EDITORIAL: Control versus convenience with eBooks

There has been a lot said, printed, blogged and tweeted about eBooks over the years, both good and bad. Recently, the main focus of this discussion has been the issue of copyright, along with its close companions, document security and piracy. In this article, I take a quick trip down memory lane and outline my position of cautious optimism about the future of eBooks.

About a month ago, I finally got around to buying a Kindle — that’s Amazon’s proprietary eBook reading device, for those who have been living in bomb shelters for the last half-decade or so. In short, I was impressed! My Kindle was affordable, lightweight, attractive, and, most importantly, readable, thanks to its E Ink-based display.

I first met E Ink technology way back in 2001, when I found myself in a conference session entitled ‘Next Generation Display Technologies’. Back then, people were already debating the merits of this whole eBook fad. They complained about eye-strain from conventional, backlit monitors (i.e., LCD or CRT). They also pointed out that the portable reading technologies available at the time tended to be expensive, unwieldy or both. Taken together, these drawbacks made it seem unlikely that eBooks were going to be able to deliver an immersive reading experience similar to that of paper books any time soon. The chances that eBooks were ever going to be able to pass the ‘three B’ test — whether it would be feasible to read in bed, bath, or at the beach — also seemed pretty slim.

Contrary to the views expressed in this somewhat tongue-in-cheek article written by Planet PDF founder Karl De Abrew in 2000, I think that these criticisms were actually quite valid. Given that, E Ink was exciting for a bunch of reasons:

  1. It was a passive (i.e., non-backlit) display technology. This meant that it was easier on the peepers and reduced eye-strain when compared to conventional, radiant displays.
  2. It required incredibly small amounts of power to run. In fact, E Ink displays use no power at all unless their content changes.
  3. It was lightweight. At the conference, the presenter even discussed the prospect that the technology could be used to produce, thin, flexible sheets.

These properties put E Ink firmly in the running to address major technical barriers to the proliferation of eBooks. Aside from the expected expense of any device using brand-spanking new technology (I call it the ‘Early Adopter Tax’), the only major barrier left was the issue of content. Ultimately, the availability of high-quality electronic publications depends on the confidence of copyright holders in the profitability and security of a medium. Basically, publishers needed to believe that enough people would buy eBooks to produce a profit, and that it would be hard for the digital eyepatch-and-parrot brigade to steal their stock. If the publishers believe, they will make their top-shelf content available; if they don’t, they won’t.

I got my start in electronic documents and PDF in 2000, working with eBooks.com. I was part of a team that was devising a process to convert paper books into electronic ones. One thing I noticed was that, aside from selected titles from a few shrewd publishers of textbooks and self-help books, content was pretty sparse. Water cooler conversation was often about our frustration that more publishers wouldn’t get on board, and the fact that it was such a slow process to convince them to produce commercial digital content.

The biggest problem, we thought, was that publishers were scared of the openness of digital content. An unsecured (or secured-but-cracked) eBook is portable in a way that a paper book just isn’t. To steal a paper book, you need to either steal the physical book or manually copy it. The level of access and effort required for this process should, at least in theory, limit the amount of book piracy with hard copy books. If a potential pirate gets his hands on an unsecured eBook, he can quickly and easily share it with 10,000 of his closest friends. Sometimes, rampant piracy like this can inspire commercial success — Adam Mansbach’s Go the F*** to Sleep comes to mind — but such cases are considered a rarity. Publishers want to sell their content, but the prospect of high-volume piracy understandably scares the spit out of them. Ultimately, the need to sell digital content whilst protecting intellectual property gave rise to the advent of measures to control content, such as digital rights management (DRM).

Fast-forward a decade to the present day. E Ink is a part of Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and other devices, great electronic content abounds (although individual results may vary — see note), and sales of eBooks are going strong.

Unfortunately, the availability of electronic content varies according to location. I’ve personally been frustrated when I’ve browsed through the catalog at Amazon.com and had the Kindle book I want disappear as soon as the site realizes that I’m not based in the US.

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About the Author: Dan Shea

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