Friday, January 1, 2010

The problem with eBooks

I've been looking at ebook readers lately -- the Sony Reader, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes & Noble Nook being the three that I looked at. All three do a good job from a hardware perspective. E-paper is quite acceptable for reading text novels and you can store enough novels on one of these things for a whole year, saving a whole lot of dead trees in the process. And the one-to-two-week battery life on these things is adequate for all purposes short of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and even there it would work as long as you brought along a USB solar charger. These e-paper devices with their relatively large high-contrast screens put reading eBooks on the small screen of an iPhone to shame, and even the lowest-power-use laptops won't get much further than five hours before they go dark, much less one to two weeks. Most of this can be attributed to the e-paper screen, whose large size, high contrast, and lack of power usage (the only time they use power is when you flip the page, static displays use no power) allows a much more pleasant experience than any prior electronic reading device.

Yet... yet. E-book uptake is ridiculously small. Even the Kindle has probably not sold more than 400,000 copies despite the fact that every time you go to the site the thing is hyped to you. So what, exactly, is the problem?

Well, the problem is simple: A lack of books, compounded by a) DRM, and b) the outrageous costs for the ebooks, costs that in many cases are higher than the costs for equivalent paperback books from your local bookstore. For example, Sony's ebook chief claims it's impossible to make money selling ebooks for $9.99. WTF? Bookstores can sell paperbacks for $7.99, despite the huge overhead of having a physical plant and employees and shipping charges to get the books there and etc., yet E-vendors can't make money at $9.99?!

The big publishers, to me, seem to have their heads stuck up their a$$'es in much the same way that the big music studios had their heads stuck up their a$$'es about digital music until Steve Jobs finally brow-beat them into submission to get them to sell songs for 99 cents without DRM. The various ebook vendors all have incompatible ebook formats, sell only a small smattering of publishers' catalogs in e-format, and sell them for prices higher than the paper version of the publication. And, they have them DRM-protected. Meaning that five years from now, they're worthless, because the device you installed them on will have broken and you won't be able to read them anymore.

I have files on my computer that are 20 years old. That's because I never used proprietary formats (or at least used proprietary formats that were so common that they were easily translated into non-proprietary formats), and transferred the files from older computer to newer computer every time I upgraded using open protocols such as xModem over RS-232 in the early days, and FTP and SCP over TCP/IP networks nowadays. Similarly, I have paper books in my storage room that are 30 years old that I can read just fine today. I did not buy any songs from the iTunes store until they became DRM-free because having songs in a proprietary protocol tied to a specific computer simply was incompatible with my experience in technology, which said that the songs would become unlistenable within five years if I did that. It's like having a 9 track tape from 1982. How are you going to read the data off of it? Where are you going to find the device? If it's in some proprietary format, how are you going to convert it into some modern format? Digging through my storage I came across a couple of 9-track tapes from the mid 1980's, I think they had early copies of GNU Emacs on them to be read into our VAX minicomputer at college. At least they're (probably) in tar or cpio format, but how in the world could I possibly read them when the hardware to read them is long gone and obsolete?

Yet that is what the eBook vendors want to lock us into -- having to re-buy our entire library every three to five years when proprietary eBook formats become obsoleted and the devices they were installed upon die the normal death of consumer electronic devices (i.e., 3 to 5 years, then bam, one day they just don't wake up again, maybe a battery wore out and you can't get a replacement battery because the vendor doesn't make them anymore or because the battery is more expensive than a new device, maybe a capacitor in a critical path reached its end-of-life, but it's dead, Jim). It is laughable, and it's no wonder that only a few early adopters are buying these things right now despite the great hardware that's come out recently, even though the DRM put on these early e-books is itself laughable (all -- ALL -- major e-book DRM formats have been cracked, even the Kindle one, copy protection works no better today than it worked in 1985 when we were cracking the protection on Commodore 64 games, all it does is annoy people while not impairing the pirates at all). Because, as with computers, hardware is only half the equation. If you don't have content -- if you can't get books for it for an affordable price, and more importantly, can't get books that will last longer than the device they are installed upon, what's the point?


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