An Inconvenient Truth About E-books

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