The UK-based startup known as ValoBox has been in business for a little over a month now—it launched just a few days before Halloween of this year. To explain the basics of the company’s business model in layman’s terms, it essentially offers two different digital reading services that seem fairly compelling, at least at first glance:

It sells e-books on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ system, allowing readers to purchase, say, a single page or a single chapter of a book. And it makes those books available to read via a Web browser on your computer, your tablet, your smartphone … anything with a browser, really. It’s a model that Oliver Brooks, who co-founded ValoBox along with Anna Lewis, refers to as “buy once, sync anywhere.”

But for those of us who are more than a little bit rusty on our binary interfaces and our procedural languages, the actual specifics of how the ValoBox system operates is more than a little bit confusing.

ValoBox’s Oliver Brooks

And that’s exactly why I was so pleased to see that Brooks has just penned an explanatory article about the company for O’Reilly’s Tools of Change blog. Fair warning: Brooks’ post is rather technical and complicated in its own right. But for anyone who’s genuinely interested in potential solutions to the most frustrating issue currently being faced by the e-book industry—the fact “that the paid content ecosystem is getting very fragmented,” as Brooks writes—I’d recommend giving it a look.

According to Brooks, one possible solution to the annoyance of today’s multi-ecosystem’ed e-book universe might be the creation of an API, or an ‘application programming interface.’ In short, here’s his idea:

I think a strong case can be made to create an API to enable content services to share a user’s purchase information. Let’s call it the Open Library Standard (OLS). It would enable a user to connect their accounts on different platforms so that their purchase information could be synchronised.

ValoBox’s Anna Lewis

Again, I don’t know much of anything about programming languages or coding. But one thing I do know is the brief pinch of disappointment that hits me when I pull out my smartphone in an elevator, for instance, with the intention of wrapping up a particularly compelling chapter in a book I’m reading … and then realizing the book is still stuck in my laptop at home, or in my Calibre library. If I had the ability to access any book from any ecosystem on (nearly) any platform, that sort of thing probably wouldn’t happen too often.

Of course, ValoBox has any number of limitations, and one heck of a steep mountain to climb before it even comes close to reaching the pinnacle of its biggest goals. (As Brooks himself is quick to admit, for instance, this isn’t a ship that Amazon is going to be jumping on anytime soon.) For the time being, though, I’m simply curious to know how realistic a ‘buy once, sync anywhere’ scenario really is.

So here’s my question for those of you who understand the power of computing better than I do: Not taking into account the various weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the cloud, which is where the ValoBox inventory is stored,  how strong do you think the chances are of a system like this being instituted on a major scale anytime soon?

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  1. The licensing problems are the biggest obstacle. The technical issues are relatively simple. Once you have a public or shared API (essentially a tool which gives your hardware/software the same point of view), and an open standard (so you’re speaking the same language), it’s simply a matter of coordinating and managing the data.

    You could do the whole damn thing via HTTPS and HTML5, with a MySQL backend.

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