedom of expression, and don’t want to be confined to one type of reading outlet. If companies continue to push, push, push this commercial enterprise it’ll just cheapen reading to the point where no one’ll bother – some of the wonderful things about books is the ability to ‘covet’ certain exxy paper editions; ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over gorgeous covers; and yeah, romanticise over the musty/ freshly-pressed ‘smell of books’.

And I’m pretty sure the world is still full of rebel romantics.

The Tower of eBabel

The problem with new technology is that it costs a lot of money. Technology companies frequently spend years and years without making a profit, shaping their business model, trying to ‘monetise’ their creation. Amazon, for example, was launched in 1997, but didn’t become profitable until 2002. Facebook only became profitable last year, and Twitter still doesn’t make money, despite all the people that use it. Nonetheless, when these technologies take off they often make a lot of money.

Most big technology companies have become massive by creating platforms that have ended up being the de facto standard. A platform, in the technology sense of the word (rather than a raised piece of floor), is the system used to manage certain kinds of content. Facebook, for example, is a social media platform. The iTunes Music Store is a platform for music. Amazon’s Kindle is a platform for digital books. The most useful outcome for consumers is that a single platform ends up delivering a single type of content. In the days of physical media platforms – CDs, DVDs, audio cassettes – there was a certain amount of disconnect between the company that owned the rights to the platform and the people who sold the content.

Digital media has changed this. Nowadays, the iPod and the iTunes Music Store are synonymous with buying music digitally. Amazon would like to make the Kindle synonymous with ebooks. Apple would probably like to do the same with their iBooks software on the iPad (and as of this week, the iPhone and iPod Touch too). People in the industry call this eBabel – as each new company enters the fray, they bring with them a different format with a unique type of DRM. This situation is absolutely horrible for consumers. People are locked into a single platform with their purchases because digital media cannot be transferred between competing platforms. I’m not going to try and stretch this into an awkward physical media metaphor – there is no equivalent. It’s just bad – frustrating, confusing and annoying for readers.

It’s easy to argue that a single format will win out in the end – it’s what has tended to happen with physical media (we have Bluray instead of HD-DVD, and had VHS instead of Betamax), but with digital media the result of a single format ‘winning out’ is dramatically different. The only settled digital format so far (digital video is still up in the air, as is the format for ebooks) is Apple’s iTunes platform. This model has succeeded by Apple being in complete control of the platform and the content delivery. In order to use the iTunes Music Store and the iTunes platform, you need to use an iPod. In order to use an iPod, you need to use the iTunes Music Store.

In the future, it’s easy to foresee a company like Apple or Amazon being the only place you can buy ebooks from. They control the hardware and the software – the platform and the content. Is this what we want for ebooks? I think the answer is an emphatic no (though by all means, please disagree in the comments!). Unfortunately there is no clear solution to this problem. Getting rid of DRM would be a nice start, but publishers are very unlikely to stop using it – even though it demonstrably benefits technology companies far more than it does content providers. I’d love to hear what you guys think – sound off in the comments if you have an idea or even just an opinon. How do you want to get your books in the future?

Review: International Kindle

As much as I would like to review my brand new iPad for this column, I feel that I haven’t yet had enough time to wrap my head around it, so I’m going to start my series of ereader reviews with Amazon’s International Kindle.

The Kindle has been around for quite a while now, first with the US-only Kindle 1, then the US-only Kindle 2 and the DX (the A4-sized reader). Late last year they finally opened up to the rest of the world with the international versions of the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. As mentioned earlier, Amazon did not consult with any publishing companies or even the local telecommunications companies before launching the Kindle internationally – they struck an international roaming deal with AT&T in the United States in order to arrange wireless internet on the devices, and used their existing catalogue of books (which they have gone on to remove from many local Kindle stores because of territorial copyright claims).

Despite this, in comparison to other ereader devices available in Australia, the Kindle experience is overall the best (for now, at least).

The Kindle is an e-ink type ereader. This means that the screen is not backlit, and simulates the look of a page. For those who haven’t seen this technology before, it’s not quite as good as a printed page. It looks a bit like a giant calculator screen. The upside is you can read it in direct sunlight, and you can read it for hours without giving yourself eyestrain (or running the battery down – with wireless turned off, my Kindle runs for about two weeks without needing a charge). The other features of the Kindle are pretty standard – you can search your ebook, there’s dictionary support and you can highlight and make notes on your books as you go. It also has rudimentary free wireless internet access – which in Australia can only be used to search the Kindle Store and buy books. The Kindle can even read your books to you in a haunting computer voice that will probably give you flashbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Kindle Store is the most comprehensive source of ebooks in Australia at present. Additionally, with a few simple tweaks it is quite easy for Kindle users to get around territorial copyright restrictions to get access to the full 450,000-book range of the US store (a pretty big drawcard, at least until Australian publishers make their content available to Amazon and other vendors in Australia). There are positives and negatives to the Kindle way of buying books. Obviously there are DRM issues, but that goes for every generalist ebook store at the moment. However, in addition to this, Amazon uses a proprietary ebook format and DRM that they purchased from Mobipocket (another ebook store, now going the way of the dinosaurs). What this means, for those of you scratching your heads, is that unless you crack the DRM on a Kindle book, you will never read it with non-Amazon software.

Additionally, the Kindle is incapable of reading any other form of DRM except its own. This means that if you buy a book from Barnes & Noble or Kobo or Dymocks you will not be able to read them on your Kindle (again, this is assuming you do not crack the DRM on your ebooks, and most people will not). This is Amazon’s way of keeping you in the family – they maintain the biggest range of ebooks, woo customers in and then lock them in forever. Apple did the exact same thing with the iTunes Music Store and the iPod – and Amazon are fighting to win in the ebook wars.

So basically the Kindle is a double-edged sword. It is feature rich, content rich and is cheaper than most other ebook readers available in Australia. However, it is fraught with problems: a lack of content on its Australian ebook store, DRM lock-in evil juju and even Orwellian removal of books after you have purchased them. Having said that, if you’re in the market for a dedicated e-ink reader – the Kindle is your best bet. If you’re sitting on the fence about ebooks at the moment – hold off for now (and read my iPad review when it goes up in a week or so).