A consumers thoughts on eBooks

With the release of iBooks 2, and Apple’s digital textbook initiate, they have, once again, made a technical decision that a lot of people are unhappy about. Like another technical decision that Apple made, Apple has made a decision that, unsurprisingly, is in their own best interests.

In his article, Ed Bott is claiming that Apple is deliberately trying to break the ePub standard in favor of it’s own, proprietary version.

In a well balanced response, John Gruber proposes that:

“The only people who seem to be confused about iBooks Author’s relationship to ePub are technically-minded people who know exactly what ePub is and who have a vested interest in seeing the open standard become the de facto industry standard.” 

Given their stance on secrecy, we will likely never know Apple’s internal view on this, however, I would like to propose that, from a consumer’s point of view, ePub is already a broken standard.

If ePub was a true, open, embraced standard, then, as an end user, I would be able to open any book that I have purchased on any client, or device of my choosing. So, I should be able to buy an book from Apple and read it on a Kindle, or buy a book from Amazon and read it in iBooks.

Currently, Amazon does not use ePub, and Apple’s iBooks utilize a version of their FairPlay DRM, rendering each book locked to the retail platform on which it is purchased.

“An EPUB file can optionally contain DRM as an additional layer, but it is not required by the specifications. In addition, the specification does not name any particular DRM system to use, so publishers can choose a DRM scheme to their liking. However, future versions of EPUB (specifically OCF) may specify a format for DRM.”

via Wikipedia

As a consumer, unless I want my books scattered across different reading applications I am forced to either buy all my books from a single retail source, effectively locking me in, or going through some ethically dubious and probably illegal process of removing the DRM from the books. (There are some exceptions such as O’riley who provide DRM free, standard ePub format books).  

As a consumer don’t I deserve a better solution than this?

As the TV and Movie industries constantly prove, retailers don’t necessarily have consumers best interests in mind, and this will, most likely, prevent there from ever being a true, open standard. 

So is Apple wrong, well yes and no. As a developer, on the leading edge, standards are simply a handbrake on innovation, and any developer should be able to add new features, with graceful degradation, allowing most of the content to still work on older clients without the new features. It is then up to the standards bodies should then adopt and incorporate the new features as they become popular.

Fast forward twenty years into the future can we assume 90% of all books and magazines are sold digitally, using a true open, DRM free standard?

Maybe we need to change how we think about things. Are Amazon and Apple the new publishers? Are the old publishers now simply the content owners, editors, author’s agents, marketers and publicists? 

An alternate view is that why should there be some man in the middle at all when I could buy directly from the publisher, or the author themselves online? Other than discoverability, and devices, what value will retailers like Apple of Amazon add?

One thing I know is that business is business, and my guess is that the truth is now somewhere in between. If I was a publisher, I would be looking how to sell directly to my customer, and if I was a retailer, I would be looking to lock in as many customers as possible to my end-to-end system.

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