valve_head2 Today Valve Software officially announced that its Steam digital game distribution platform will be coming to the Macintosh in April. But they are not stopping there. Macintosh owners who have already purchased the PC version of compatible Valve games (those built on the Source engine, such as Half-Life 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead) will get the Macintosh version free. (And this will continue into the future, too: buying a new game will get you both versions from now on.)

Imagine if buying the Kindle version of an e-book bought you the eReader version, too for one price—and Mobipocket, EPUB, and PDF versions as well. Baen does something like this, of course—when you buy a Webscription e-book, you get it in all formats they offer, and can redownload it whenever you need to—and Fictionwise does the same thing for its DRM-free “multiformat” books.

But as Steve Pendergrast has said, publishers regard each e-book format as a separate “edition”—so if you buy a DRM-locked title from Fictionwise, you must choose which format you want at time of purchase—and if you buy a Mobipocket book but later decide you need it in eReader, your only choice is to buy it again.

This “Tower of e-Babel” makes it terribly difficult to future-proof your purchases. If the next reader you buy does not read the format of your existing library, your only option is generally to crack the DRM and convert your library to a new format.

Of course, Amazon and other big companies are banking on this, trying to lock customers into their own formats so they have less choice when it comes time to upgrade. This is one of several factors that may be holding the e-book market back.

The sooner publishers get a clue and start letting us buy the book in a way that will let us use it in all devices we own, the better. At least Valve is going to let us do that for its games.


  1. Some publishers already do that. When you buy an e-book from Pragmatic Bookshelf (, a small publisher of computer books, you can download it in pdf, mobi, or epub formats or in all three. I generally do the latter so I can be covered for future reader purchases. Not only that, the publisher uses only social DRM by incorporating your name unobtrusively into the book and its metadata. I really hope this practice spreads.

  2. As GJN says, some pubs do this. Samhain does it through their store (My Bookstore and More) and of course Baen (and other pubs) do it through Webscriptions. Those pubs of course don’t use DRM anyway so their titles could be converted if need be without breaking DRM or anything. It would be nice if the big pubs would do this, but it would likely only happen if they actually setup their own stores (not the stores they have now which are mostly run through third party distros).

  3. Chris, Valve is still charging for the games. They just added the option of playing on OSX, and gave it away to everyone who already bought a game.

    This has already happened in ebooks. I can’t think of one major reader app that isn’t free and cross platform.

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