Ex-eReader employee on the past and future of e-books

ebook-time-machine-2-thumb-640xauto-991 Ars Technica today has a great (and long—it goes on for seven pages) feature editorial about the past and future of e-books by Ars columnist John Siracusa. Siracusa, who took a job at the company that would eventually become eReader back when it was still called Palm Digital Media, has some fascinating insights and opinions about how e-books got started, what they are now, and what they might become. Siracusa holds several opinions about e-books that may seem controversial. For example, he feels that people still don't "get" e-books even now—which is why e-books have been so slow to catch on with consumers over the last ten to fifteen years. He also feels that baggage attached to the term "book" may be holding e-books back.

He touches upon people’s alleged unwillingness to read from screens when in fact they read from screens all the time (ground also covered by Cory Doctorow in a Locus Online article), and addresses the dichotomy of the large dedicated device vs. the small general-purpose PDA for reading. He talks about the advantages of e-books versus paper books, and compares them to other format shifts, old and new (such as vinyl to CD to mp3).

Then he addresses DRM (during which he uses an analogy that he ascribes to “a guest speaker at Microsoft”—heh, it’s Cory Doctorow again!) and makes the point that the ubiquity of e-book DRM today may be directly traced to the lessons of the music and movie industries’ experiences with peer-to-peer downloads of their files.

Publishing industry execs were so terrified by the specter of music piracy that they insisted on DRM everywhere. In one of my favorite passages, Siracusa writes:

In the case of Peanut Press, one publisher actually commissioned an expensive, defense-level security analysis of Peanut’s DRM technology. Only if it was given a passing grade would this publisher supply Peanut Press with any of its content. (It passed—with the caveat that brute-force attacks would likely become feasible in a decade or so.)

(It is, of course, now a trivial search-engine exercise to find a script that will crack eReader (nee Peanut Press)’s DRM.)

Siracusa points out how much wider the profit margin is on e-books than on paper books, given all the costs and risks associated with paper books that e-books just don’t have. Yet, with their DRM requirements, and asinine pricing requirements that peg e-book price to print-book price, and even clauses forbidding e-book vendors to fix typos, publishers have done their best to sabotage e-books from day one.

Part of the article I’m not quite clear on is where Siracusa writes about how, with the explosion of the iPod, Peanut Press wanted Apple to take advantage of it and put e-books on it. After all, up until the iPod Touch, or at least the Video iPods, the iPod never really had a screen suitable for e-book reading. Some people used Notes to do it, but from what I found when I looked at it, the text quality wasn’t even as good as a Palm’s.

But Siracusa feels that Apple ignored e-books up to this point largely because the market was miniscule compared to the music market. But he thinks that with the advent of the Kindle, this may be starting to change.

When Siracusa looks at the e-book market today, he sees history repeating itself—just as with the Palm of the Peanut Press era, a lot of people prefer to read e-books on “the device people already own.” But who will be the eventual heir to the e-book throne—Amazon, Apple, Sony, or third-party iPhone apps—still remains to be seen.

In the end, I found this a really fascinating article—one of the best e-book-related articles I have seen in some time. It led to an equally interesting discussion in the Ars forum, as well.

About Chris Meadows (4151 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

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