...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day 3518: How can BOOKS have a FORMAT WAR?


Okay, confession time. Daddy Richard got a present for doing ten years with his company, and it was the CULTISTS' favourite, an Apple SadPad.

Yes, I know.

But once you've got over shaking you heads, perhaps you can help. No, we don't need an INTERVENTION and DEPROGRAMMING just yet, but we do have a question.

You can choose a widget to turn your SadPad into an eReader, i.e: an electronic book-reader that lets you read books electronically, what with half a kilo of circuitry being so much more convenient than this newfangled paper stuff.

The question is: which widget?

The widgets themselves are free, but you have to pay for the books…

Incidentally, did you know that although PHYSICAL books are VAT free, electronic books are not, in spite of them containing ONLY the memetic part of the physical book, so all things being equal an eBook would actually be (once Master Gideon's badword VAT rise goes through) 20% more expensive. Which is nuts.

Anyway, there are probably more, but Daddy has THREE widgets for reading books to choose from: iBooks from (join us, come and join us) Apple, Kindle from Amazon and one called Kobo backed by Boarders and other booksellers.

The problem is this: if you buy a book from ONE of them, you CAN'T read it with one of the others.

Frankly, it's a bit of a liberty! I mean, once you've PAID for it, it ought to be yours to read however you want. But that's what you get for buying into Apple's (join us, come and join us) "we know what is best for you" culture.

And don't get me started on the fact you can't GIFT other people with eBooks!

It's all the same ridiculous paranoia that has poisoned the world of digital music. Rather than being about sharing the creativity, it's all about stamping down on anyone who might make an illicit copy. Video Piracy. Music Piracy. I mean who ever head of a Pirate BOOK, before? (Apart from Mr Simon's Pirate Book, of course.)

What OUGHT to happen, is that you should be able to buy your eBook from ANY independent supplier, download it, and then read it in any of the readers.

The WORST offender is the Kindle. The iBooks and the Kobo both use internationally recognised EPUB format – but then stick their own digital rights management on top, making them non-transferable (no matter what it says in Kobo's admirable mission statement). But the Kindle uses its own bespoke software so it's not compatible with ANYTHING.

In many ways the iBooks reader is the nicest. Apple are GREAT at design (join us, come and join us) and it shows. You can highlight bits of the text and leave notes for yourself which appear in the form of cute post-it notes in the margin. If you turn the SadPad sideways, the book turns into two pages with a "crease" in the middle, like you're holding a real book (the others just show one page widescreened across the Pad).

But the GENIUS thing that it does is to let you highlight a word and then access the SadPad's onboard dictionary. A great big floating box appears which you can scroll though to read the full definition.

The Kindle does something similar, with a highlighted word allowing you to pop up a definition in a small box at the foot of the page. That's less intrusive, but also shorter and, on one occasion, managed to give me the wrong word ("Sho" not "Shoe") which was less than impressive.

But the Kodo reader doesn't do it at all.

That just staggers me. Surely you would look at what your competitors are doing and you'd realise at once that this is a defining essential feature. It's the one thing that an eBook can do that a paper book cannot – tell you what the words mean right there in your fluffy foot, without having to get up and find where the dictionary has gotten buried this time.

In fact, the Kobo doesn't do the highlighting in any form, so there's no making notes in the margin either, or copy/pasting text for short quotations.

The Kobo reader does have quite a nice clean design. Like the iBooks you can customise the font and while it won't let you turn the paper sepia (if that's important to you) it will entertainingly let you customise the shelving in your virtual library, which is a nice touch. But without the dictionary link, frankly what's the point?

The Kindle reader from Amazon is… okay. Unlike the Kobo, you CAN choose sepia "paper", but you only get the one choice of font which is a rather more tiresome omission, unless you're fond of New Times Roman. And instead of going for the "shelves" look of the other readers, the interface has a graphic of a kid reading a book under a tree that I suspect I'm going to tire of QUITE quickly.

All of which would seem to cont against the Kindle if it wasn't for one thing: backed by Amazon, the range of books available on Kindle is simply many times larger than either of the other two, particularly iBooks where the number of books on offer is pitiful. What is the point of that beautiful reader, if there's nothing to read with it? Well, it would be lovely if you could read books from OTHER sellers, but no, it's our old friend Mr DRM raining on THAT particular parade.

And I'm afraid Amazon are using their market muscle to undercut their rivals on price too. And quite significantly: Doctor Who books available on Kobo cost in the range of £6 to £7, on Amazon they're £4 to £5 (iBooks disqualified on grounds of not stocking any); Andrew Rawnsley's "The End of the Party" (essential summer reading for politicos) is £11.25 on Amazon for Kindle; it's £15.99 on the iBook store and £17.26 from Kobo. Those aren't really the sort of price differentials that you can afford to ignore.

So here's the dilemma. Or rather trilemma.

Kobo is the one that approaches nearest to being open access, buy a book from anywhere and read it anywhere, but they're the most expensive and their reader suffers a massive, and indeed critical FAIL by not linking to a dictionary.

iBooks looks lovely, is stocked with features, but carries all the monoculture problems you'd expect from an Apple (join us, come and join us) product and has barely anything at all to read.

The Kindle is a bit basic but gets the job done and has loads of books at competitive prices. But they're trying to impose their own format on everyone else rather than agree to play nice with the EPUB file format that everyone else has agreed. So they are clearly evil.

Or, as Daddy Alex put it: it's like Amazon are VHS and Apple are Betamax (and Kobo are Video 2000 – no, I had to look it up as well).

I don't want to pay over the odds, I don't want to end up with a load of books in a redundant format but I don't want to contribute to someone who's clearly trying to bust the international consensus either.

And I'd so wanted to download a whole load of books to read on holiday next week. Boo!



Unknown said...

I'll try and get over my iPad envy for a moment to sympathise.

I had never had anything by Apple in my life until April when I bought myself an iPod Touch so I could then buy the extremely expensive Formula 1 application to enhance my race day experience, as if actually watching the race and following it on Twitter wasn't enough.

I just love the way it works, every little tiny thing about it, and I desperately want an iPad.

I agree with you about the books interfaces - why can't they just stick to one format? It's just plain wrong.

I would probably go for the one which makes reading the most pleasurable experience. For me, despite my iPad love, that means actually picking up a book and stroking its pages. Nothing electronic can replace that - although the iBooks interface comes pretty darned close. I suspect I could get to enjoy reading books using that.

However, you could just forget about reading and download Flight Control instead. It is compulsive....and could, if you let it, keep you occupied for far too much time....

Andrew Hickey said...

This kind of thing is, of course, why I won't have anything to do with the wretched things at all.
Two things to note in making your choices though:
Amazon have been perfectly prepared in the past to remotely delete users' books, including any annotations the users have made (see the farrago where they deleted 1984 and Animal Farm last year).
Apple, meanwhile, go to ridiculous extremes in their censorship - at one point censoring a dictionary for containing naughty words.

I refuse on principle to buy DRM'd files or non-free software, because of situatons like this , but it *appears* to be slightly easier to crack the DRM on Kindle books than on iBooks (googling gives me many different methods), so my advice is to buy those then read them in whatever you want, but only after removing the DRM.

Removing DRM is, of course, against the law, but as we all know "bad laws are made to be broken"...

Stephen Tall said...

Agree, it's very irritating. Despite not being a techno-geek (honest) I have both an iPad (for work) and a Kindle (for pleasure).

However, I've ended up only paying for e-books which are super-cheap (eg, complete Trollope for 99p) or are disposable paperbacks (Larsson). Books I want to keep I continue to buy in book format to avoid the Betamax problem of future format redundancy. But that doesn't save me much room in my suitcase :(

Richard Gadsden said...

There is also a program called Stanza that can read any DRM-free eBooks.

Obviously, not many publishers will sell you DRM-free eBooks. There is one exception; Baen Books, who have a brilliant system - take a look at their ebook site and wish any other publisher was half as good. Baen have also got sensible royalty rates for ebooks, ie authors get a higher percentage on the ebook because the publisher isn't paying for printing and there's no distributor or retailer to take a margin.

However, the nice bit about Stanza is that you can read anything in the Gutenburg project - ie anything that is out of copyright - for free. Unlike recorded music, there actually are a lot of books that are public domain: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, etc.

Cammie Novara said...

The moment I saw the unbelievable hilarious Yes We Scam! B.S. We Can Believe In! Obama Approval Plummets article on Hubpages I decided that The Very Fluffy Diary Of Millennium Dome's commentators totally should be able to express their opinions on this!

Tat said...

Pirate copies of books were all the rage back in the 1590s: you'd get people doing cash-in sequels to 'Don Quixote' (so many that Cervantez came out of retirement to write a real one where the Sad-Countenanced one and Sancho keep meeting people who think he did all sorts of weird things he didn't), unofficial continuations of Hypnerotomachia Polyphilii (without the nice lettering and with inferior pics) and no end of bootlegs of hit plays - that's why the First Folio of Shakespeare was posthumous, because Burbage could't afford to have knock-offs in production). The steps outside St Paul's Cathedral was the textual equivalent of those pubs and precincts with people flogging hand-made DVDs of current hit films.
In fact Hypneroromachia Polyphilii (go on, say it out loud three times... doesn't that feel better?) was the start of printing houses developing their own typefaces as an ad hoc copyright measure.
Compared to this, the idea that the SadPad (I'm going to nick that) needs the equivalent of Joseph Smith's Magic Goggles to read it is rather quaint. It's almost as if someone who believes that the neurological 'pact' we make with printed text is different from that with screen-skimming, who has reason for the second-hand book trade to continue for at least a few more decades who has a few books out there on the market and who refuses to read off an Etch-a-Sketch or endorse any form of literacy that requires a power-source other than basic lighting has been sending hypnotic signals to Steve Jobs, Master Gideon and the designers at Amazon to sabotage these toys and force people to admit the superiority of recyclable dead-tree technology that allows everyone to play regardless of income or computer ownership.
Of course, if you ask me outright I'd ddeny it...

Jane said...

Hi from a Liberal-Democrat in Canada.

I have a Kindle on order, which I'm buying primarily for use when I'm travelling.

You can download a Kindle app for ipods and PCs. However, it is not compatible with Linux Open Source. This is annoying because Amazon use other Open Source technology on their site. My other beef over the format is that having registered with here in Canada, I won't be able to buy from the shop -- so for example I won't be able to take out a subscription to Liberal Democrat Voice.

However, it is a lot cheaper than an ipod, and I like the fact that I will be able to download new books while I'm travelling.