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.

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 2

Read first part of review…

Other software features and annoyances

Other than the unique features above, the Google eBooks platform is missing some ebook reader features that some readers may consider standard.

It does allow the user to choose the font, size, line spacing and justification of text, and includes a day/night mode (black text on white background or vice versa), as well as a (thankfully optional) 3D page turning animation (similar to the iBooks app on iPhones and iPads). There’s a contents page on most books, and it also has a search function, which is predictably quite good coming from Google. The software also supports syncing your place between devices, and, unlike the Kindle, it syncs your most recently read spot – not the furthest read – meaning you can flick back and forth in a reference text (or a book with endnotes) without messing your bookmarks up. However, there’s no ability to manually force a bookmark sync, so if you finish up reading on your iPhone in an out-of-service area and want to pick up where you left off later, you’ll be out of luck. You also can’t sync your bookmarks if you read a Google ebook on your Sony, Nook or other dedicated reader.

As far as software features go, that’s really about it. There’s no highlighting or annotation here, no dictionary, no ability to share snippets on social networks and the software doesn’t even support landscape mode. While the Google eBookstore website is pretty good, it is the only way to purchase books – there’s no in-app store like the Kobo and Borders apps. The platform also doesn’t support loading personal documents, which is disappointing from an ‘openness’ standpoint. Basically if you want to get free books from places other than Google, or read your own work documents or long-form journalism from the web, you’ll have to use a different app.

Having said all this, Google’s software is often released with a basic feature set and expanded over time. However, considering how late in the game Google has launched its ebooks platform, it will want to ramp up these features sooner rather than later if it is to compete with the juggernaut that is the Kindle.

DRM, territorial restrictions and piracy

Before launch, Google was touting Editions as being ‘ebooks without DRM’ – a concept that most people who know a little about ebooks thought was a bit fuzzy. The books were all supposed to be tied to your Google account and that was it – no other encryption or restriction, the books were all stored ‘in the cloud’. This turns out not to be the case precisely. Because Google eBooks also supports standalone readers like the Sony, Nook and a bunch of others, it has built-in support for Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM scheme. The good news for pirates (and bad news for publishers) is that this DRM scheme was cracked years ago, and will make Google’s ebooks just as easy to pirate as those from any other store.

Insofar as territorial restrictions go, however, Google has the store sewn right up. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle, whose territorial restrictions basically function on an honour system, Google restricts access to its US ebook store by determining where your IP originates (meaning you have to do complicated network messings-about to access the store) and also does not allow purchases from non-US credit cards. Australian readers who currently like to get the full range of US ebooks by pretending to live in the States will not be able to do this with the Google eBookstore. It also means that global travellers will need to ensure their books are purchased and pre-downloaded before they leave home – as their own eBookstore will not be accessible outside their home country from the device of their choice. Not a particularly ‘open’ system for Google to set up, but it will probably make old-worlde publishing types who want to restrict territorial copyright quite happy.

In summary

The Google eBooks platform is a welcome addition to the ebook world, particularly when it comes to their support of indie booksellers. With that said, the actual feature set they are offering is, at this time, still miles behind Amazon’s Kindle, and that’s assuming they really can compete with Amazon on range. Google has the resources and the connections to make this platform something pretty damn amazing, so while I’d recommend hedging your bets for now (especially as it won’t officially launch in Australia until next year) – stay tuned and keep an eye out – Google eBooks could be something really interesting very soon.

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 1

After much anticipation, Google eBooks (formerly Google Editions) launched this week in the US. Claiming to have over 3 million books available (most of which will be free out-of-copyright titles), Google is likely to be the first ebook store to compete with Amazon in terms of range and availability. And the best part? They are offering to partner with independent bookstores worldwide to provide the backend of an ebooks service – giving indies a chance to get in on the ebook game. It’s impossible to know whether Google eBooks will succeed in the long term – but for now, here is a summary of all the available information since the launch.

Unique features

Like any ebook platform, Google eBooks has launched with a few features that make it different to most of the other services out there. Foremost among these is Google’s commitment to openness. Ebooks purchased through Google (or partner sites) will be available to readers on any platform Google supports – and they support a lot. They’re available through a web reader (a feature Kindle has plans to implement, but hasn’t done yet), through iPhone, iPad, Android devices and for a whole host of dedicated ereaders including the Sony and the Nook (but not including the Kindle, which says more about Amazon’s closed door policy than it does about Google). By opening Google up to partner book stores across the world, Google are also dedicating themselves long-term to a sustainable book industry in the digital age. It also means they get to leverage existing retail relationships with readers without having a significant online retail presence (unlike Amazon).

On the software front, the reader itself offers a few features that are rare, if not completely unique to Google eBooks. Because Google has procured much of their content through directly scanning books, they offer an option to flip between the scanned version of a page (as in the image of the book page) and reflowable text. On smaller devices like phones this isn’t going to be much use, but on the iPad, for example, where a general page size is smaller than the screen, this gives readers the opportunity to see the original font, spacing and little touches that many people miss from paper books.

Following on from this, Google’s page numbering system is also unique to their ebook platform. Instead of using a location scheme (like the Kindle’s cryptic “5826-36” system) or a percentage of the book read, each Google book is linked to a definitive paper version, and tells you what page (or pages) you are on and the amount of pages overall. This addresses one of the chief complaints I’ve heard about ebooks from dead tree enthusiasts – that reading ebooks doesn’t give you a clear idea of how far through a book you are. It also means that if you’re switching between an ebook and a paper book you have some idea of where you’re up to in both (though different editions of paper books do tend to have different page numbering – so usage may vary).

Rest the rest of review…

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?