image Tim O’Reilly is a publisher and web entrepreneur who has proved himself in both worlds, and I always admire his dead-on observations of Web technology and its possibilities for entrepreneurship. Before this last Web 2.0 Expo, he did some nice checks and balances on the hype. It’s always bittersweet to have someone reminding us that we have a long way to go. As an entrepreneur, this is the constant joy and lament.

In the interest of getting past both hype and disdain, we should all take a minute to speculate about what Web 2.0 means for books.

Some might say we missed the boat, but let’s be more hopeful than that. And set aside, for a moment, privacy concerns. Those revolve around critical issues, but they require sustained metaphysical wrangling, and for our purposes, as representatives of the big medium which definitely missed the 7:32 express, it’s better to learn something from the innovation that has already taken place. As O’Reilly wisely points out, we’re not at 3.0 yet.

Looking past the “distractions” issue

How about the “interruptions” and “distractions” that Web 2.0 supposedly brings to books: advertising, twitters, chat, graffiti, or other 2.0 trappings? These things are actually part of the hype, and therefore also objects of disdain. We need to look past both.

The book/screen device/laptop convergence is an imminent catalyst. We need to realize that first. And the Kindle embodies the first major dilemma on the path to the really big changes. Will locked-down architecture and content be the industry standard, or will there be a Book 2.0 approach to things? For most book-lovers, both of these choices are reprehensible, yet one must be chosen.

Apple to break into E?

Don’t equate the Kindle with other e-book devices. The Kindle is a product of a company which came into the world proclaiming “Earth’s Biggest” Web catalog. This device comes to us from a Web company, founded on Web technologies, fed by Web communities and Web shoppers. There’s no doubt Kindle is going to evolve faster than those jellyfish from hardware manufacturers with relatively undeveloped Web properties. For Amazon to step into the hardware space is huge–so huge that I don’t need to spend many more keystrokes on it. The next huge thing would be for Apple to step into the e-book space, something more imaginable now, given Amazon’s monopolistic decrees to publishers and Apple’s good relationships with content distributors. The arena for the big battle will be the Web.

And while much of what we think of as Web right now consists of so-called “social networks,” many of which may seem to have nothing to do with books (or when they do, nothing to do with the actual texts of the books), the core innovations of these properties can still be applied to our own enterprises. And being at the back of the pack, we have the advantage of foresight for the pitfalls.

Here’s a brief map of where “Web 2.0” is taking us:

  • E-book devices will be web-enabled. They’ll be using modern browser engines, like Webkit. They will be open, so that book authors and vendors can reach people the way they want to. They will be on-line as much as we need them to be. They will function offline, even when accessing web content. They will, by default, offer access to the whole Web, not just one vendor’s content.

  • PDF and other fixed-layout formats will lose consumers. Users will forgive layout inconsistencies and quirks in favor of the reflowable format of the Web. The concept of “page” will universally translate to the more abstract “screen.” Printability will be less desirable than portability. Ultimately, we’ll see better typesetting in reflowable formats than we currently get in the average paperback.
  • Scripting will allow pluggable books. Security sandboxes will be important, browser or otherwise. APIs will enable new forms of content and layout, not just animation and interaction. Book authors will have direct access to readers, if they want it. The sooner we experiment with this proposition, the sooner we’ll get past all the obvious abuses.

It’s been said before on TeleRead: we should be worried about the power of Amazon. The rise and growth of “Web 2.0” networks like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter didn’t happen because large companies decided to perpetuate locked-down platforms and formats. These started out small and grew through cooperation. From the very start, these networks have invited developers by creating documentation and APIs on top of the same technologies that caused the Web to boom in the first place.

Amazon to dictate tech

We have to assume Amazon knows this and is simply ignoring it because it’s more to their advantage, as a behemoth. Don’t worry, they’ll still be consumer-centric, they always will. But they’ll dictate the technology, and the technology will shape what consumers expect.

The Amazon gorilla also raises new concerns about the specifications for the proposed digital book standard format, ePub. The IDPF‘s position on these is important because it harbors its own gorillas. Adobe, whose simian help has become somewhat suspect, has already taken the kinds of liberties the IDPF specs are supposed to discourage. The IDPF must take a position more aligned with what authors, consumers and developers want, or face Amazon somewhere down the road.

Needed: More cluefulness from the IDPF on the needs of the online world

On-line books are going to evolve, with or without guidance from a body like the IDPF. Eventually the book industry, already far behind, will adapt to what the on-line world is doing, not the other way around. The IDPF should try to avoid this scenario. Amazon is already coaching writers and independent publishers as to how to create AZW books for the Kindle platform. Google is dumping hybrid HTML/PDFs on the Web every hour and calling them books. Hardware keeps demanding more formats, and websites are complying. Unless the IDPF can leverage the Web, they won’t see any real momentum for ePub. Amazon, on the other hand, has made it clear it intends to run the show.


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