imageJust one e-book format may not be enough for your PDA, cellphone or other gizmo—thanks to the Tower of eBabel. Even Amazon’s Kindle store has its limitations. The 110,000+ books, newspapers and blogs buyable there are a fraction of the millions of books and other items available. While Amazon wants everyone to be represented in the store, I doubt that will happen before Jeff Bezos is colonizing Mars.

Defenders of eBabel would say, “Just download another e-reader.” Or if you must, buy and learn another gizmo; never mind the several hundred dollars. Meanwhile, deaf to user pleas, defenders of DRM might add, “Just contact tech support if you run into problems.” Yes, of course—with all the spare hours people have on their hands today. I won’t swallow, either, the argument of Amazon defenders that we can just wipe out the DRM hassles by standardizing the whole world on the Kindle and letting Jeff monopolize e-books, the way he’s tried to nuke POD competitors.

Empathy, please—not just technology

Here’s the big problem, not technical, but something more basic: simple lack of empathy with users. For the techies and business people of E-Bookdom, I would recommend The Great Ubuntu-Girlfriend experiment, where the author of the Content Consumer blog finds that his far-from-dumb girlfriend can’t even figure out how to download a YouTube video. And here some Ubuntu advocates keep saying their OS and related apps are consumer-ready! In fairness to Ubuntu, the YouTube problem seems to have been mainly others’ fault, not the OS’s, but do people like the girlfriend really care? Oh, well, at least the GF was able to use Gimp to “photoshop a picture of her face onto my body.”

image What Mr. Content Consumer did: He actually watched while his GF went through various tasks. Perhaps she’d have been better off if Ubuntu had been more task-oriented in installation menus—for example, with questions such as, “Do you want to use YouTube and similar services requiring Flash?” That’s something similar to what Mr. CC has in mind. Like the e-book business, alas, open source people can be set in their ways, so that users must spend far more time than they should on even basic customization. Should newcomers really have to bother with 10 Things to Do After Installing Ubuntu or Ubuntu Customization Guide v2? I realize that Ubuntu and most other distros want to be free of commercial taint and that Windows and Mac software isn’t perfect, either; but linux won’t ever catch on until it’s simpler.

image And what the e-book business could do: Not just watch while nontechies go through common tasks of fetching, organizing and reading books—but also have them log their reading experiences over the long run. Right away the need to end eBabel and DRM messes would be clear. Imagine the pluses of de-Rubing e-books in response to actual users’ needs. Adobe, Amazon/Mobi and others could and should get more serious about developing better interfaces for their reading software. E-book companies should be competing with each other in the value-adding area of ease of use, rather than the value-subtracting one of Format X vs. Y.

How open source and the e-book business actually could help each other: As noted in earlier posts, I’d love to see the IDPF help out open source efforts such as FBReader, not to replace all commercial programs, but rather to make certain that the ePub format is a genuine nonproprietary standard. Involvement of people from the open source community would be one way to deserve and win trust, while allowing commercial companies to pick up the best ideas—if not directly, then through reverse engineering. GPLs won’t get in the way of that. Sounds counter-intuitive, but the end result would be more prosperity for Adobe and the others, not less, just so they added value. If they can’t advance e-bookdom, other than figuring out new ways to torment users via DRM, perhaps these vendors need to redirect their efforts.

Question: Does anyone know of vendors’ use of focus groups and other techniques to make e-books easier to use? I suspect that at least some of it is going on. But how much, beyond possible efforts that Microsoft might have made with Microsoft Reader? And are the techies and business people really using such techniques to the extent they should? I’d welcome replies from Adobe and other companies.

Related: Techmeme roundup on the girlfriend experiment. Also see interview on making money via open source.


  1. I just wanted to make certain this was clear, David, as you allude to it but don’t really state it this straightforwardly. The reason that Ubuntu doesn’t ship with Flash appears to be because it is not open-source. Presumably in happy Open Source Land users would only need to watch RMSTube which would be streamed in Ogg!

    And while I don’t agree with it, there is something to the argument made by OS fanatics that using a closed CODEC to watch video isn’t all that different from using a DRMed Kindle to read a book. Either way, there are often onerous legal and technical constraints that limit what the end-user can do (the main difference being the CODEC-related issues are not as obvious and don’t have a cleaer day-to-day impact the way that DRM does). No I’m not going to throw out all my MP3s and Divx videos, but I can see their point.

    Anyway, I am writing this in Ubuntu and considering switching all my comps (including my wife’s) to Ubuntu. No, she probably couldn’t figure out how to install Flash even though she’s probably a bit more technical than the woman in the post. OTOH, she also couldn’t figure out how to access the networked printer in the basement under Windows either (whereas Ubuntu found it automatically — they’ve done a nice job at least of improving *that*).

    Overall, Ubuntu is very close to being as functional as XP. I figure either way we’re going to have to abandon XP sooner or later, and Vista reviews aren’t exactly glowing. It could definitely use a second package maybe a “Everything Your GF Will Need to Make it Usable” to install afterward.

  2. Brian, Ubantu could remain pure, but the installation procedures perhaps could be more explicit–even if the Flash isn’t built in. People ought be prepared to encounter situations like YouTube. Obviously the GF in this case wasn’t.

    Meanwhile I hope that your wife has fun with Ubantu, and that it will be simple enough in the future for nontechies without assistance! I’m really rooting for Ubuntu to succeed long term.


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