Are Amazon indirectly solving the format problem?

There are two ways to look at the eReaders, eBooks, and formats situation -

  1. Kindle has its own proprietary format, Apple and B&N add on their own custom DRM to ePub, Sony uses DRMed ePub that any Adobe DRM supporting device can access, libraries use DRMed ePub that also any Adobe DRM supporting device can access. It’s a royal mess.
  2. The Kindle platform works across the PC, the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, the Kindle (obviously), and there are rumors it will work on Linux and with new Tablets. Without much ado the kindle format has come close to being a universal format.

The latter is closer to solving the formats problem than the former – What’s the point of ePub if every company adds its own DRM on top of it and makes it unable to work on other ePub devices?

The Formats Problem is different from the Openness Problem

The first thing to do is separate ideology from practicality -

  1. Ideology says we need an open format that has no restrictions and works across all devices.
  2. Practicality says we need a format that works across all devices.

Ideology might never win out because Publishers and Established Authors are reluctant to leave themselves at the mercy of the anonymous crowds.

Look at the much-promised openness of ePub – It doesn’t exist. B&N, Apple, Sony, and libraries are all using DRM so it’s hardly open. Plus Apple and B&N are using custom DRM (in the case of B&N a special password) that renders their ebooks unusable on each other’s and Sony’s devices.

Ideology is dangerous because it’s always a weapon used by a smarter company (or a ruthless one) to exploit naive people and naive companies.

People are more concerned about easy and universal access to their books

People don’t care whether it’s one leading company that dominates ebooks or whether it’s a group of companies that have banded around an ‘open’ format.

Their concerns are -

  1. Will we be able to read these books across all our devices?
  2. Will we always have access to these books?
  3. Will it be easy to access these books from anywhere?
  4. Will all the books we want to read be available for our devices?

Format is an unknown to users – they only think in terms of books, reading, and reading devices.

They don’t really care about whether it is a .doc or a .pdf or a .azw at the end of the files. Perhaps they wouldn’t even want to know about these extensions and formats – It’s just text after all.

 One Format to rule them all

What’s the solution to the Formats Problem?

A single format winning out so that users never have to worry about losing their books or getting restricted to reading on just one device.

It doesn’t say anything about a non-profit winning out or a standards group deciding the format or no company making money from the format (and to be fair Adobe probably does make money from ePub). It also doesn’t say anything about political correctness or pretending to be altruistic or hating DRM or being in love with openness.

A closed format becoming the dominant format is also a solution to the formats problem.

For ebooks to move forward and evolve it helps if there is one format that is prevalent. That’s basic reality. Claiming that the winning format has to be free of DRM or be ‘open’ is just ideology. All we need is for one format to rule them all and we’ve solved the Formats problem.

Amazon have approached the format problem from the ‘across all devices’ angle

While some people are worrying about the formats issue and trying to get all the different ebook stores to use the same format (a ‘same format across all ebook stores’ approach) Amazon have figured out an alternate solution -

  1. Build the biggest ebook store.
  2. Sell at the lowest prices (at least for Publishers who don’t start price-fixing their books).
  3. Get your ebooks on to all possible reading devices – we mean all types of devices people would read on and not necessarily every single device.

At the point that you have your ebooks on all (or even most) reading devices you have a universal format. You’ve solved the problem in a completely different way.

It’s deliciously intelligent strategy since the ‘open’ platforms MUST let you in while you can be closed and not let in ePub.

Amazon have managed to build a Kindle Platform that works across nearly all the major types of reading devices – the first key ingredient.

The 2nd key ingredient is winning the race

Kindle has an advantage that’s unmatched – It’s winning the race.

  • Kindle is the best-selling eReader (an assumption since we don’t have numbers).
  • Kindle for iPhone is the best-selling Books App in the iPhone App store.
  • Kindle for iPad is the 4th best-selling Books App in the iPad App Store.

There’s no easy way to say how Kindle for PC and Kindle for Mac are doing. However, we don’t know how important they are for reading – the rumors of Kindle owning 90% of ebook market share mean that if PC and Mac are doing well Amazon is probably doing well on them.

The 3rd key ingredient is making the books universal

Amazon are doing more than just paying lip service to the idea of ‘universal’ – They are using WhisperNet to synchronize ebooks across devices – bookmarks, notes, highlights, position are all saved and synced.

Meanwhile none of the other ebook stores or ereader companies have anything comparable. For them ‘universal format’ is just away to try to make up for lost time.

  1. iBooks will work only on Apple products. It doesn’t even allow notes yet. Apple does deserve a lot of credit for letting in all reading apps – even if it is fear of the FTC that motivated such generosity.
  2. B&N’s Nook doesn’t have any sharing of notes via the Cloud.   
  3. Sony’s flagship reader, the Touch, doesn’t even have wireless.

Open alliances just don’t have the vision or the resources to do things like provide WhisperSync and Free Internet. It’s a grand illusion that everything will be free and someone will volunteer – It’ll probably be a company hiding its true intentions behind a veil of altruism. 

Universal Access is more powerful than One Format

We’re at the point where having a single format that all ebook stores and reading devices use is not enough.

We could have more – the books being synced across all our devices, the ability to read on multiple devices at the same time, continuous investment in the format itself, a clear vision of how the format evolves and what it does for books, the ability to sustain a working financial model for book publishing, and a lot more.

The formats problem is being solved via a solution that works across devices and the solution attempts to address an even bigger problem – universal access to books. It’s a solution that takes all reading devices and plugs them into a giant platform – format becomes immaterial.

While people have been busy fighting wars of ideology companies have been busy building platforms. Apple’s App Store and Kindle’s Platform for all of Publishing are solving real problems while people who aren’t solving anything are debating the morality of the solutions.

If the ‘open format’ people and companies feel so strongly they are right why don’t they just build a competing platform and beat Apple and Amazon fair and square?

Are they not confident? Why do they need some bonus for being morally superior? Coding an ebook platform and running it couldn’t be that much more difficult than endless posturing and pretending to be self-sacrificing.

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