Mon
Jul 28 2008 7:58pm

Market Acceptance

A few days, I asked What Would Hugo Gernsback Do? As has been the norm here, there was a lot of intelligent feedback and discussion. One comment in particular stood out to me. It was from Neil Clarke, from Clarkesworld Magazine, who said:

"Unfortunately, we're missing one thing that Hugo had... by the time he launched Amazing Stories, magazines were well-tested and widely adopted. We don't have e-readers or similar devices that have attained that level of market acceptance. Our distribution model is incomplete."

I've known Neil for years, and he's always saying very smart, very insightful things like this. We're on the leading edge of this. We're the people who are trying to decide the best way to get information across to people, and we're each coming up with our own method.

So far we haven't hit the one thing that's ubiquitous for parceling electronic information to people. I've recently taken a shine to reading on my phone. Between the Mobi reader and Plucker, I'm able to get books and stories, as well as convert my own personal documents for reading on the phone. The trick for me is that I have a limited commute, so I'm not able to enjoy the device like I might have in the past.

On the other hand, I've never used--even just for fun in a store--any sort of electronic reader. I'd like to check out the Kindle and the Sony E-reader to see what the interfaces are like. Comments are welcome.

But what I'm thinking, is that maybe it's not so much the device that matters, but the format the text is in. Is there a format that can be read by all readers? That's always been the problem with computers and electronics and the benefit of printed material. Everyone who knows the language can read a book regardless of whether it's the size of a postage stamp or a newspaper. The recent explosion in manga popularity among English readers even shows that readers can learn to read in a 'differently' (back to front, right to left) from how text is traditionally aligned.

Now, both the Kindle and Sony Reader can read Mobipocket files, and you can get a version of Mobi for most smartphones (sorry Apple) and the Mobi desktop client is Windows only (sorry again Apple, sorry Linux!), but perhaps that will change? The Mobipocket Creator will convert all sorts of file types to Mobi files--including MS Word, txt, and PDF--so creating Mobi readable files isn't too difficult.

But still, it's a very specific format that requires people to download some software, do an install, etc. etc. etc. For lots of people, this is a piece of cake, for many others, you might as well be asking them to perform surgery on themselves. And going back to Neil's statement, this isn't something that's been tested by the market place and accepted by the general public. Someone will need to make a major deal with a mobile service provider and make their reader part of the package that's on every phone before the general public will make use of a product.

[image from Flickr user jblyberg, Cc-licensed for commercial use]

53 comments
Adam Lipkin
1. yendi
Actually, Mac users can read the files on their desktop -- there's a great app for Mac users called Stanza that reads mobipocket files just fine (at least with the freebies that Baen releases, and the similar .prc ones Tor released this year).
psifertex
2. psifertex
There's a format understood by the overwhelming majority of readers, platforms, and operating systems. Most can render it without any conversion. It's HTML and you're viewing it right now. (Well, if you want to get picky, you're reading XHTML, but let's not get too caught up in the details)

HTML was expressly designed for content markup in a way that makes it portable, consistent, straightforward, and it usually degrades gracefully. What other reason is there for a different format besides DRM? The iPhone is demonstrating the power of a "real" browser in a mobile device. Expect that pressure to further drive the HTML capabilities of handheld devices and portable readers though they're already fairly complete for the purposes of most print-media replacement.

Having my ebooks and ezines in HTMhttp://www.tor.com/images/buttons/button-post.gifL format gives me a future-proofedness (that wasn't a word yet, was it?) I can't get in any other format.

/me quickly hides his open-standards anti-DRM podium
Arachne Jericho
3. arachnejericho
It'd be nice if HTML had standards for

- Cover
- Table of Contents
- Text beginning
- Text end
- Index
- Appendix
- yadda

Mobi has these. Actually Mobi is HTML with Special Stuff that Mobi-compatible readers know how to deal with; and you can attach DRM or you can choose not to. PDF you can do the same with, and it's not like *it's* a closed standard (in fact, it's just Postscript with some compression and crud).

Anyways, Mobi (without DRM) is a fair cop for HTML with structures that follow books. HTML is actually a dummy compared to the more sophisticated---and perfectly free---TeX and LaTeX, which *were* designed for books and do have these inherent structures.

To go back to an earlier question---is it the reader or is it the format---software engineers are crazy people and will learn to strip, reverse-engineer, and extend any format. And Mobi is practically a standard by now.

I personally am of the opinion that it's the reader. The e-ink stuff is great---no headaches for me. And having a reader that is geared towards storing and indexing my books, and letting me easily buy and download more wherever I go... that is what really gets you addicted in the end.

Random note: Amazon's Kindle can actually download, by itself, .azw and .mobi and .prc and .txt from the web. So the opportunity exists for buying outside of Amazon even on the Kindle (save for, ah, files that are intentionally DRM'd against the Kindle). I have even done so. It weirds me out. Seriously.

It's nice to live in the future.
Jeffrey Richard
4. neutronjockey
It tough for me to gauge trends from here in Middle-America... mullets are still fashionable here. While the younger generation (and I mean younger) is certainly more tech savvy...the money isn't here for me to really see the consumer end effect.

Relying on the interwebs I'm showing that Amazon is reporting more than reasonable success in Kindle and book sales. Though, Amazon is also not including those numbers directly in their public quarterly earnings statements and reports. Sources are mmm...not invalid but lacking in my opinion.

I also look at Amazon's $300 million dollar buy-out of Audible and say hmmm...

While I believe people will always want the visceral satisfaction of holding printed material in hand...our 'on-the-go' and 'always-plugged-in' society is definitely consuming.

Now, what I'm waiting for is for Adobe to announce an expanded .pdf or a format-dynamic .pdf that will attune to readers --- of course, the rights management and code management for that will come at a hefty price.

Perhaps Amazon will just buy them out too?

I wonder if we can get numbers on the number of freebie downloads that Tor has had? Just for curiosity sake.
Ray Radlein
5. RayRadlein
It seems to me that the XO laptop is one or two relatively minor firmware and software tweaks away from being a pretty damned impressive e-book reader.

I don't know if those tweaks are ever going to happen, due to the multiplying uncertainties of the One Laptop Per Child project, but I wouldn't bet against them happening.
JP Ikäheimonen
6. Oldtribe
The problem with reading fiction from laptops is that for many people the LCD display panel is painful for the eyes in the long run. Dedicated reader devices that use e-Ink do not have this problem. E-Ink has some other deficiences that make it suitable for little else, but for reading fiction it is a good enough solution.
S F
7. kouredios
I'm expecting my Sony reader to arrive any second now. I don't ever expect to give up on paper, but I think the reader is a good alternative to buying secondhand paperbacks and cluttering up my library with them. The books that I cherish and reread on a regular basis will remain in hardcover and on the shelf.
David Moles
8. chronodm
Never mind LaTeX, what about SGML????

But still, it's a very specific format that requires people to download some software, do an install, etc. etc. etc. For lots of people, this is a piece of cake, for many others, you might as well be asking them to perform surgery on themselves.

You forgot the category of people for whom it's a piece of cake but nonetheless you might as well be asking them to perform surgery on themselves. I've already got software to read text, HTML, PDF, RTF and several flavors of Word, all of which I actually have some use for on a daily basis -- not to mention various sorts of audio and video.

Any other e-book format is going to have to offer a truly compelling reader experience and uniquely valuable content to convince me it's worth installing special software for it, let alone lossily converting all the files I already have to that format.

(That said, eventually I will die, and be replaced by a generation of MobiPocket readers, I'm sure.)
Taylor 514ce
9. Taylor514ce
Sony Reader doesn't read Mobi files. However, there are good quality tools for converting Mobi to Sony's native format, LRF. http://www.mobileread.com is a good source for more information and conversion tools.

With a recent firmware upgrade, Sony added support for ePub, which looks well on its way to becoming the defacto e-book standard format.
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
But what I'm thinking, is that maybe it's not so much the device that matters, but the format the text is in. Is there a format that can be read by all readers?
David Rothman over on the TeleRead blog calls it the "Tower of eBabel" problem. One of a number of factors hindering the wider acceptance of ebooks is, indeed, the myriad of formats. It's not as bad as it was a few years ago, but still the major ebook vendors are split among several formats: eReader's customized markup, Amazon and Mobipocket's Mobi, Microsoft Reader, ePub, and DRM'd PDF. And not all of those can be read on every system.

Another big stumbling block is DRM; third-party readers that can read Mobipocket format (for instance, FBReader, which I use on my Nokia 770) can't always read encrypted Mobi—which is why I don't buy books in that. DRM on ebooks is pretty damned silly anyway; almost no "pirated" ebooks circulating come from encrypted ebook files. It's much less trouble just to scan and OCR the dead-tree version (especially for titles that have no ebooks available).

Another problem is price of reader. The price needs to come down a bit for people to want to sink a wad of dough into dedicated book reading platforms. Originally, ebooks largely "snuck in the back door," as people found they could read them on devices (such as PDAs or in your case cellphones) that they originally bought for other uses. But that can only take them so far. For them to become truly ubiquitous, reader price needs to come down while quality goes up. I'm not one of those who thinks they have to be Just Like Paper, but they have to be near enough paper's ease of use and cheap enough people aren't afraid to buy them. And even then, they'll never replace printed books, any more than philips screws have replaced regular ones.
Christopher Davis
11. ckd
yendi mentioned the Mac version of Stanza, which reads Mobi format; there's also a free iPhone version of Stanza, which works quite well.

Between that and eReader, I can read almost all the e-books I have: the Tor freebies and Baen purchases as Mobi using Stanza; the eReader DRMed books using the eReader port. I may have one or two DRMed books in Mobi format, but few enough that I can do without.

Now if Apple would just release an iPod Touch that supported Bluetooth, and that could connect to the Internet through a Bluetooth-enabled phone....
Fred Coppersmith
12. FCoppersmith
The hefty price tag has kept me away from e-book readers thus far, but they clearly combine the portability (and hopefully sustained readability) of a printed book with the versatility and adaptability of the electronic word. I'm very keen to try them.

Then again, I edit a paper zine, so I'm possibly not on the cutting-edge of new technology.
psifertex
13. akuchling
arachnejericho: there's actually a CSS draft at http://www.w3.org/TR/css3-page that adds features for rendering HTML onto pages, so you could define headers, footers, page breaks, etc. Unfortunately it seems to be in draft limbo at the moment.
Rich Rennicks
14. RichR
As an independent, bricks 'n' mortar bookseller, I feel very conflicted about the whole eReader/eBook market.

One the one hand, I'm nervous about being left behind when the reading public suddenly switches to eReaders and disappears rapture-like from old-fashioned bookstores. Our store is part of indie-bound/booksense and consequently we have no ability to sell ebooks online through the website we use, and I don't know of any viable in-store kiosk for downloading ebooks. (If anyone out there does know of independents selling eBooks online or in-store, please shout it out -- I'd love to learn more.)

On the other hand, I feel the printed book is the only truly 'future proof' conveyor of information that we've come up with so far. It contains its own reader -- no batteries necessary. I look at my own life and see multiple formats fall victim to obsolescence to my cost. I grew up in Ireland & the UK and built up a collection of (PAL) VHS videos. When I moved to the US, those got left behind as they're incompatible with NTSC. I repurchased some of my favorites on NTSC, now I find myself upgrading to DVD copies for the extras, and sooner or later it'll be impossible to purchase new VHS players anyway, so another chunk of my library will become obsolete. My old LPs are gathering dust in my parents' attic because I don't want to expend the effort and money to purchase an expensive turntable. I don't buy tapes any more, and anyway it's getting harder to find gadgets (or cars) which play tapes. I fully expect my CDs to become obsolete long before they physically wear out as the standard will doubtless change or they'll stop making players because everyone downloads music. I visit family in the UK and can't buy DVDs which are only available over there as they will not play on US DVD players, and vice versa I can't send US DVDs to the UK as gifts for the same reason. I don't have any of these problems with a printed book.

Why should the eReader market evolve any differently, and why should consumers have any more faith that they will be future-proofing their libraries by switching to ebooks?

*Not that future proofing is necessarily the point of the whole development of eBooks, anyway -- is it? Isn't it about growing the market for books and supplying the content in the places/formats that people are using?

So I'm trying to keep abreast of the evolving eBook market, but see a) no entry point for an independent bookseller, and b) no compelling argument that this is any more than simply a new format, rather than a replacement for printed matter.
Jonathan Wood
15. JWood
This has been rattling around in my head for a bit, and particularly I've been thinking about, what seems to me, to be one of the most successful zines (please correct me if I'm wrong) and is one we haven't talked about at all: EscapePod.

So, my question is: is the correct format mp3?

Now admittedly, Escape Pod seems to focus largely on reprints, so I think a lot of listeners/readers feel safe going there, feel like the stuff has gone through two layers of quality assurance, but I also think it's now incredibly easy for someone to download a podcast. And almost everyone has the necessary piece of electronics. There's a lot fewer barriers between the listener/reader and the fiction than there seem to be with e-books.

Now, I love the book as a physical object, I love the way paper feels, as a writer I love the things you can do with words on a page, with paragraph breaks, with breaking lines... but if we're talking about electronic format and established media, then the mp3 seems like the obvious solution to me.
John Klima
16. john_klima
@robotech_master thank you for bringing up the price point, that dropped from my train of thought while writing this. My cel phone is a Treo, so it's both my PDA and my phone. I upgraded to it since I was tired of carrying the two devices around. I can't justify to myself spending $300 or more on another device JUST for reading.

@RichR I had some similar experiences to yours. Not that I had the multiple formats from different continents, but I did go through a phase not too long ago when I sold off my LPs. I have a box of cassette tapes that I never listen to, not to mention several boxes of VHS tapes. I've only recently (within the past month) gotten a MP3 player (specifically an iPod), but I'd have to say that almost none of my music is in a digital format.

At my place of work, the staff that are younger than me essentially have all of their music converted to a digital format. As for reading, well, I work in libraries. We read books. :)
Chris Meadows
17. Robotech_Master
Rich R:
I visit family in the UK and can't buy DVDs which are only available over there as they will not play on US DVD players, and vice versa I can't send US DVDs to the UK as gifts for the same reason.
I'm pretty sure I've heard that region-free/NTSC-PAL converting players are pretty widely available in the UK; that you can even buy them from some grocery stores. I know you can certainly find DVD players that will happily convert formats and disable region-locking over here; most of Pioneer's players do so, for instance (and they'll even play DivX movies that you download and burn to disc in the bargain). And, of course, computer DVD-playing software such as the VideoLAN player is largely region-and-format-agnostic (or you can download applications to make it so).

I happily place orders for PAL/region-locked DVDs from amazon.co.uk and amazon.de and amazon.fr and watch them through my computer's video-out cable. Region-locking is a joke, and multiple formats are just an inconvenience.
no compelling argument that this is any more than simply a new format, rather than a replacement for printed matter.
Eric Flint has some good arguments as to why paper books are in no danger of extinction, and has some ideas about how paper books and ebooks will co-exist.

JWood:
So, my question is: is the correct format mp3?
As a substitute for ebooks, I doubt it. Visual and auditory processing use different parts of the brain, and people will want to do different ones at different times. If someone wants to read a book at his own speed, it is doubtful he will want to absorb it at the speed of an audio reader—but either e or paper will let him read the words to himself however he likes. Audiobooks will co-exist with ebooks just as paper books will, but I don't think they'll work as a substitute.
Ken Walton
18. carandol
Non-DRM Mobi format ebooks can be read fine in Linux with FBReader. DRMd books can't, but if you've got an ebook reader, you can still use a Linux machine to transfer them to it. I've got a iRex iLiad e-ink device, and read Mobi books all the time.

That said, I hate the insecurity of DRMd ebooks. The file is matched to an individual device, so if you get a new device, you have to download a new copy of the book. This assumes that (a) you haven't forgotten where you got the ebook from in the first place; (b) you still got a record of your user name and password for that site; and (c) the company hasn't gone out of business in the meantime.

I've lost a few books to (b), and while I don't think it's happened in e-book publishing, quite a lot of people who have bought DRMd music & video have been stung by (c).

Much better the trusting attitude of Baen Books, who release their files unprotected, and don't seem to be suffering financially for it.
Chris Meadows
19. Robotech_Master
Yeah—I lost my original e-copies of the Liaden series when the small e-book press that published them went out of business. Luckily Baen picked up and republished the books, and I was only too glad to buy them again in a format that I knew would stay open.
Ken Fisher
20. KenFisher
I had to make the jump to eBooks, because I have run out of room to store paper books. Since the beginning of the year I have purchased 241 books and magazines. Of that number, only 30 are in paper form, the remainder in electronic format. Because of the amount that I read, it was easy for me to justify the purchase of the Cybook.

I have purchased Mobi format or converted to the Mobi format. When I first started purchasing the books from Baen, I was using the MS reader format, because I owned an HP Journda PDA with the MS reader on it. When it finally died, I downloaded the Mobi versions and determined that it would be the format I would use.
Rich Rennicks
21. RichR
@John: I had an interesting encounter closing the store last night. An older gentleman didn't hear the closing announcement because he had earphones in. We got to chatting and he couldn't resist showing off his new Itouch. It's very cool. But this reminded me that older people (i.e. the key baby boomer segment that most bookstores depend on) are playing with the new tech toys too, and makes me wonder if this will simply accelerate the switch from purchasing media (books, music, video) in physical stores to online stores because there doesn't seem to be a way for independent bookstores to jump on this bandwagon yet.

Thankfully, in this case the customer was listening to music while he browsed for physical books, but how long before he starts downloading books online and stops coming into bookstores?
Rich Rennicks
22. RichR
@Robotach_Master: Thanks for the info. That's encouraging to know. I tried to play a UK DVD on my PC awhile back and got a message to the effect that after playing something 4 times the DVD player would be locked to the UK region. I guess I just need to poke around online to find the ways to crack it -- I'm just not as tech savvy as the average Tor.com user.

I will go look up those PAL/NTSC converters next time I'm over there though. I have tapes and tapes of old Blakes Seven episodes in storage that I'd love to watch again.
Chris Meadows
23. Robotech_Master
@RichR: Commercial DVD playing software does that, but there are programs like DVDRegionFree and AnyDVD that bypass region checks for those. And there are free noncommercial programs like VLC (the VideoLan player) or Media Player Classic (not to be confused with Microsoft Media Player) that ignore that.

Your best bet would probably be to use VLC. Get it here.

As for the PAL/NTSC converters, those only work for DVDs, not VHS—you put a PAL DVD in and it will play it to either a PAL or a NTSC TV set. You'd need some kind of converter box to play videotapes.
Arachne Jericho
24. arachnejericho
@chronodm - SGML, my gods, I remember it. LaTeX was much better. Writing in XML when you remember the quick and deftness (and better extensions...) of another is quite depressing. I don't mind HTML, but SGML had too much verbosity in it.

@akuchling - Yay for w3c draft limbo. Interesting, though even after it finishes, we'll have to wait for folks to implement it. Though that shouldn't take too long. Crazy software developers.

@john_klima - You know, it's funny. I bought the Kindle out of a whim and to basically prove that there IS no point to having an eBook reader. I would never like it. It's pointless to have something where you just read text. Yes. Right. Yeah.

Uh, now my blog shows my complete capitulation. It's not that I like tech gadgets (I like my iPod but my fascination stops there; I'm having a hard time finding a cell phone that's been stripped down to basic features) but the reading experience has been so enjoyable.

It's important to remember that the eBook reader is not simply something to view text on---but it's also

- storage for a huge number of books (I have an 8GB SD card in my Kindle, but all these books still fit in the original memory of the Kindle,

- an indexing and search system (even for just individual books---godsend for researchers among us),

- a way to buy books quickly without having to drag out the laptop...

- bookmarks and notes that can be searched and don't fall out/damage the book

- and with Amazon's kindle, a way to browse/search the web and download more books from just about anywhere.

(I hope a Kindle 2.0 comes along with tagging or some other categorization system. And some other features, but I'll be happy if it just comes with tags and minor bug fixes.)

It's kind of like how mp3 players are not simply a redux of the record player or cassette player or walkman; they give you

- control over what music to play (playlists, ordering),

- ability to have a huge library to select from and portable at that...

There is much more to these devices that have changed our lives, and it's easy to forget how they do that apart from their primary function.

The format graveyard is much less of a problem these days. There's enough knowledge and enough cooperation available via the web---also an important life-changing event that enables information sharing quickly, which has a lot of implications---that dead formats don't happen.

Especially dead digital formats. Dead physical formats like tape, a bit more of a problem. But anything that can be ripped, like CDs or DVDs (and these days even records and tape) can be turned into turned into various formats---none of which have died for the last decade. The convertibility of a lot of things is much higher than it was when Office was still in its relative infancy---as well as their lifespan and backwards-compatibility.

Really, this is a weird golden age to live in. And thanks to the internet, DRM and data format locking is more or less a thing of the past (recent or not); even Steve Jobs says DRM doesn't work and he's Steve Jobs, CEO of one of the most closed companies out there.

Gods, I sound like an optimistic tech-is-love idiot, don't I.

Much as I hate to say it (I really really really really hate to say it) I tend to think twice about buying print books. It's currently painful for me to re-read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, not because of the book's difficulty, but because I can't get it onto my Kindle (the Hugo voter deal for digital versions of the other four nominees made re-reading them quite wonderful compared to the original LCD pain, and even me giving up and buying the print versions early because of that pain). My Kindle, for whatever reason, improves my reading speed and the length of time I can read.

And I can put short stories on it and read them as a way to finish off my novel-reading evenings.

Oh, and VLC is made of win.
John Klima
25. john_klima
@arachnejericho my big problem with the Kindle (and no, I have not tried one to know anything about the experience about using one) is that a lot of books I read are not books that I've purchased, i.e., library books, ARCs, etc. At this point, the Kindle won't help me with that.

And it doesn't help me with the 1000s of books at home that I haven't read yet.

Now, if I could scan the barcode on my book and it would load onto the Kindle--even with some minimal charge--THEN we'd have something.

Some of the folks I work with have a Kindle, and I'm itching to try it out. I'm not opposed to e-readers in general, I just can't justify the cost when I have so many paper books that I need to read.

I do really like having books, etc. on my Treo so that I always have something to read with me since I take my phone everywhere. Also, I can convert documents with Mobi or Plucker, so I can take submissions, etc. with me, too, which I don't know that I could do with the Kindle.

Does anyone know, if I converted my own Mobi documents, would I be able to load them on the Kindle?
Arachne Jericho
26. arachnejericho
@john_klima

As for converting your own Mobi documents, Yup, you would be able to. The PDF converter works for stuff that is not image/format-fancy-laden. And also there's a Word .doc converter. If I couldn't do those, I wouldn't have bought the Kindle.

(Oh my Kindle how I love thee so very much)

I like the idea of scan-and-download.

My book collection is "small", i.e., it overflows six large sets of shelves. Hundreds, not thousands, of books. And I just consume like heck.

And Feedbooks have given me a whole new lease on Creative Commons and past-Copyright material. There's a freaking ton of it out there. It is overwhelming and kind of scary. I had no idea, and it's not just Project Gutenberg stuff.

Mind you, of course it's not like the amount of stuff you'd find at a big library or through the library exchanges.
psifertex
27. JKersh
I have been buying my ebooks from Baen for years (I think I started in 2002). I have always used the HTML format. I am sure there are other ways to do it but I keep all my ebooks on a thumb drive - recently had to go to 8 gig. I use an Excell file to keep track of all the books I have purchased with the name of the book being a hyperlink to the HTML file. The Excell file is my library and I can see at a glance which books I have read and which not.
By using the thumb drive I can read on any computer I am near and I can sinq it up with my phone/PDA if I want to read on the go.
Laurel Amberdine
28. amberdine
I was forced into early-adoption of ebook reading, years ago when I was reading lots of manuscripts, and my printer broke.

After that, it just seemed more efficient not to print stuff. Once I was able to get nice LCD monitors, eyestrain stopped being an issue. At this point no book made can compete with the electronic reading experience I have setup, with a huge-vertically rotated external LCD. I can read that baby from across the room. And search, and add comments, and look things up, and *ahem* occasionally do my regular work on the main screen, too.

I do need to get a portable reader better than a Palm. Waiting on upgraded versions of both the Kindle and the iPod Touch to decide.

The formats aren't that big a problem, in my experience. However, the DRM and the price are. Charging more for the ebook than for the mass market paperback is infuriating, and locking it down so I can't read it however I want is intolerable.

Fortunately I get enough reading material anyway, because buying physical books is pretty much not an option anymore. I have a small house, and I'm not even there half the time. If I can't stuff it (music, games, books) on some kind of very small digital storage device and bring it with me, I can't use it.
Arachne Jericho
29. arachnejericho
amberdine, I so want your setup. Lounging on the sofa and reading suddenly takes on a different meaning....
Bruce Cohen
30. SpeakerToManagers
I really don't think we'll see a significant market penetration of ebook readers until the special-purpose device isn't the only choice for the mass market. That means both lower price and better design. But we're almost there now because the iPod Touch and iPhone have sufficient resolution, and there are ebook reader applications available for them. It's pretty trivial for a programmer to design a reader that supports HTML and PDF, since that's built into the OS.

So the next generation of mp3 players and smart phones are going to have the hardware and software needed to be programmed as ereaders, since no other manufacturer will be able to compete with Apple in those markets without them; there will be the usual marketing and format wars, and they'll take a little longer to resolve than usual, because the initial market won't be as big as the hi-def DVD, frex, but they will resolve, and likely sometime in the next 3 years we'll see a standard electronic delivery channel for ebooks to consumers; standard format(s), a healthy chunk of non-DRMed market, and a spectrum of publishers from early supporters to those who will never offer electronic versions of their publications, ever, no way. And once all that happens, we'll start to see prices settling out to something less than par with hardbacks. At that point, the market will take off.
psifertex
31. Alan Price
I hate to burst your bubble, but both Kindle and Sony don't read Mobipocket. DRM issues also left out. Poor article, too little knowledge or research.
Laurel Amberdine
32. amberdine
From Amazon's Kindle page: "Kindle supports wireless delivery of unprotected Microsoft Word, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files."

There are hacks to get DRM-ed mobi files onto Kindles.

As Mobipocket is owned by Amazon, I imagine that the Kindle & Mobipocket formats will be consolidated soon.

I seem to recall Sony opening up their reader to some new format, but I didn't pay attention to the details. Sony loves their DRM so much, I don't imagine they'll ever be tolerable for me. (Though the reader is very pretty.)
Arachne Jericho
33. arachnejericho
@Alan Price

I own a Kindle and have read Mobipocket on it. E.g., I download the Mobi from Tor.com and read them there; I download the Mobi from Feedbooks.com and read them there; used the MobiPocket Creator to create Mobi files and uploaded to my Kindle and read them there.

Fictionwise's DRM'd Mobi files don't play nice with the Kindle, which is where you might have gotten the mistaken idea that the Kindle doesn't support Mobipocket.

Sounds like you were misled by somebody.
Mark Teppo
34. markteppo
@Robotech_Master

>> For them to become truly ubiquitous, reader price needs to come down while quality goes up.

Not entirely. The iPod phenomena certainly runs counter to that argument, and it managed to revolutionize the music industry (in that it changed how people listen to acquire music). The Sony e-reader is currently about the same price as a mid-model iPod (I believe). Though, heh, the second half of your statement is also certainly true for what the iPod brought to the party.

And in response to John's point that he can't see spending $300 on a reader, I think the iPod also counters that. It really was the killer app that defined a technology change. In many ways, I'm waiting for that same sort of magic piece of hardware to hit the eReader market (and, frankly, I think it is only a year or so away, less if Apple decides that it wants to offer a way to reformat PDFs to fit the iPod screen). For me, it's a matter of functionality. As soon as there is a way for me to carry multiple books around in a format that's about the size of one paperback, and the headache of putting documents in that device is minimal (one of many things that Apple did right was to make the iTunes interface functional), I'm switching.

I do love books, and love having them around me, but frankly, I'm not in my library enough to warrant being bound forever to that format. I was sitting around with my parents the other night and we were talking about office spaces (they've recently re-organized their houses to facilitate better office spaces) and I laughed and said, "My office is anywhere I can find a power plug and enough desk space to put my laptop." And this is true. I'm just waiting for a way to bring my library with me.

@ arachnejericho's comment about indexing is also spot on. I have two copies of Manly Hall's Secret Teachings of All Ages (one the size of a door panel, one that is actually useful to read), and I leaped at the chance recently to get a PDF version of it just so that I could do a cmd-F and spot-read.

But I think some of the headache is still in the format. We still have to mess with our text a bit before we can read it online and that is one of the things that iTunes did that made switching easier (in some ways, I think iTunes is more of the revolution than the actual iPod or any other MP3 player). John's "scan and download" concept is fantastic and is certainly close to a pure expression of simplicity, but it requires massive amounts of buy-in from the vendors for it to happen. That said, again if the customers demanded it enough, then everyone would certainly move in that direction. Hell, I've been an emusic customer for nearly a decade and it's only in the last six months that their download tool has added a feature where the downloads will be automatically added to your MP3 library tool of choice (finally!). Sure, HTML is readable on damn near every device with a mobile connection, but as a long-time Blackberry user, I can tell you that not a lot of coding is done with an eye toward readership coming at you from a mobile device. RSS feeds have certainly gone a long way toward fixing that, but even Google's mobile version of their reader is somewhat crippled.

I wonder why dailylit.com isn't taking off more. It's such a great idea.
Chris Meadows
35. Robotech_Master
I doubt scan-and-download is going to happen for the same reason that the mp3 CD scanner thing that the mp3.com guy tried to set up sank. (Remember that, anyone? The idea was that you could put your CD into your computer's CDROM drive, the website would authenticate it, and then you could stream any song that you owned from anywhere.) There's nothing to stop you from borrowing the book from a friend or checking it out of the library, and boom, instant ebook. This would also mean that a new book sold as used might generate several revenueless ebook copies for multiple people as it changed hands. I don't think the publishing industry would be very keen on that.

Now, maybe if each book had a unique serial number bound into it, like a computer game's activation code…

I wouldn't hold out too much hope for the iPhone/iTouch to be the Great White Ebook Savior—at least not until Apple comes to its senses and lifts the onerous NDA and restrictions that are currently crippling third-party software development. When the "legit" version of a platform's ebook reader is several versions behind the one you have to "jailbreak" your phone to run (according to a friend of mine who tried out both), that platform is not what I would call optimum for e-reading.

As for the example of the iPod being a breakout hit without lowering its price point, I think you may be comparing oranges and, well, Apple. It's easy to forget now that every mp3 player is an iPod, but back before the iPod came out there was already a pretty good market for mp3 players (after Diamond Multimedia won that court case against the RIAA proving that, yes, MP3 players are legitimate fair use). Even before stand-alone mp3 players, mp3 was the file format of choice for people who got their music on-line. The convenience of the files was enough to make up for the drawbacks of having to listen to them on your computer. Remember Napster, and the "piracy" revolution that it kicked off? (And even Napster was just the tip of the iceberg—mp3s had been trading on pop-up-spamming w4r3z sites for years before Sean Fanning had his epiphany.)

Napster tapped into a pre-existing but not previously recognized demand for mp3s, and made not only the music industry but electronics manufacturers sit up and take notice. Diamond was one of the first to market, as were a number of others. When the iPod came along a bit later, people who already used MP3s discovered Apple's incredibly user-friendly controls, and those two great tastes that tasted great together led to the iPod becoming the dominant brand in the market in a very short time. (And when you compare the iPod to its predecessors it's no surprise.)

We don't have that for ebooks. Yes, ebooks are being swapped in pirate havens on-line, but they don't have the same demand that Napster did. Nobody is "stealing" ebooks on such a scale that the publishing industry is collectively taking the sorts of actions that the RIAA and MPAA are. That's good for the publishers, but in a way it's bad for the ebook industry—it means people don't want to read ebooks enough to put up with the drawbacks of the currently available methods.

From there it becomes a simple exercise in economics: ebook readers are going to have a lower equilibrium price than mp3 players simply because there is not as much demand. And I think prices have a way to fall before they get there.
Torie Atkinson
36. Torie
@ markteppo

I wonder why dailylit.com isn't taking off more. It's such a great idea.

This is fantastic! What a brilliant idea! I had never heard of them, so thank you so much for sharing.

The internet is a fabulous place.
John Klima
37. john_klima
Oh I don't believe for a second that I'll ever be able to scan a book's barcode--one I own, one I took out from the library, one I borrowed from a friend, one I walked past in the bookstore, etc.--and load it onto my reader. It's just what I would like to have happen.

And no, the Sony Reader cannot read Mobi files, I apologize for any consternation that caused for people.
Mark Teppo
38. markteppo
@Robotech_Master

Sorry, I should be more clear. I wasn't saying that the iPod/iTouch would have any impact on the eReader market, more that it and the interface of iTunes did a great deal to changing the market acceptance of mp3s as a medium of listening to music. eReading will need that same sort of ease of use (getting your content to your device) before there's an explosion. And yes, mp3s and players certainly existed before Apple came to the game, but their presence and their model, I think, certainly tipped the format war to the favor of mp3s.

And, based on the continuing price of iPods, I think the player is secondary to the content. If the content is there, if the audience for the content is there, we will pay $300.00 for a reader.

So, since we're not hardware providers, but rather content generators and content users, we should be making our content available in accessible formats. We should be demanding that sites that we access through mobile devices (either as stand-alone content downloads or mobile web interfaces) have interfaces/methods that are less tech-intensive for us to use.

If you are starting a new online venture, lead the way and have an alternate interface that is specifically designed for mobile readers.
Chris Meadows
39. Robotech_Master
@MarkTeppo: To reiterate, I think there's a considerable difference between the situations.

As I said, there were lots of people downloading MP3s before Apple/iTunes ever came out. Sure, the iTunes store brought selling mp3s into viability, but literally millions of people were downloading mp3s illegally once Napster made it easy, before the iPod ever came along. I think that was the wakeup call for Apple to realize that with this kind of pre-existing demand, there was a market here waiting to be tapped.

You don't have literally millions of illegal ebook readers. You don't have that pre-existing market waiting to be tapped. The market has to be built, and that always takes longer and is harder.

Another factor that makes the comparison less apt is that mp3s are listened to in much the same way as the "old media". You stick 'phones in your ear or plug in speakers, and it sounds about the same. In fact, it's easier to use mp3s in certain situations; an mp3 player is a lot easier to carry around if you're jogging than even the most portable CD player.

The ebook reading experience, on the other hand, has a number of detracting factors that avowed e-readers have trained themselves to overcome but act as a barrier to entry to newcomers—so it's actually harder for these people to read an ebook than a regular book. Most people just aren't going to pay hundreds of dollars to make it harder for them to read the books they enjoy.
Mark Teppo
40. markteppo
@Robotech_Master: True enough, and I think it's good to reiterate, since it pertains to this discussion, that in the case of mp3s, there was "this kind of pre-existing demand, there was a market here waiting to be tapped." And, yes, the ebook market is not the same at all.

I am curious to know those "detracting factors" that you mention. Not in a snark way, as the only experience I had with the Sony Reader left me very impressed with how readable it was (for me). Now, I know there's been a litany of commentary about availability of available content, DRM issues, and the like. But, if I'm in the market of providing content for e-readers, what sort of "detracting factors" can I anticipate and take correction action on so as to facilitate market acceptance? I'm looking to learn here from someone with more data points than me, so please don't take this as looking for trouble. :)
John Klima
41. john_klima
So if someone was going to provide electronic editions of their publication, is there ONE format that everyone would be happy with? Are there three or four formats that EVERYBODY would be happy with?

In essence, what electronic formats would provide the greatest coverage for the widest range of people?
Chris Meadows
42. Robotech_Master
@markteppo: Off the top of my head: Screen size (for small devices, versus Unwieldiness for large devices). Screen resolution and readability in general without causing eyestrain. Dependence on batteries. Fragility (paper books are forgiving of all sorts of rough treatment; glass-and-plastic gadgets not so much) and cost of replacement if you mistreat it. Starting cost (expense of reader—though it may be a little redundant to include it in this list). Confusing proliferation of multiple ebook formats and DRM. Confusing/buggy user-interfaces. Lack of "that book smell." (I'm being a little facetious here, but it's amazing the number of people out there who say they could never get into ebooks because they don't smell right.)

Not every reader will have all of those problems, but those are the ones that have been common complaints about ebook devices in general so far. As I said, people who like to read ebooks have trained themselves to avoid or live with these problems. And ebooks have a number of advantages as well (such as the ability to store lots of them on one device, or instant gratification from downloading them immediately), but the advantages don't necessarily cancel out the disadvantages in the eyes of people who've never tried them (or who've tried them and not liked them).

@john_klima: Rich text, HTML, and PDF. Between those, they can be either read in or easily converted to read in just about any ebook reader (or printed out for those who prefer it and aren't shy of spending the printing costs, in the case of the PDF).
psifertex
43. ucblockhead
I've played with the Sony Reader a lot, but frankly the eInk update speed makes it hard to deal with. Lately, I've been reading John C. Wright's "Orphans of Chaos" courtesy of the fine folks here on my Asus eee. If I set the PDF reader to do landscape and turn the eee sideways, it shows the entire page on a screen, and has a physical size that is comparable to a trade paperback.
Arachne Jericho
44. arachnejericho
Whatever format that can demark a table of contents, page breaks, an index, an appendix, and a cover.

Mobipocket provides this in a standardized way. HTML, PDF, and RTF do not. Reference books are important.

- a, likes the Kindle reducing the scary research book stack
psifertex
45. Dan Smith
The comment on magazines is very interesting, because the magazine as we know it was, in fact, "invented" in the late 1800s. By "the magazine as we know it," I mean that advances in printing technology dropped the price to the point where it became a mass medium and an important mass fiction market. One of the beneficiaries was Jack London, who acknowledged his luck in entering the market at just the right time. He was one of the very first writers to make a significant commercial success from the sale of fiction.

However, the comments on formats, etc. are, I think, irrelevant. What's held the market back before the Kindle was: title availability, title availability, title availablity, publishers' greed with respect to pricing, and DRM. The Kindle deserves high marks for making an enormous improvement in title availability. It deserves moderate marks on pricing.

But DRM is still an issue. I have $300 worth of content I purchased for my Rocket eBook (aka Gemstar REB1100). Gemstar did stupid stuff, alienated users, failed to make a business success, abandoned the market, and shut off their servers. My $300 worth of content is encrypted and keyed to a hardware ID number on my device. There's no way to convert it to any other format, and no way to load it onto any other physical device. My device is dying and my books, purchased in some cases for the same price as the hardbound edition, will die when it does. (Furthermore, if I upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 or to an Intel-based Mac, I won't be able to read those books any more, as the software was never updated to run on anything later than Mac OS 8).

Fool me once, shame on Gemstar. Fool me twice, shame on me.

There's no way I'll buy DRM-protected book content again.
Chris Meadows
46. Robotech_Master
I'd extend that to cover any format that isn't acknowledged as an open, or nearly open (in the case of PDF), and highly ubiquitous standard. Which is why I'm a bit suspicious of Mobipocket. Sure, it's a nice ebook format as ebook formats go, but people have to go out and hunt up special software to read it. In a pinch, RTF, HTML, or PDF can be read easily on most computers using the software they come with, and they convert to alternate formats very easily. That's about all you need for most novels.

Reference books are a special case.
psifertex
47. Krisha
@ markteppo

Thanks for pointing out dailylit. I've been using a similar service: dailyreader.net - but I'll have to check them out as well.
Arachne Jericho
48. arachnejericho
Interesting. Mobipocket is partly open, based on the OEPF (aka Open eBook Publication Format), aka ePub.

Mobipocket format itself is actually compliant to the IDPF standards (International Digital Publication Forum) and is just, basically, xhtml with special attributes and encryption.

And encryption? Pfah. There isn't an encryption system for files that can't be broken these days. And quantum encryption is not here yet (though there are some experiments these days I hear).

Anyways, digging through the specs. I'm making little MobiPockets of Creative Commons (certain licenses that let me anyways) works, but trying to do them as close to the original HTML source as possible, for various reasons.

- a
Paul Durrant
49. pdurrant
Mobipocket would be a lot more useful if they'd document the binary format that they use. Of course, they won't want to document exact details of the DRM system they use, even though it's been broken*.

But just documenting the other parts of their binary format to enable other programs to safely modify Mobipocket files would be a very good thing.

There are tools currently available that modify Mobipocket files to, for example, add in the Author's name, or add a cover image. But they rely on reverse-engineering of the format, which isn't, of course, 100% reliable.

Paul

*Not in general, just enough to allow the owner of a DRMed eBook to obtain a non-DRM eBook from the original. The process requires the original encryption key - the Mobipocket PID used when the DRMed eBook was created.
Debbie Moorhouse
50. GUDsqrl
I find lots of reasons not to convert to an ebook reader. The DRM issues, incompatibility, the price! the fear of being forced to upgrade every so often. Also the idea that a reader would probably break if I dropped it, would be attractive to thieves, and would be a far worse loss than a single copy of a print book.

Pessimist, me?
Debbie Moorhouse
51. GUDsqrl
Oh, and being tied to one supplier who may decide to stop supplying for whatever reason.
Chris Meadows
52. Robotech_Master
I've just written a blog entry for TeleRead where I expand on some of the ideas I brought up earlier in this thread. (I also wrote an earlier entry about this and the Hugo Gernsback threads here.)

@GUDsqrl: Can't gainsay you on the other points, but if you buy the right ebook reader, you can read nothing but free and DRM-free stuff on it for the rest of your life without ever having to touch protected stuff.

For instance, a Kindle will read the Mobipocket format, and the unencrypted Mobipocket format is what is used by all of Baen's stuff, the free stuff Tor had up until the end of last month, and presumably all of Tor's stuff that will hit Webscriptions (whenever it does hit Webscriptions).
Stephen Hope
53. DancingFool
I really don't want the Kindle and Mobipocket formats to converge - unless they do it by dropping all DRM. They already ARE the same format, but Amazon decided to use a different DRM for the Kindle than for all other readers. Seeing as I have a whole library of books in the standard Mobipocket format, Kindle can just change to my format if they decide they need to be compatible with everybody else (yeah yeah flying pigs etc)

This is of course the whole problem with DRM in the first place - not so much what it does now, but what it may do (or makes harder) in the future.

I changed to ebooks several years ago for purely economic reasons - ebooks at full US paperback prices are half the price (or less) of a paperback here, and I can store my entire ebook collection on a couple of CD's, while I'd need a new bookshelf a year if I bought them all in paper.

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