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An Angry Old Fat View of E-Book Technology

Hey guys. Mary Anne's busy with work on top of work, so she asked me to write a blog entry. Everyone always says to write what you know, and I'm a technology guy, so this is going to be about my take on digital publishing technology and some of the changes in store for books because of it.

First off, I don't think paper books are going to completely go away. There's something comforting about the physicality of a book. The smell and feel of the pages, the easy-to-see contrast of the ink on the paper, the order of the vertical lines on a filled bookshelf - it all adds up to an experience you can't get from any digital device. At least, not yet.

A good model that we can use to see where books are headed is music. Saying that the e-book will eliminate paper books is like saying the MP3 song has eliminated concerts. Obviously, that hasn't happened. There are sights, sounds, and other stimuli you get at concerts that you just can't get from iTunes.

However, digital music has allowed independent artists a presence in the marketplace they never had before, just like digital books and authors. The barriers to entry have been lowered a great deal, and that can make for some astounding success stories. That includes not just the artist side but the distribution side as well.

The big distributors may still be around for a long while, but they'll mostly be churning out stuff for the vanilla market, whereas the formerly neglected niche customers will have channels that circumvent that bland vanilla market where they can obtain their on-the-fringe material. In the music industry, we've seen this with acts like Insane Clown Posse - a group that as far as I know has never been on radio or in any other mainstream distribution channel, but still enjoys wild notoriety and profitability.

But of course there's a dark side to digital, as exemplified originally in the music industry by the RIAA and later in the digital book industry by Amazon - the ability to remotely search, manipulate, and even delete material. Anything you can put on a computer, you can then use a computer to process and control that thing. You no longer need to break into somebody's house and look at their bookshelves to see what they're reading; you can write programs to look into their networked devices. Or if you manufacture the device or provide the service that stores the material, you can simply leave a nice little back door open to allow your employees to look for your intellectual property. AND, once you've done that, it's inevitable that some police agency will want the keys to the back door for its own nefarious purposes, no matter which political party is in charge.

Let's see them try that with paper books.

The other thing I wanted to address was the dominance of Amazon in the e-book industry with its Kindle. I got two words for that - Sony Betamax. This old man remembers the days of the videotape war. Big, old, clunky VHS tapes versus small, light, superior Beta tapes. All the geeks loved Beta because it was just so much more advanced than VHS. Better picture, better portability, better storage, better everything.

Everything except better price and better availability.

VHS won out because it was a recording format that was completely separate from any video cassette recorder manufacturer. Only one company could make Beta equipment, and that was Sony. But VHS equipment could be made by any consumer electronics manufacturer, and boy was it! Just a few years after the videotape war started, it ended... badly for Sony, which took a decade or so to fully recover (thanks to a portable music player called the Walkman).

I learned today that the EPUB e-book format is the de facto standard for practically every e-book reader manufacturer except Amazon. That's right, the Kindle uses a proprietary format, just like Sony did with its videotape equipment. Just like Apple did with its computer equipment and operating system. Just like IBM did with its computer equipment (except for a brief moment in time) and operating systems.

And just like the latter companies used to be the 800-pound gorillas of their respective industries, so Amazon is the heavy simian of today's digital book industry. And while it may be premature to call for its death, it's not impossible to see a future where Amazon may cease to be the biggest ape in the zoo. Which is why Mary Anne and I don't have all of our bananas in one basket, and neither should you.