Proprietary e-book formats have been around for quite some time. Most major commercial vendors use proprietary formats to one extent or another, be they Amazon’s Kindle format or the proprietary DRM that Barnes & Noble and others put on top of EPUB. Given that they help to chill competition and keep Amazon firmly on the top of the e-book hill, they are generally not accounted to be a good thing by publishing industry activists. But I ran across a provocative post at Digital Book World suggesting that they might actually be a good thing after all.
Joshua Tallent says that “proprietary formats just work,” and that they permit the e-book store to optimize its reading experience to make books look best on its own platforms. He thinks that advocates for EPUB and other open standards should learn from how these formats work and use that knowledge to make the open standards better.
On the other side of things, Andrew Updegrove calls Tallent’s article “egregious.” He points out that while e-book vendors could theoretically make books look better on their platforms, most don’t bother. The proprietary formats are used mainly to keep customers buying from that one particular e-book store. While other sorts of products, such as cell phones, are broadly compatible with each other (in terms of being able to call someone on one brand of device from another), you’re not going to be able to read multiple e-book formats on the same device, unless it’s a tablet and you install their individual reader applications.
I’m not sure that cell phones are really the best comparison, given that the main purpose of phones was originally to place calls to other phones but that isn’t necessarily true anymore. Today, now that most cell phones are full-fledged digital computers, they’re primarily used for other things—and there’s no guarantee that the software you install on one particular phone will work on another. But that’s probably beside the point.
As readers pointed out in comments on Updegrove’s post, Amazon built its own format before EPUB was even a thing, and hasn’t had any need to add EPUB compatibility to the Kindle. Why would it? It only cares about people buying e-books from Amazon. Any ability to add other vendors’ e-books to it is strictly incidental. (Which also means it can do things like preventing other e-book stores from emailing their titles directly to the Kindle.)
Nor is Amazon alone in using proprietary formats to lock readers in. All the major e-book vendors do it with their various DRMs. Amazon is also not the only company to do stupidly annoying things to its own benefit. Last year, Barnes & Noble stopped allowing customers to download e-book files directly from its store.
All that said, I think the quest for interoperability between e-book device vendors is probably a red herring. It would be nice to have available in theory, but in the real world, very few people would actually bother using it.
Interoperate If You Want To
First of all, did you ever notice that Amazon doesn’t actually do much to prevent people from interoperating if they want to put in enough effort? Apprentice Alf’s DRM-cracking plug-in for Calibre still works as well on Kindle e-books as it did when Alf first came out with it. Amazon has never bothered to try to change up its DRM to block it. Compare that to Apple, who has a track record of frequently updating its DRM to lock out cracks.
For that matter, apart from Apple, none of the other major e-book DRM vendors seem to bother updating their DRM, either. You can even crack library e-book DRM with Alf and Calibre, which you’d think should be a matter of grave importance to publishers who rely on its protection—but apparently it isn’t.
I imagine Amazon and the others probably recognize that only a relatively few tech-savvy folks even bother, so it’s not worth the added expense of trying to outpace them. Calibre isn’t exactly the most user-friendly app in the world. Even using the program by itself requires a level of expertise many ordinary people don’t have, and the process of setting up the DRM-cracking plug-in can be downright arcane. I believe that a lot of people who use Calibre take for granted how much they know about computers to let them be able to do that.
No Sideloading Zone
The thing is, though, that for many Kindle users, even the process of sideloading e-books is beyond their expertise or even their comprehension. Even leaving aside user-unfriendly conduit software like Calibre, they have to plug stuff in, and open windows on their computer and drag and drop—it’s a nightmare! Hence, I have my doubts that many people would take advantage of “easy” interoperability even if it existed.
Just look at Baen. Baen has sold DRM-free e-books for a decade and a half, but even when it was allowed to email the books directly to people’s Kindles, that was apparently still too hard for most of its would-be customers. Baen kept getting asked why its e-books weren’t “on the Kindle” yet. It finally had to resort to making sweeping changes to how its e-book store worked in order to get its titles on Amazon’s Kindle store—because that was where all the customers were.
If Kindle owners couldn’t be bothered to buy from one of the longest-running e-book vendors in the business, even if it was set up to email the books right to their devices after they bought them, what good would it do to make the Kindle interoperable with other e-book stores? Maybe a few people would take advantage of it, but most of Amazon’s millions of customers would shrug and go right on buying from Amazon, because all they have to do is tap a button on their screen and they have a book. And the same would hold true for Barnes & Noble’s customers, and Kobo’s, and Apple’s, and so on.
And really, why should they even want to buy from somewhere else? The publishing industry already “interoperates.” The major publishers and many self-publishers sell the same e-books through all different places. You can buy, for example, Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves from Amazon, or you can buy it from Barnes & Noble, or Kobo, or Apple. And since the major publishers seem intent on re-imposing agency pricing, and everybody’s letting them, it will cost exactly the same in every store. So there is literally no incentive to buy it from anywhere other than the store you already use anyway.
This does work just as well as an argument for why Amazon and the others should open themselves up to interoperability as for why it shouldn’t, except that adding that capability is not as simple as saying, “Fine, make it so.” It would take a great deal of time and a lot of money to add interoperability to their existing software and devices—and if it’s not even something most people would bother using, why should they throw their money away?
I suppose all this is my long-winded way of saying that it’s going to be very hard to get e-book vendors to allow their e-book formats to interoperate with other vendors’ devices, because neither the e-book vendors nor the vast majority of their customers want it. Lots of activists sure do, but the activists aren’t Amazon’s customer base, who wouldn’t know what to do with interoperability if they had it.
Related: A more traditional TeleRead perspective from publisher David Rothman, E-book lovers vs. proprietary formats.