Sony, Google Point the Way Toward a More Open Future for E-Books

10/30/09Follow @wroush

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‘I can only go into this one store, but you guys can go everywhere.’ It’s illogical. We don’t think that to be successful in this space you have to cause the customer to be locked in.” Sony has all the latest best-sellers, at competitive prices, Haber says. “But if you have another bookstore that you like to buy your books from, please help yourself, or borrow books from the library. Our value equation is about choice. As long as we make our e-book store a great experience, and customers enjoy using our devices, then we will do well.”

Haber talks a good game—but Sony has such a dubious track record on issues around DRM that I’ll probably withhold judgment for a bit longer on how serious the company really is about access. Meanwhile, Google is not-so-subtly pushing for some of the same kinds of openness Haber is talking about. In August it made a million of the public-domain books that it has scanned as part of the Book Search project available in the EPUB format. And just a couple of weeks ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Google clarified its plans for selling “Google Editions” starting in 2010; these digital versions of in-print books will be readable on a range of platforms, including computers, phones, and dedicated reading devices.

“Here’s how we could really screw things up” with the Google Editions program, Orwant said at the book festival: “If we released a hardware device, and it was only able to let people read Google Editions. That might be something we could do if we simply wanted to maximize short-term sales. So we’re not going to do that. Rather, we want to create an environment in which you buy a book—whether it’s from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or a public-domain book—and are able to read it on any device. And I don’t even like that word, ‘device.’ It could be an e-reader or also a browser on a computer, a netbook, or a mobile phone, or it could mean print-on-demand—purchasing it on the cloud and getting a printed copy mailed to you.”

So far, I’ve been holding up Amazon and Barnes & Noble as the standard-bearers for the closed e-book model, but the truth is the Sony and Google models may be picking up some traction at both companies. The Nook can display EPUB titles. In fact, the reason Barnes & Noble is able to claim that a million titles are available for the Nook—nearly three times as many titles as are available for the Kindle—is that it’s counting 500,000 of Google’s public domain books. And B&N is introducing some other interesting openness-oriented enticements, such as the ability to lend an e-book you’ve purchased to anyone with a B&N e-reading app on their PC, Mac, Blackberry, or iPhone. Even more amazingly, Nook owners who visit Barnes & Noble stores will be able to read entire e-books for free (I guess they plan to make back the costs of that giveaway on coffee and bear-claws).

Even Amazon is loosening up a bit. If you have a Kindle, you can also read the books you buy on your iPhone, and recently Amazon introduced a PC-based Kindle application as well. You can have the same Kindle book open simultaneously on up to six devices, if they’re all registered to the same account. There are third-party programs such as Calibre for converting EPUB titles to the Kindle format, which you can then upload to your device via USB. And earlier this year Amazon bought Lexcycle, the maker of popular mobile e-reader program Stanza, which supports EPUB books; this could be a sign that Amazon will eventually embrace the open format (though one cynical blogger comments that this embrace could well take the form of “hands around the neck”).

So, how long will it be before e-books are just like CDs or DVDs, where every disc works in every player? A few years, minimum. Publishers will need to get more comfortable with the whole idea of selling content digitally before they let down their guard on DRM. And the Googles, Sonys, Amazons, and Barnes & Nobles of the world will need to find reliable ways to attract readers to their platforms rather than resorting to trapping them there. Who knows—perhaps we might even see a new golden age of publishing, where e-book distributors add value to their own branded editions by supplementing them with scholarly introductions, entertaining footnotes, interviews, or multimedia content. (This is exactly how publishers like Penguin get away with charging $16 for paperbacks of classic works like Wuthering Heights that have long since entered the public domain and should, by all rights, be free.)

Our physical bookshelves may look a lot emptier in the near future—but I think our online ones are likely to get richer and richer.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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