Gear Diary blogger Douglas Moran has an entertaining and extremely true rant on one of the big problems with the commercial e-book world these days—the proliferation of differing formats, each of which requires its own reader application. On TeleRead, we call this problem the “Tower of E-Babel”, but Moran just calls it extremely irritating.

Moran looks at the old Barnes & Noble e-book reader application, based on Fictionwise’s eReader. All in all, he writes, it was a very good application, and did everything he wanted it to. Then B&N essentially abandoned it in favor of their much-less-functional Nook application, which wastes screen space, lacks the in-app Wikipedia access of the old one, and won’t allow side-loading existing eReader-format books.

He has some harsh words for interface decisions in iBooks, too, such as the way the bookshelf format makes books a bit hard to find.

What’s the solution? Frankly, I want one app that lets me read all my books, no matter what the app. I am sick to death of trying to guess which app is going to be the best one to stick with, and even sicker of trying to remember which app I have a particular book in. I mean, I have 15 readers loaded onto my iPhone right now. 15. That’s ridiculous. I’ve tried to keep the number I actually use down to 3 or 4, but it’s hard. And how do you count them? Does Instapaper count? How about the New York Times iPhone app? The Elements app? Various comic book readers? Zinio? The various “Vooks”? It’s a nightmare.

Of course, he understands the source of the problem: the competing DRM formats that the different e-book stores use to promote customer lock-in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that this problem will be solved any time soon (until and unless it becomes legal to strip DRM and convert your e-books into a single format you can use with just one reader, at least).

It’s such a ridiculous problem, and while it may not be crippling the sales of any particular e-book store, I can’t help feeling that it’s holding the market back, myself. Imagine how it would have affected the print publishing world if you could only put any given publisher’s books in a specific kind of bookshelf.

Hey, publishers, you don’t want Amazon’s Kindle taking over the world? How about concentrating a little less on cross-vendor price parity and a little more on cross-vendor book compatibility? Amazon would lose a lot less of its competitive advantage if you could buy an e-book once and read it anywhere.

And you know what the easiest way to do that would be? Stop using DRM. The DRM that keeps your books from being “stolen” also lets Amazon remain on top of the market, by making sure that readers can’t take Amazon books elsewhere, and can’t bring books from elsewhere to their Kindle.

Of course, that’s probably never going to happen, in the current climate. And so the Tower of E-Babel continues to climb.


  1. Realistically, you’re blaming the wrong people. You want to know why organizations like IDPF, W3C, etc. haven’t tried to come up with a common format for digital content? Something like a light DRM wrapper?

    Patents, patents, patents.

    The IDPF has tried to address this issue again and again over the last twelve years. And every time, it’s tripped up by the various DRM patent holders, and the horrific complexities involved in dealing with them.

    Now, if you want a DRMless format? ePub can be read by nearly every device and software for ereading out there.

  2. “light DRM wrapper”

    That mentality is the problem. There’s no such thing.

    At best, DRM could be an official “standard” with widespread support among the current generation of devices and inoffensive conditions within that ecosystem. It can never be an open standard.

    You _can_ support enough uses cases to become “invisible” — backup, disaster recovery, access through any web-connected device — if you thread this standard DRM through the entire computing infrastructure. But then the key-holders effectively become global information gatekeepers, a level of control that is anything but light.

    Or you can run a simple industry scheme with a constrained scope, which offers some choice but is incompatible with those of other industries and more general-purpose information technology. These constraints are what causes grief with “heavy” DRM.

    And this is assuming “inoffensive conditions”. Do you actually realize how much that implies? To start with, all the copyright holders granting the key-holders a license to _change_ and override the conditions in order to maintain value and consistency.

    That’s control over both sides, readers and publishers. Of course companies such as Adobe fight to maintain their current share of that valuable power! But if that prevents “progress” towards consolidation of power into a single body, I’d call that a good thing.

    _A strange game. The only winning move is not to play._

    Don’t spend time and money on impossible enforcement technology that assumes an impossibly benevolent monopoly. Spend time and money on working to _sell books_. Competition from ebooks is a signal to work on selling _e_books.

    Concerns about consumer behaviour are understandable. Making virtue easy may not be quite enough. Explicit education (“propaganda”) may also be necessary. But if you want those message to take root, you need public sympathy. Bad feeling built up by direct and indirect consequences of pessimistic approaches like DRM will kill that sympathy stone dead.

  3. Convert, convert, convert! You have bought a book, not a licence: you have the right to convert that book to whatever form is most convenient for you. I convert everything to either plain text or (very rarely) HTML. I use one reader (Mobipocket) on a five-year-old iPaq PDA I bought second-hand for $80. And if all the publishers in the world go broke tomorrow, I still have my books. Problems solved!

  4. Jon: Aren’t you being a little disingenuous? Thanks to the DMCA, it’s illegal to convert within the USA, where the DRM-ridden e-books that the article is talking about are concerned. (Of course, it’s a law that, like the speed limit, people who don’t care routinely ignore, but it’s still there.)

    And according to the e-book sellers, you have bought a license. Not that I would agree, but it’s how they see it.

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