Comcast_service_vanWhat if Comcast couldn’t gouge you for your cable box—because companies like Roku could also build them?

Think of it. One gadget for cable- and Net-based video. Nicer interface. And you and others save billions over the years.

Props to the Federal Communications Commission, then, for a 3-2 vote in favor of separating hardware from content even though a long comment period and another vote are still ahead. Here’s to competition! It certainly has worked out for cable modems.

So now the natural question. Why can’t we use one E Ink device or another dedicated reader to enjoy e-books from Amazon, B&N and other major suppliers of content? Employ open standards here, too, to break the Comcast-style connections between hardware and content. And no hacks required, please. No special apps, either. Just choose the bookstore and download. Legally require common formats such as ePub and PDF for at least text-heavy books right now. And look ahead to when e-paper devices can gracefully handle multimedia.

Encourage use of device-independent social DRM for publishers who insist on “protection.” Mandate a common DRM for publishers foolish enough to insist on an encryption-based approach. Allow exceptions in certain cases, but be rigorous in the case of the usual trade books.

I don’t see the FCC as now having the authority to require the above, but I certainly would welcome measures from somewhere against the current Tower of eBabel, under which customers and publishers suffer.

Doubt the need? Well, consider that Amazon dominates trade e-books with the Kindle format, and at the same time it gives you limited display options. Want to read all-text bold, my hope? Forget it. Want text to speech? Even if a publisher would like you to have it, you can’t enjoy TTS on a recent E Ink Kindle. The same is true for B&N’s E Ink Nooks. Moreover a rumor is circulating that B&N may kill off the Nook in the U.K., and if that happens, might the same then ensue in the States?

Admit it. The choice of e-readers for domestic buyers is pretty pathetic. And just as Comcast has a lock on the U.S. cable TV market, despite the existence of competitors such as Time Warner, so does Amazon have a lock on trade e-books. Worsening the situation is Amazon’s desire to lock up exclusives with publishers. So, so cable-TV-like.

Of course, I won’t close the door on the possibility that even now, under anti-trust law, the Justice Department could take action to loosen the connection between hardware, format and content in Amazon’s case. I don’t know. I’m just saying this is worthy of examination.

The status quo, in terms of e-book hardware options, is harmful to consumers. While many if most Kindle owners are delighted with their purchases, this is not that meaningful in the long run. Most just have not have been exposed to better alternatives, such as Moon+ Reader Pro, which unfortunately, for Tower of eBabel reasons, cannot read DRMed Amazon books. The result? Harm to consumers. That criterion, if officially found applicable, might someday make Amazon more vulnerable to antitrust measures through existing or future laws.

For now, I’m reminded of poor kids growing up eating nothing but junk food from MacDonald’s, because it’s cheap and convenient. And, yes, like junk food, E Ink Kindles prevent many students from reaching their full potential. The Kindle E Ink hardware itself is great, but thanks to crappy software, the reason the Kindles lack options such as all-text bold, kids can’t optimize their view of the text. That harms comprehension. Yes, it might take a while for the K-12 to master all the features. But should we limit their potential? That’s what Kindle e-reading software does with its limited feature set.

At the same time, Amazon and the National PTA have cozied up to make the Kindle “the Official e-Reader” of the latter. Amazon wants to be the reader, and to a great extent, it has succeeded. That is exactly why we need corrective legislation or other measures of one kind or another.

Yes, remedies could also cover apps, given that actual dedicated e-readers are not main show. Of course, you can run different apps on the same hardware. So the focus would be different—on function. Right now—no matter what hardware platform you use—you’re still can’t legally read DRMed Kindle books in all-bold unless the publisher has formatted them that way. The DMCA prevents the typical user from breaking the DRM, then running the text through Calibre or similar software to get bold. That’s just one example of the current mess. So, yes, let’s also look ahead to laws to require e-reading apps from major vendors to be far more accessible and otherwise functional than they are now.

In time, I’d hope that publishers would join me in pushing for legal and legislative remedies to help decouple content from hardware and also require more functional apps. Yes, publishers have hobbled e-books with price increases to protect their legacy investments in paper books. So who says they’ll care as much as they could about making e-books more consumer friendly? No here-and-now miracles expected. Still, maybe some of the more enlightened houses will change their minds if they understand that the real issue is not paper vs. e-books. It’s books of all kinds vs. other forms of entertainment, and so far the books are losing. Open standards for dedicated e-readers and functionality requirements for e-reading apps from major companies could help.

Image credit: Here.




  1. I agree that all the problems you’ve listed are real problems and I’d love to see solutions but ebooks are still new and evolving quickly and legislating how the publishers and sellers do things doesn’t seem like a good answer at the present time. The problems are small ones, not big ones, and things are changing quickly enough that they might be solved in some way without legislation.

    Yes, call for these changes! Be noisy about it! But we don’t need to force publishers and sellers at gunpoint. Let them figure it out. In the meantime we’ve got it pretty good and getting better. Making laws to regulate things like this is more likely to slow down progress than encourage it.

    I’ve been experimenting with reading on my phone for the last few weeks. It’s taken a while to learn how to avoid eyestrain but I’ve been able to do that. And, using Moon+ I have all bold text if I want it. I can scroll instead of page, which makes it much nicer, I think. I can fine tune my fonts to a far greater extent than I can on my Kobo.

    The changes I’ve had to make in my reading habits to accommodate the LCD have turned out to be positive changes. Now, instead of reading for an hour or two at a time, I read for 15 or 20 minutes and stop for a minute or two to think about what I’m reading. Then I go back to the book and read some more. As long as I do that, no eye strain. And I find I get more from the book as well.

    I buy all my books from Amazon and no, the DMCA doesn’t prevent me from moving them into Moon+. I bought the books. I don’t have any government officials standing over my shoulders. Even if I did, I bought the books. I don’t distribute any converted books. I just make it easy to carry them in my pocket and read them in an app that’s better than the Kindle app.

    I suspect that even Jeff Bezos, if he was watching me, would ignore what I was doing. In fact at one point I called Amazon support and asked them about it because I depend on Amazon and I wouldn’t want to get in trouble with them.n I talked to a support guy who called me back after asking around and he said no-one there had any problem with what I’m doing.

    The instructions for doing what I’m doing are readily available with a google search. They’re all over the internet. They’re very simple to do and pretty much anyone, tech savvy or not, can do them. Problem solved.

    Also there are now e-ink readers that let you do the same thing. Energy Systems just came out with 3 new models and they already have some older models of e-ink Android devices designed with ereading in mind. They come with Google Play installed. There are several other makers of similar devices as well. They’re expensive but so would Kindles be expensive if they weren’t being subsidized by book sales.


  2. @Barry: Congrats on the progress you’ve made with Moon+ Reader Pro, and thanks for your thoughtful comments. Six points:

    First, even though DRM stripping is easy for you, not everyone will have the technical skills and hardware handy.

    Second, if Amazon is so comfortable about the removal of DRM for noninfringing purposes, it would do well to say so. Even better, it should lobby against the overreach of the anticircumvention part of the DMCA.

    Third, we never know about Amazon. Remember the 1984 zapping?

    Fourth, we’re supposed to be a nation of laws. Why should we have to violate them to enjoy easy access to the books we’ve paid for?

    Fifth, even though Kindle alternatives are available, they can’t read your existing DRMed Kindle books without your going to the bother of stripping (and maybe format conversation earlier).

    Sixth, Amazon dominates its markets so much that even without proprietary formats and proprietary DRM, it would still make sense for the company to use content to subsidize the hardware used to read it.