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 … Next Page »

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

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