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?

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.