An Inconvenient Truth About E-books

| Particle Debris

E-books seemed awfully cool at first, especially as Apple and Amazon popularized terrific tablets and e-readers on which to read them. Plus sales of e-books are greater than paper versions now. But there are lots of gotchas, and the whole industry is basically a mess.

I’ve been thinking about this in bits and pieces, but haven’t put it all together. Here’s my central thesis:

Ebook or paper?Paper books, in some form, have been with us for thousands of years, albeit hand copied. With the advent of the Gutenberg press in the 15th century, we transitioned to type based printing presses. It’s only been in the last few years that E-books have surpassed printed books in sales volume, throwing thousands of years of human experience into something that isn’t that great — yet.

As we rush headlong into e-books, we’re not considering how our libraries will migrate forward in time, protecting personal and institutional investments. Paper books are readable by anyone who’s literate, but e-books require a reader, and DRM ensures that there will be difficulties in the future. Worse, there are several different file formats and different DRMs used by Apple, Adobe and Amazon.

While there is some cross compatibility, there is no assurance that due to technical changes, self-serving rules invoked by publishers, and the interests of middlemen like Apple that what we buy today will be usable in the future. Worse, as we buy e-books from different retailers, we fragment our collections. Some are in Kindle, some are in iBooks, and so on. Retailers want us locked in, and we want freedom.

Adding to the problem is that many paper books, when translated to digital format, lose some material, art, graphics, photos, and cover art for either the sake of expediency or technical issues related to the format and e-reader capabilities. Some customers are forced to buy history books in paper to preserve that material that is often distorted or omitted from the e-book version.

The net effect is that our collections have to be considered temporary and expendable at the whim of the retailers, and our ability to pass books on to heirs or colleagues becomes limited in a fashion that hinders human knowledge.”

David Pogue was first out of the gate this week with a detailed analysis combined with some rebuttals by readers and Mr. Pogue’s own clarifications. “How Compatible Are Rival E-Readers?”

Once again, I find myself having to conjure up a strategy to deal with the strategy of the publishers and retailers of e-books. For example, I use iBooks for lightweight reading material that I don’t think will stand the test of time. Mystery novels, politically oriented books, and how-to books that will become obsolete in time.

For more enduring material, I turn to Amazon and Kindle. Amazon will always be in the book selling business, but maybe not Apple. Plus, purchases from Amazon can be read on my Mac, iPad or a Kindle reader. For long term technical reference, I go with O’Reilly. O’Reilly has a great philosophy: no DRM. Download a book in multiple formats. Preserve it on your Mac for all time, carry it forwards. Use your favorite reader, like Calibre, for the format you chose.

Finally, if the book is very much long enduring and has complex art and photos, I’ll probably buy it in paper. For example, astronomy text books and cookbooks. Or WWII naval history (one of my interests) which tend to have a lot of historical black & white photos.

Right now, I don’t know how to deal with the mess that I’ve outlined and that Mr. Pogue elaborated on with other than a buying strategy. Perhaps, one day, when we have 15-17 inch iPads with super-resolution displays and all books are perfectly instantiated in digital format and DRM goes the way of the floppy discs that were DRM’d in the 1990s (and drove us crazy), will we have a modern approach to e-books

Tech News Debris

Traditionally, Apple suspends security updates for a version of OS X that’s two generations old. But in the case of Snow Leopard, there is still a significant fraction, perhaps over 40 percent, of users holding on to Snow Leopard for various technical reasons — including but not limited to the Rosetta PowerPC emulator. So it’ll be interesting to see if Apple continues to support SnNow Leopard security as a concession to security trumping the customary arm twist into the newest version of OS X. For more on that, see: “Half of all Macs will lack access to security updates by summer.

Snow Leopard

MasterCard is going to introduce its own digital wallet app. Once again, I suspect that customers, as with e-books, will have to develop a fragmented strategy on how and when they use these digital wallet apps. “MasterCard introduces digital wallet.” Others, who do not, will get burned, make a big fuss, and we’ll all be writing about it.

Here’s another bandwagon article on how iPads will kill notebooks. “Tablets Want To Kill Your Laptop.” I bring it up because it’s well researched, and also because I’ve noticed in that past week or so that many of my friends and acquaintances are pursuing the same optimization scheme. A desktop iMac for heavy lifting and an iPad for travel, leisure and around the house. One of the big issues is writing on an iPad.  Perhaps the Brydge and some very fine next gen apps will get us there soon.

There’s been a lot written about the Oracle vs. Google lawsuit and Google’s use of Java in Android. The best overall summary that makes sense of it is here: “Oracle v. Google: The bewildering Java trial explained.

Today starts the official TMO “7-inch iPad Watch.” With all this back chatter, we just know it’s on the way. “The Real Reasons Apple Will Ship a 7-Inch iPad.” Bottom line? Amazon found a weakness in Apple’s line up last Christmas, and now Samsung is hopping on that bandwagon, the only opening left. Apple has to slam the door shut, as they did before with their iPod strategy.

7-inch iPadArtist concept by TMO’s Jim Tanous

Time for a fun interlude.

How do you pull in US$10 million on Why, build it for mom, of course. That’s what Eric Migicovsky did with the Pebble watch.

We know that there are app alternatives via Cydia for jailbroken iPhones. So… one might ask, is there a Cydia equivalent, in a sense, for Macs? This would be for completely legit apps that can’t qualify for the Mac App Store (MAS). For example, require a password, aren’t sandboxed, etc. Well, there is, and it’s called Bodega. I bet you didn’t know about it, and neither did I. Cult of Mac raves about it here: “Meet Bodega, The Awesome Mac App Store Alternative You Didn’t Know Existed.

Like the creator of the Pebble watch (above), don’t forget your mom this weekend.


Teaser image credit: Shutterstock

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Scott B in DC

Why does everything have to be one-size-fits-all? If you’re like most of us, you have a mix of paperback, trade paperbacks, and hardback books. Then you have your CDs, DVDs, and old journals and magazines that are not all the same size. With all these different sizes, how do you stack them on the shelves?

I am using two readers on my iPad: iBooks and the Kindle apps. iBooks allows me to make categories and store different books and documents within those categories. Kindle does not, but I wish it did. I view the situation as having to look at different shelves looking for different books.

While having one “standard” would be nice, I don’t see this as a big problem as long as what I want to read is in ebook format!

John Martellaro

Scott B.  Its not the size, it’s the readability. A hundred years from now, any human, I surmise, could pick up a paper Bible and read it. But the iPads and their imprisoned ebooks will be long gone. Just like the contents of my old Newton.


It is not very likely that one standard will be forthcoming. Even if it does, the history of digital formats is that they change rather quickly. It takes planning and work just to keep access to digital files that I create for my own use. It sure would be better in some ways if this were not the case. How long will backward compatibility last just within iBooks. Will today’s eBooks open and display properly when iBooks v.10 is released? Another advantage to paper.


I think a global format that takes care of all these issues is very very important. I have moved exclusively to ebooks and do not intend to go backwards.

If industry does not solve this problem, consumers will demand that government does. And when government does, most likely neither consumers,publishers, nor authors will be happy with the outcome.

The real solution here is to get rid of DRM. It does nothing to prevent piracy and never can. No matter what scheme a company comes up with, the average person with average technology can create the first duplicate of an ebook in a matter of hours at the most and generally in a matter of seconds.

Piracy has a pretty well defined percentage in movies, music, and literature. The facts show that when companies give consumers what they want in the manner they want it piracy goes down to its “normal” percentage that includes the curious, the uber poor, and the criminal. You also have a percentage of people who just won’t put hard cash down until they have experienced the product first hand. You can claim that we have always purchased these products with these restrictions and I would reply that we have always had piracy because of it.

Right now, the majority of piracy is caused by multiple formats, geo-restrictions, and general cussedness of authors and publishers who refuse to come with the rest of us into the future.

The bottom line for authors and publishers is this. Publish your works in the formats and areas where your customers are or your potential customers will do it for you at a costs of lost sales.

Digital publishing means that the consumer does not have to wait on authors and publishers to move to the formats and technologies they already have.

Like it or not that is how it will remain. Laws will be passed by this generation and juries will eventually nullify them as well as future generations revoke them. The internet has been the single most important tool for true democracy that has happened in the history of mankind. The only thing else that would be more important would be the technological or evolutionary equivalent of telepathy which is probably not to many generations away.

These are the real “Inconvenient Truth’s” that business and society must face if we are to survive the rapid change that technology is creating on our planet. Conservatism may be an instinctive reaction to rapid change but is likely to be an evolutionary dead end for those who choose it while others are pursing the path of rapid change.

- Owner of the Electronic Books & Ereaders Blog

Lee Dronick

I am sure that someone will be archiving printed copies of ebooks. Hopefully they will be protected better than the ones that were in the Library of Alexandria.


I copied that illustration of the two iPads above, and pulled it into Vectorworks, then scaled it up to full size, so I could see not the relative difference, but the real, life-size difference, and you know something? it really isn’t that much.

If Apple really do create a MiniPad, and the price is right (some say $200? but I don’t believe it), it will sell like gangbusters.


The future problems of compatibility and longevity are lessened by the fact that the vast majority of published material is CRAP!  Who cares if the latest Fifty Shades of Soft-core Porn is preserved for the ages?  And a nitpick- the copy-protection schemes on floppys were not “Digital Rights Management,” although it aspired to accomplish the same thing.  The term “DRM” has scary legal ramifications that the old copy-protection never had.


Scott B.  Its not the size, it?s the readability. A hundred years from now, any human, I surmise, could pick up a paper Bible and read it. But the iPads and their imprisoned ebooks will be long gone.

A bible might last a hundred years if very well cared for, but most people put their old books in a box in the basement where they do not last very long, and even if they care for them, their descendents often do not. When was the last time you saw a hundred year old book sitting on your friends bedside table or even their bookshelf? In addition, paper books that did not sell a lot were not supported by their publishers and so were removed from bookstores after just a month or two. So older books that did not sell well can be very hard to find in a bookstore.

In contrast ebooks will be on the shelf and available instantly for much longer, as long as the online stores are still around. And DRM is probably on its way out, so it will be easier as time goes on to store your ebooks for the long term. I do not think longevity is so clearly an advantage of the paper book.

PS: Why didn’t you back up the important files on your Newton anyways?


On Apple’s store, many books are in ePub 2 format and DRM free. Download a book, change the suffix from .epub to .zip, right-click and “open with Stuffit-Expander”, and you get the contents of the book in .html format. So no need to worry that at some point you might not be able to read these books.

Kindle books on the other hand are in a proprietary format that nobody other than Amazon knows.

Scott B in DC

@gnasher729: Check out Calibre at It will convert between various e-book formats including Amazon’s .mobi format.

Back to the original discussion, I while formats are a problem it can be accomodated. I have electronic documents dating back to the 80s. All are readable and can be printed, if necessary. Some were in WordPerfect and were converted to RTF and TXT files before being saved on a DVD-ROM for safe keeping. I also have a DVD with ebook backups that were transferred from my iPad to my Mac.

Electronic archiving is an issue. This is something the National Archives is wrestling with in dealing with national records. Right now, all documents that are required to be archived are being done so in PDF and text formats. They are also saving HTML from websites along with a text interpretation.

However, that does not mean I will stop buying and reading ebooks!


The New York Public Library needs to heed these words.

Also, to the author’s point and beyond: read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr


Fascinating dialog to promote… Inventing Public Libraries for the Digital Age

John Martellaro

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