Sony, Google Point the Way Toward a More Open Future for E-Books

In a presentation at the Boston Book Festival last weekend, Jon Orwant, a Google engineer involved in the company’s Book Search project, made a memorable and, I thought, quite perceptive remark about the e-book business.

“Think about the books you have at home and how you organize them,” Orwant said. “Some of you may not organize them at all. Some of you may organize them based on the person who reads them—Mom’s books, Dad’s books, the kids’ books. Some may organize by subject or genre. I’ll tell you one way you don’t organize them: you don’t say, ‘Here are the books I bought from Barnes & Noble, here are the books I bought from Amazon, and here are the books that were given to me as gifts.’ We need to be very careful to make sure that we don’t create an environment in which digital books end up that way.”

What Orwant was talking about, of course, is the siloing going on in the nascent e-book industry—the fact that if you buy an e-book for your Amazon Kindle, you can’t read it on a competing e-book device such as Barnes & Noble’s new Nook, or vice-versa. That’s because book publishers, who are understandably spooked by the music industry’s implosion, are worried about losing revenue if people can copy, transfer, and share their digital content too easily. It’s also because many of the companies getting into the e-book market aren’t happy just selling you a gadget or a couple of megabytes of digital content—they want you to buy into a whole ecosystem (i.e., the Kindle family of devices and the 360,000 books formatted for them, or the Nook and its claimed one million titles).

Barnes & Noble's Nook e-book deviceAnd so far that plan is working, at least on early adopters like me. I bought a Kindle 2 in May, and since then I’ve purchased about $120 worth of books for the device, plus subscriptions to The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and multiple Sunday editions of the New York Times. All of this content is protected by digital rights management (DRM) technology that would prevent me from opening it on, say, a Nook or a Sony Reader device—and that quite likely will prevent me from reading my books 10 or 20 years down the road, when my Kindle will be dead or obsolete and reading technologies and content formats will undoubtedly be completely different. But those restrictions haven’t kept me from scarfing up more e-books: since I became a Kindle user I’ve bought about 20 Kindle editions and exactly four physical books (two that weren’t available as Kindle editions, and two that were gifts for other people).

But while I’m not particularly concerned about the fact that my Amazon e-books are tied to my Amazon hardware (hey, I’ve also bought hundreds of songs and videos from Apple’s iTunes Store that only play on my Apple MacBook and my Apple iPhone), a lot of people are more skeptical toward the Amazon model. As e-books gradually catch up to and surpass physical books as the main way many people access book-length content—which they will, mark my words—continued reliance on proprietary formats and DRM could wind up fragmenting our common literary inheritance in exactly the way that Orwant warned about.

But I have a feeling the story isn’t over, and that market pressures may eventually push all of the big players in the still-young e-book business toward a more open future. The day before the Boston Book Festival, I had a long conversation with Steve Haber, president of the Digital Reading Division at Sony, and I got an earful about his company’s commitment over the last couple of years to the idea of open access to digital content. As Sony fires back at the Kindle and the Nook with its own souped-up e-reading gadgets, it’s setting an example that other hardware makers and content providers would do well to study.

Haber, whose division is based in San Diego, formerly ran sales and marketing for Sony’s entire imaging and audio business. (He happens to be the brother of Stu Haber, president of IST Energy, a waste-gasification startup I profiled in January.) He was in town for the same Boston Book Festival session on “The Future of Reading” where Orwant was speaking. (The other speakers on the impressive lineup included Mary Lou Jepsen of Pixel Qi, Neil Jones of Interead, and Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive. As I reported on Saturday, Kahle used the session as the occasion to announce that the Archive will make 1.6 million free public-domain books available to children around the world who have XO Laptops from the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation.)

Haber had brought along Sony’s entire lineup of e-reading devices: the compact, $200 Pocket Edition, which has a 5-inch e-paper display (it’s the same E Ink technology used for the Kindle, the Nook, and Sony’s previous PRS-500 and PRS-505 reading devices); the $300 Touch Edition, with a 7-inch screen and a nifty touch screen overlay that allows you to turn pages with an iPhone-like flick of a finger; and the forthcoming Daily Edition, which has a tall 10-inch screen and a built-in 3G wireless modem that allows instant book and periodical downloads. Expected to hit stores in December, the Daily Edition is the first Sony reader to get wireless connectivity, a hugely important feature that Amazon pioneered with the Kindle and Barnes & Noble copied with the Nook.

Sony Daily Edition e-book readerAfter letting me play with the gadgets, Haber explained that all three are designed to display content in a range of formats, including the open, XML-based EPUB and ACS4 formats. That means device owners will be able to read any title published in those formats, even those not sold by Sony. “Customers want access to content, number one, so it’s important, from our perspective, that they not be tied to one store,” Haber told me.

He said Sony is also in the process of overhauling its own e-book store; by the end of the year, every title it sells will have been converted from Sony’s old proprietary format, called BBeB, to EPUB and ACS4. These formats still support DRM restrictions, if book publishers request them, but they are inherently more flexible than the older formats. For example, customers of Sony’s e-book store will be able to download titles purchased at the Sony e-book store to their computers and to multiple Sony devices—in fact, they’ll be able to share a single e-book across up to 6 PCs, 6 tethered e-book devices (i.e., the Pocket and Touch Editions), and 6 wireless e-book devices (i.e., the Daily Edition).

On the Daily Edition, there’s also a cool “Library Finder” feature that will let users see instantly whether their local libraries own copies of e-books they’d like to read; if they do, and they’re not already loaned out, they can check them out instantly for up to 21 days. Try doing that on a Kindle.

I asked Haber how Sony could afford to stay in the e-book business, if it wasn’t focused on making consumers buy Sony-provided content. (The consensus among industry watchers is that Amazon sells the Kindle at a loss and hopes to make money back by selling e-books, which obviously have a much lower marginal cost.) “Our competition will do what they are going to do, but our point is continually to allow access, as long as it’s within the rights specified by the publishers,” Haber answered.

Consumer pressure will force more e-book distributors to move to open formats over time, Haber believes. He uses an interesting analogy for the current situation in the e-book market: “It’s like going to the mall with your friends, and one of your friends says, ‘I can only go into this one store, but you guys can go everywhere.’ It’s illogical. We don’t think that to be successful in this space you have to cause the customer to be locked in.” Sony has all the latest best-sellers, at competitive prices, Haber says. “But if you have another bookstore that you like to buy your books from, please help yourself, or borrow books from the library. Our value equation is about choice. As long as we make our e-book store a great experience, and customers enjoy using our devices, then we will do well.”

Haber talks a good game—but Sony has such a dubious track record on issues around DRM that I’ll probably withhold judgment for a bit longer on how serious the company really is about access. Meanwhile, Google is not-so-subtly pushing for some of the same kinds of openness Haber is talking about. In August it made a million of the public-domain books that it has scanned as part of the Book Search project available in the EPUB format. And just a couple of weeks ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Google clarified its plans for selling “Google Editions” starting in 2010; these digital versions of in-print books will be readable on a range of platforms, including computers, phones, and dedicated reading devices.

“Here’s how we could really screw things up” with the Google Editions program, Orwant said at the book festival: “If we released a hardware device, and it was only able to let people read Google Editions. That might be something we could do if we simply wanted to maximize short-term sales. So we’re not going to do that. Rather, we want to create an environment in which you buy a book—whether it’s from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or a public-domain book—and are able to read it on any device. And I don’t even like that word, ‘device.’ It could be an e-reader or also a browser on a computer, a netbook, or a mobile phone, or it could mean print-on-demand—purchasing it on the cloud and getting a printed copy mailed to you.”

So far, I’ve been holding up Amazon and Barnes & Noble as the standard-bearers for the closed e-book model, but the truth is the Sony and Google models may be picking up some traction at both companies. The Nook can display EPUB titles. In fact, the reason Barnes & Noble is able to claim that a million titles are available for the Nook—nearly three times as many titles as are available for the Kindle—is that it’s counting 500,000 of Google’s public domain books. And B&N is introducing some other interesting openness-oriented enticements, such as the ability to lend an e-book you’ve purchased to anyone with a B&N e-reading app on their PC, Mac, Blackberry, or iPhone. Even more amazingly, Nook owners who visit Barnes & Noble stores will be able to read entire e-books for free (I guess they plan to make back the costs of that giveaway on coffee and bear-claws).

Even Amazon is loosening up a bit. If you have a Kindle, you can also read the books you buy on your iPhone, and recently Amazon introduced a PC-based Kindle application as well. You can have the same Kindle book open simultaneously on up to six devices, if they’re all registered to the same account. There are third-party programs such as Calibre for converting EPUB titles to the Kindle format, which you can then upload to your device via USB. And earlier this year Amazon bought Lexcycle, the maker of popular mobile e-reader program Stanza, which supports EPUB books; this could be a sign that Amazon will eventually embrace the open format (though one cynical blogger comments that this embrace could well take the form of “hands around the neck”).

So, how long will it be before e-books are just like CDs or DVDs, where every disc works in every player? A few years, minimum. Publishers will need to get more comfortable with the whole idea of selling content digitally before they let down their guard on DRM. And the Googles, Sonys, Amazons, and Barnes & Nobles of the world will need to find reliable ways to attract readers to their platforms rather than resorting to trapping them there. Who knows—perhaps we might even see a new golden age of publishing, where e-book distributors add value to their own branded editions by supplementing them with scholarly introductions, entertaining footnotes, interviews, or multimedia content. (This is exactly how publishers like Penguin get away with charging $16 for paperbacks of classic works like Wuthering Heights that have long since entered the public domain and should, by all rights, be free.)

Our physical bookshelves may look a lot emptier in the near future—but I think our online ones are likely to get richer and richer.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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