The iPad buzz got me thinking about e-reading and if it’s going to be the next hot market in digital content. I've kept an eye on e-books since the early days of Windows CE and Palm OS readers but haven’t really gotten excited about them. When the Kindle was released – the iPod of digital documents – it drove the market to explore this new segment. However, I think vendors are going to make the same mistakes, and maybe some new ones, they did with every other move from traditional to digital media.
The most significant situation that plagues e-books right now is a lack of a standardized, portable, easily-accessible document format that’s supported by consistent applications across multiple platforms. The success of the iPod was contingent on the fact that you weren't locked into Apple's format with the device, and the success of digital music was that you weren't locked into a specific format for the digital content.
Let me tell you about my experience. I was looking for e-book solutions for the Android platform and found the options severely lacking, especially considering that the Kindle app is available for the iPhone. My search led me to Barnes and Noble. They have a site, www.ereader.com, which advertises a multi-platform reader and a very large library of books. Their ereader is "compatible" with .pdb (Palm Markup Language) format e-books, and it supports Android, Windows, and Mac OS X, but not Linux.
Since I wanted an e-reader on my Droid, my Lenovo S10, and my Eee PC 701, I found a Linux .pdb reader and installed it on my Eee PC running Ubuntu. I also downloaded some public domain books from the site. Everything seemed to work well on each platform.
Then I decided to purchase a paid book. This is when my complaints about the entire e-book industry began. The title was "On The Beach" – a post-apocalyptic classic. On ereader.com, the list price was $15 for digital content. At that cost, driving down to a brick and mortar and getting the physical paperback would make far more sense.
Out of curiosity, I checked Amazon. The Kindle version was $4.95. I would have bought it if Amazon had an Android, Windows, Mac, and Linux Kindle reader. So instead, I went to the actual barnesandnoble.com web site. Despite the fact that ereader.com is a Barnes and Noble company, B&N.com offers a different library of e-books for sale, and the prices at the two sites are not linked. The same e-book at B&N.com was $7.98. Deciding to take a chance, I bought it.
I assumed that it would work in the e-reader available on ereader.com, so that I could also read it on my Lenovo and on my Android. I downloaded the e-book in the e-reader on my Lenovo S10 and tried to open it. It prompted me to enter the name and number from the credit card I used to purchase it in order to unlock the e-book. I did, but the information was rejected.
I went back to B&N.com, and they also have an e-reader for download, but it’s only available for Windows, Mac, and the iPhone. I downloaded that e-reader as well, but it’s a completely different (and inferior) application to the e-reader available at ereader.com. While the book opened fine in this e-reader, it required me to "authenticate" with my B&N.com username and password (but it didn't request any of my credit information to unlock the e-book).
Later on, I tried transferring the e-book to my Android, and it opened with the e-reader from the ereader.com site. Again, it asked for the name and card number. On the Android e-reader, it worked! So, I went back in and tried entering the information in the Lenovo e-reader from ereader.com. It was successful, so the previous error must have been caused by fat fingers.
The problem is that this kind of frustration surrounding DRM will not fly with average consumers. Hassles like this will drive them away. The fact that B&N has two sites that offer e-books (with inconsistent pricing) and completely different e-reader applications (which support different devices) illustrates how poorly the industry is approaching electronic books. There must be some kind of internal war going on inside Barnes and Noble at the corporate level, and someone has signed off on B&N working against itself. I doubt I will be purchasing e-books from B&N or ereader.com again in the future.
Publishers are part of the current problem. Of course, they want to maximize their profits and not undercut their traditional model, but their short-sighted focus on a dying model will likely result in them hurting themselves the most over the next decade.
Apple's model for publishing has already come under fire from all sides. Readers do not like the more expensive pricing model that Apple has signed off on. Consumers, in general, expect digital content to be considerably less expensive than physical content. We've seen this with digital music and movies, so I'm not certain why publishers would think this is any different.
For example, Stephen King fans will pay $35 for a new novel when it’s hot off the press. I bet some King fans would even be willing to pay list price for the e-book. But once a mass-market trade paperback is released and the initial "first month" fan rush wears out, very few people are going to pay a hardcover price for a digital book. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe publishers aren't really that excited about selling digital books. The music industry wasn't very excited about selling digital music, and we all know how that’s turning out.
The publishing industry should keep this in mind as it tries to battle what the market wants. I'd suggest waiting for the e-book thing to settle and standardize before buying into any current solution. I'll buy used paperbacks from Mom & Pop booksellers until publishers, vendors, and manufacturers get their collective act together.
Do you have any experiences with e-books, e-readers, and the different formats that are available? What are you opinions about the future of e-reading?
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.