Tim O'Reilly: Kindle needs open ePub-style standard to survive

image "Unless Amazon embraces open e-book standards like 'epub,' which allow readers to read books on a variety of devices, the Kindle will be gone within two or three years." - Tim O'Reily in Why Kindle should be an open book, in Forbes.

The TeleRead take: It's hard to tell how things will shake out, but Tim persuasively summons up a little history---Microsoft's failed attempt with the Microsoft Network publishing platform. By contrast, O'Reilly got on the Web early with the Global Net Navigator and in time was well rewarded for the experience it gained with an open approach.

image The point is, closed standards are a pain in the rear for e-book-lovers and other users who inevitably will want hardware or content that isn't compatible with MegaCorp's system. This disillusionment is a little akin to decaying Web links. At first, people buy into Mega's plans and think that its  proprietary product line will endure forever. Only later do the hassles emerge.

E-book lessons from Oprah's past

image Remember how Oprah touted Gemstar e-book readers some years ago? But then consumers rebelled against a limited choice of books. Even now, following her backing of the Kindle, Oprah fans are finding that many O-blessed books are missing. Last I knew, she wasn't doing a K version of her O magazine. Her fans may also have been put off by the complexities of the technology, to which proprietary formats can add.

While Jeff Bezos can talk of offering every book in E, he's jeopardizing his own version by aiming for exclusives. What happens when other giants step in and start bidding wars---not just for temporary exclusivity but in time for the permanent variety?

The score that really counts in book-selling

More importantly, Jeff should also remember that the most meaningful score in the book-selling isn't market share but healthy growth of earnings. Closed standards like the Kindle's will slow down the rate of e-book adoption, as people find that his supposedly universal solution isn't one at all.

What’s more, with Kindle-type DRM, all kinds of nasty issues emerge, such as the inability of readers to own their books for real. Jeff was smart enough to set up a music store without DRM. He should consider the the same for e-books, using social DRM, if need be, in place of "real" DRM. Publishers could still have the option of using DRM, but I suspect that market pressures would encourage back off from this consumer nightmare. DRM is especially nasty in that it turns nonproprietary e-formats into proprietary ones.

(Via Electric Book on Twitter.)

16 Comments on Tim O'Reilly: Kindle needs open ePub-style standard to survive

  1. Tim O’Reilly seems to be missing the point that Amazon does NOT sell e-books. It sells Kindle-books. And this is a big difference.

    The real problem of the e-book industry is a lot of e-book formats, devices and incompatibilities which means confusion to the prospects. If a customer is given a too big number of choices then s/he’ll not make a decision, i.e. won’t buy.

    E-book can be defined as a device, a file, a program, or a function of a PDA device. That’s confusing.

    Kindle makes you buy just in their store which means no confusion (because of no choice.) There’s no confusion as to what Kindle really is.

    My point is: minimal choice as to what format I can choose, where I’m supposed to buy and a clear definition of what a Kindle is — it all makes Amazon’s product a success.

    Adding another format like EPUB or changing their current one to EPUB would only confuse their customers and prospects and CONFUSION = LESS SALES.

    I can’t see Kindle adding EPUB or open their store for other devices.

  2. But Rafal, ePub is a standard. That’s the point. Why confuse customers with all those proprietary formats–including the Kindle’s? When making choices, shoppers should be able to focus on the content rather than the format. Thanks. David

  3. Is it really a standard? Take a look at all the ebook stores that implemented ePUB. What do you see? Did they exchange ANY other format for ePUB? No, they all added ANOTHER one to they offer making people even more confused (excepted us, the geeks.)

    (I’m not saying that ePUB is a bad idea, it’s just something that will take years to adapt.)

    Do Kindle users have any problem with formats? No, because they have just one store where they can buy the Kindle-books.

    So why should they introduce another format when they don’t even take part in the “formats war?”

    Introducing ePUB would open their device to many more stores. Why would they want to do that? I believe Kindle has the best prices and choice anyway. All they would gain is confusion amongst their customers.

    Paraphrasing one of O’Reilly’s previous articles: Having ePUB supported doesn’t mean any more books read (or sold.)

  4. Rafal, the IDPF includes the major publishing conglomerates among its members. Hachette, S&S, etc., have settled on ePub as a distribution format, and use of it as a consumer format only makes sense.

    As for Kindle owners and the format wars, the owners will be civilian casualties. I’d advise people to speak up.

    Increase in the number of stores? Good for consumers! And if Amazon is competitive, it’ll still do fine–since the standard format will expand the size of the pie.

    > Paraphrasing one of O’Reilly’s previous articles: Having ePUB supported doesn’t mean any more books read (or sold.)

    What’s your citation on that? In any event, it only makes sense that a standard format, by simplifying matters for consumers, would expand the size of the e-book market and probaby the book market period. Remember, e-books are available, via the Net, in places that are many miles from libraries and bookstores.


  5. Is increasing the number of stores supported by Kindle really good for its customers? As I’ve said before Kindle has the best prices and the greatest selection of books. What’s the point apart from confusing people? (I feel I’m overusing the word.;-)

    Compare prices at Mobipocket/Fictionwise/Ebooks.com etc. with Kindle Store. Do they offer any better prices?

    My point is that Kindle has already a “standard” format and doesn’t need to get a new one.

    Out of probably 1 000 000 dedicated e-readers out there 30-40% of them are Kindle.

    Instead of only standardizing software or formats Kindle is “standardizing” hardware as well and that’s good for the industry.

    It’s the diversity of devices, formats and definitions of what an e-book is that kills the industry. Kindle tries, quite successfully, to simplify everything. One store and one device.

    Instead of trying to fix something that’s not broken, the ebook industry should understand what makes Kindle successful and try to imitate it.

  6. As for O’Reilly’s article I’m refering to — it’s “Bad Math Among eBook Enthusiasts” from over a year ago. His point was “having more books available more cheaply doesn’t mean any more books read.” And I agree with him, partially.

  7. Well, from the point of view of Amazon.com, sure, restricting the Kindle to buying only from Amazon is good for Amazon’s business. The Kindle is the razor, and they’re trying to make more money on the blades.

    This is why the Kindle can’t even read other stores’ DRM-locked books formatted in its own native MobiPocket—even if those books are locked to the Kindle’s serial number/device ID. Amazon intentionally broke the format compatibility so that you have to run the Mobi book through a converter script before you can put it on the Kindle. (If you’re going to do that, you might as well just deDRM it and be done.)

    From the point of view of a consumer, more freedom of choice is always a good thing. Nothing says that consumers have to buy from other stores. I generally buy from plain-vanilla Fictionwise even though I know I could also load books from Stanza’s Fictionwise, or eReader, or BooksOnBoard, or other e-book sellers. I like Fictionwise’s discount program best.

    And nothing says that Amazon will always have the lowest e-book prices. It could very well be that after they’ve gotten as many people hooked on the Kindle (and the mobile Kindle Reader app, if and when it ever comes out) as they can, they’ll start charging higher prices again.

  8. O’Reilly seems to be making a huge, huge mistake.

    The Kindle supports open e-book standards.

    It supports text directly. Is there any better, more universal, open standard than plain text for ebooks? I can’t think of one.

    It also supports html, pdf, microsoft word, rtf and other standards via conversion through Amazon’s servers.

    But to say ‘the Kindle does not support open ebook standards’ because it does not support a single, solitary open standard, is rather like saying ‘the iPod does not support open audio standards’ because it won’t play .wav files! (And we all know that the iPod is dying, just dying, because we can’t play .wav files on it, nor .ogg files, nor .flac files – don’t we?)

    And since epub is based on xhtml, wouldn’t it be trivial to convert an epub file to html for conversion to the Kindle? Oh, perhaps I misunderstood; perhaps by ‘open e-book standard’ Mr O’Reilly really meant ‘my DRM-encrusted offerings’?

  9. O’Reilly doesn’t use DRM. Heck, you can extract the full ePub version of the iPhone Missing Manual from the iPhone app and they’re fine with that.

  10. It also supports html, pdf, microsoft word, rtf and other standards via conversion through Amazon’s servers.

    That’s not how most people define “support.” By your own argument, the iPod “supports” WAV because WAV can be converted to MP3.

    The Kindle will support ePub when I can navigate to an ePub file on the Kindle’s web browser, or in the Kindle store, select an ePub, and immediately read it on the device.

  11. S-books (screen books) separate the content from the device. That is one difference from the p-book. Another is that they separate the content from the device absolutely when they turn-off or switch titles or hand-off formats.

    These are not easily assimilated features in a context of sustainable learning where single titles must be engaged across a library of works. It is also a cost factor since delivery and display must be purchased separately.

  12. Living in the Netherlands, the new Kindle international edition really is a offer worth to consider. However, although I read many books in English, I read Dutch books as well. The largest Online Dutch bookstore only supports ePub. So, what to do, go for the Kindle and ignore a large set of Dutch books or buy a Sony and have no access to Kindle books?!?

    If Amazon would accept a perfectly legally owned ePub book and convert it to Kindle, it would be worth the effort. However, since I have no desire to search for a tool created to do some (il)legal conversion I am now more or less stuck in the middle and waiting for my local store to expand its collections over the months to come.

    Bottom-line, for international users, Kindle has a severe drawback of lack of local language titles, but, I would be very happy to be proven wrong since I really like the Kindle concept.

  13. Don McIntosh // June 1, 2010 at 6:35 pm //

    I have the same issue as Ge Gaal here in Australia. There are a variety of sources that support epub, including out-of-copyright books from Google, and Borders Online books, and only one place to go if you have the Kindle. Also, the charge for transferring books or your own documents over the 3G network is over 6 times what it is in the US per MB (0.99 vs 0.15). Ereaders are great – more useful to me than an ipad, but I don’t want to buy a device that locks me to one place to purchase all my ebooks.

  14. SmileySince1993 // August 16, 2010 at 9:54 am //

    In Norway, where I live, we also have this problem.
    Just as Ge Gaal, we have a lot of local sources in Norwegian, only publishing in Norwegian, including libraries. (Libraries lend to you for 4 weeks, and then your _lend_ DRM-copy expires, thus gets unreadable.)
    Norwegian writers, published only in Norwegian is not available through Amazon.
    I considered the Kindle, until I found it was unable to do native support of ePub-format, as this is the one all libraries use here(with DRM, though. :-/)
    @Rafal: You talk like an Amazon employee, a naive one!
    They can leave the Kindle as it is, and ADD native support for ePub and PDF, with or without DRM, no restrictions. (Probably they should add support for a couple of more formats widely used, like mobi with DRM.)
    If they did this little trick, they would wipe the floor with all other competitors in the eReader-business.
    (This would also benefit their position for the Kindle-store, right? :-) )
    If your claim is right, that Amazon is cheapest anyway, they would have no risk in doing this.
    I will not dig further into the probability that they aim to squeeze other book stores out of business by having this strategy.
    This would hardly be a benefit for Amazon-customers in the long run.

    And at least : If they want to do it simple for the user, why do they introduce a new format, instead of using an widely used existing standard? Everytime a large Corp. does this confusion for customers only increase!

  15. SmileySince1993 // August 16, 2010 at 10:04 am //

    BTW! The Kindle-consept has benefits also for customers, especially for you guys living in the US, but their lock-in-strategy is a major disadvantage.
    So far this is a show stopper for buying Kindle.

    I buy books from both Amazon.com and O´Reilly.com, but due to superior eBook-strategy I have only bought eBooks from O´Reilly.com, so far.

  16. Almost three already left and Amazon continues very strong with its own format. Where was the mistake, mister?

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