Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)

Very interesting article with the above title in Gyrovague. Worth reading the rest, especially his comments on EPub:

E-books will be obsolete within five years. Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, they are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.

KLast year, I bought a laptop in Singapore, and brought it with me to Australia. It worked fine for reading the Economistonline and what passes for journalism in Singapore, but one day I searched for theSydney Morning Herald, and there were no hits: it’s as if it didn’t exist. A little poking around revealed that to be able to view Australian sites, I had to register my browser to be in Australia, which also requires a credit card with a billing address there. What’s more, switching countries like this would delete all my bookmarks, terminate my paid subscription to the Economist and stop me from being able to read even single issue of the Singaporean Straits Jacket. And needless to say, the laptop is locked to prevent me from installing another browser that would allow me to get around these limits.

Does this sound ridiculous, a perverse fantasy of some balkanized Web of the dystopian future? Nope: it’s all true, except that my “laptop” is actually an iPad and my “browser” is iTunes/iBooks. Since my iTunes account has a Singaporean billing address, the Kindle application does not show up in my search results. If I switch countries, I will lose access to everything I’ve previously downloaded. And if I do bite the bullet and switch to Australia, a good chunk of apps, music and more on offer will no longer be available on iTunes, iBooks or Amazon, and I’ll pay around 50% extra on what remains. But I chose not to, and thus didn’t buy 3 or 4 books I wanted to, because their publishers would not sell them to me.

Why? Because publishers insist on selling e-books the way they sell printed books, and customers simply don’t figure in the equation.

Now, breathtaking stupidity like this is commonly attributed to digital rights management (DRM), and Lord knows there’s plenty of idiocy involved in there as well. Fortunately, Charlie Stross has already eviscerated that particular sacred cow of the publishing industry (see here and here), so I’ll focus on what’s actually causing my problem: publishing rights.

 

4 Comments on Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no, it’s not just because of DRM)

  1. Binko Barnes // April 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm //

    Nice article. Like the author, I loath epub. I have the small Sony eReader and it really iratates me intensely when some dolt at a publishing house uses epub to simply replicate the margins and formating that would make sense in a print book.

    Quite often I use calibre to convert epub to mobi and then convert the mobi back to epub for reading on my Sony. Sure, it’s a PITA but it’s worth it to strip away all the odd formatting.

    PDF is a great format for complex documents. But you can’t read it on 800×600 dpi eReaders. Give me a cheap high-resolution eInk device and I’d happily move to pdf as a standard.

    The publishing industry as we know it today will fade completely away. But they will fight tooth and nail every step of the way so it may take awhile. The next few years are likely to be quite chaotic.

  2. DRM, territorial restrictions and so on are not a necessary part of the ePub standard. Without DRM, ePub is readable on desktop, laptop and mobile computers. There are app-based and web-based ePub eReaders. There are even web browser extensions that read ePub.

    So, it’s not the “browser” or the ePub format that is to blame. Being an open standard, publishers have unfettered access to this standard. That they choose to hobble their product by avoiding ePub in favor of proprietary formats, adding DRM, geographic limits and other shackles is not a good reason to indict the eBook.

    If markets behave as we think they do, unfettered eBooks (probably based on ePub) will emerge and consumers will vote with the currency of their choice. It’s been pointed out that DRM et. al. are invisible to most consumers so, if true, it will take more than building a better mousetrap and waiting for the world to beat a path to our doors.

  3. Nick Marsden // May 7, 2012 at 11:39 am //

    It’s not that ebooks will become obsolete, but that the current attitudes of the publishing houses will eventually lead to their demise. Independently published ebooks will always be available in any format, in any territory. I published my book (The Legacy of Shatara) to Amazon originally and I noticed that Amazon has separate stores for half a dozen territories. Now, I am published on Smashwords, from whom you can download my book in any format in any territory.

  4. @Nick

    Obsolete means no longer technically useable.

    This WILL happen with Kindles- some day. When Amazon’s servers are no longer accessible, for whatever reason, both the ebook licenses and ebook devices will cease to function.

    Epub should last longer because there is no single point of failure, but it too will *someday* be rendered useless. Those who own ereaders will have a hard time finding ebooks, those who own ebooks will have a hard time finding devices to read them on.

    When/ why will either of these two things happen? I don’t know- could be a decade, could be hundreds of years. But the nature of the technology means it will happen.

    Books will never be truly obsolete- as long as you keep them and are literate they still work.

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