(un)Interoperability Between eReaders

Emma CunninghamBy Emma Cunningham, Contributing Writer, Digital Book World

In their ruling, judges Ocariz, Gutierrez and Campillo said that “..since ancient times there has been the loan or sale of books, movies, music and more. The difference now is mainly on the medium used – previously it was paper or analog media and now everything is in a digital format which allows a much faster exchange of a higher quality and also with global reach through the Internet.”

Judges Liken P2P To The Ancient Practice of Lending Books

Everybody in the publishing industry knows that Amazon’s Kindle files can only be read on the Kindle and its various apps, and that Apple  has similarly restricted its iBooks files to the iPad (and soon, the iPhone), but many are wondering if there will ever be an industry-wide standard that lets readers keep their eBooks—no matter what device they read them on.

What can you do to avoid losing your eBooks when you change eReaders?

For now, you can only do your research before making a purchase and choose one of the many eReaders—Sony, Kobo and Nook among them—that will let you read your eBook across a multitude of platforms. Don’t lose hope, though. We will very likely see device restrictions open up within the next few years.

The reason that the Kindle and iBooks files can’t be shared with other devices is simple: they don’t use Adobe DRM like the majority of their competitors. Apple, who has declared war with Adobe by removing Flash capabilities from all Apple products, has opted for their own DRM file encryption system called FairPlay, and Kindle uses its own format as well, which they’ve simply called Kindle DRM. Kindle’s protection seems to elicit the most outrage from users, since there is currently no way of finding out how many times an eBook can be downloaded before it expires.

People are still adjusting to the idea of purchasing the rights to an eBook rather than owning the product itself.

However, most eReaders and eBook stores sell ePUB files encrypted with Adobe DRM. These files can be shared across any devices that use the same encryption system, while still being restricted to a limited number of downloads and licensed devices. And while Adobe may not be the industry standard yet, it’s well on its way. If they could just resolve their turf war with Apple and get them on board, both companies would have it made, and could probably eventually overpower Amazon to the point where the Kindle might even be forced to comply and adhere to the same system, too.

Google Editions aims to eliminate the problem of choosing a device built on proprietary formats and DRM by adding an interesting dimension: “Books in the Cloud”. By storing eBooks in cyberspace, Google will allow readers to access their eBooks anytime, anywhere, on any device—as long as their device of choice connects to the Internet.

1984...meet DRM by jbonnain

1984...meet DRM by jbonnain (CC 2.0)

Since I own a non-wireless, non-3G device (my current eReader of choice is the Sony Touch Edition), this doesn’t work for me. Frankly, I prefer a file I can download and store. Sometimes I just want to read in the middle of nowhere. And I don’t like the creepiness of Amazon being able to suck books away, or track what passages I’m highlighting; I prefer to keep my reading habits to myself, and keep the eBooks I’ve purchased, thank you very much.

And I certainly don’t need the distractions of Twitter, Facebook and Google Reader while I’m in the midst of a good story.

Eventually someone will capitulate and start a domino effect, and all eBooks will be encrypted with the same system, so that readers have more flexibility with their purchases. There’s too much pressure from bloggers, readers and publishers for that not to happen.

Remember Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD? Eventually someone had to win and someone had to lose.

Readers simply won’t stand for it when their eReaders start to break, it’s time to buy a new one, and they’re stuck purchasing from the same company every time in order to maintain their eBook library.

Of course, we could always take a lesson from the Spanish judges who ruled that P2P sharing of ebooks is equivalent to lending your book to a friend, and get rid of DRM restrictions altogether…

Emma Cunningham is an ebook geek, digital marketer and publicist, and avid reader. Currently working as the Production Coordinator for the Digital and Internet department at Harlequin’s Toronto headquarters, Emma is lucky enough to be immersed head-first in the changing industry. She is also a STOTT PILATES Certified Instructor.

17 thoughts on “(un)Interoperability Between eReaders

  1. Rich

    “And I certainly don’t need the distractions of Twitter, Facebook and Google Reader while I’m in the midst of a good story.”

    nice overview, but why do you assume that Twitter, Facebook are “distractions”? I am frustrated with the limitations of epub and today’s eReaders, none of which seem to take into consideration the new capabilities of the Internet, especially for nonfiction categories like cooking, travel, bio, how- to, etc, but also YA and Kids, that could greatly benefit from a connection to video, or community elements like Twitter and Facebook, feedback and more. When will books catch up? But I do agree with your main premise: When will the industry allow books to be whatever they can be and what the market wants them to be?

  2. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

    “Remember BluRay vs. HD DVD? Eventually someone had to win and someone had to lose.”

    IIRC, Blu-Ray won the HD format war when Warner Bros. tipped the scale in its favor, not because it was the better format, but to end the war because supporting both formats was affecting their overall DVD sales. With Random House still not onboard with Apple, I wonder how long before something similar happens in the eBook space, and which publisher(s) will be able to tip the scale in one direction or the other?

  3. Bradley Robb

    With DRM-circumvention being illegal, and the myriad eBook file formats remaining largely out of consumer sight, lock-in is a vicious situation that favors just about everyone but the end-consumer.

    Thankfully the solutions to lock-in will likely benefit the future of digital publishing as a whole. There will likely a large market for multi-format eReading engines – capable of displaying every conceivable eBook format (regardless of DRM) in a manner that is wholly transparent to the end-user. Whether these engines are placed on servers and send eBooks in a converted stream to the end-user’s screen of choice or installed on individual devices is irrelevant.

    What matters most will be who has the money to challenge or convince DRM providers to allow interoperability thus making such an engine feasible. In that instance, Google seems like the likely champion.

  4. Jim Fallone

    I think what we will be looking at is a browser based reader with some level of caching to allow for offline reading. DRM is going to be a temporary speed bump. In the end the shortest distance between two points always wins and with Google owning the starting line of the internet and soon to paradigm shift Google Editions around the corner a Chrome based reader closes the loop. Boot, click, read. Shortest distance between two points.

  5. P.S. Jones

    This is one of the reasons I haven’t quite bought an eReader yet. I’ve promised myself one for my birthday next month so I’m trying to research the options right now. The fact that I can lend a book with Nook puts it on my radar. And I’m a Google fanatic so I don’t mind Google Editions, but you’re right about needing to read my eBooks when I’m not WiFi accessible. That’s kinda the whole point!

  6. Kassia Krozser

    While I agree some sort of standard will emerge, count me as one of many who won’t buy ebooks with Adobe Digital Editions DRM. From my first experience (where the server couldn’t authenticate my purchases) to every time I’ve used the system, it has been problematic. In fact, ADE is the reason I don’t buy Harlequin books directly from the HQ website. I think the final solution will have to be one that is reader friendly, and, if you pay attention to reader comments, ADE is not that solution.

    You note there is some frustration with the Kindle platform, and I’ll assume that is true. People also love the seamlessness of the Kindle platform. I’d wager the majority of customers do not realize they are under the thumb of DRM — this knowledge comes when they try to port their books to competing platforms. Of course, the platform builders put the blame for all DRM on the publishers, and as long as publishers demand DRM, there is no incentive for Amazon or Apple or Sony to switch their practices.

    I remember both the BluRay versus HD DVD and the Beta versus VHS wars — I had an interesting front seat to both battles — and it’s not always the best technology that wins as much as it is the one most consumers seem to want. If Warner’s had sensed the consumer marketplace was headed toward HD, they would have gone that way, too. What I suspect consumers really want, even if they don’t know it yet, is no DRM at all. Either that or they’ll increasingly demand that pricing and rights (such as the number of allowable downloads) reflect the lack of true ownership of their books.

  7. Roymond

    The Kindle platform works great on PCs, Macs, Blackberrys, iPads, iPhones and Kindle readers. The books are in the cloud, offering access wherever, whenever you want them. Until you want to change to a Sony reader or Nook, etc. Of the current choices, however, it is the most accommodating platform with a well established store and delivery mechanism.

    But more flexible licensing will be needed long term. I hope Amazon and Apple figure this out sooner rather than later, as it also applies to libraries and the broader literary impact the change to digital formats will have.

  8. Danielle La Paglia

    Thanks for the post Emma. I’m still holding out on joining the eReader gang until the turf war has settled. I agree with you in that I want to be able to download my eBooks and store and read them how and when I wish. Hopefully the resolution will come sooner rather than later.

  9. Susan Mann

    Excellent post. I’m against buying an ereader for myself as I love nothing better than curling up in bed with a good old fashioned paper book. But I know the time will come when I have to get one. Thanks for making the comparisons.

  10. Kirk Biglione

    Apple’s use of FairPlay has nothing to do with the Adobe Flash dispute. Apple uses Apple DRM or no DRM at all. That’s the way it works and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

    Could publishers pressure Apple to adopt Adobe DRM? Not likely. The recording industry tried to pressure Apple into either licensing Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM or licensing FairPlay to third party device manufacturers. When Apple refused to do either the labels were left with no option but to drop DRM entirely.

    I doubt book publishers have any more leverage with Apple than the major record labels did. In fact, I would guess they have much less. Smaller industry, lower sales, less consumer demand.

    Also, I think it’s misleading to point to the number of devices and booksellers that support Adobe DRM as a sign that said DRM is close to being an industry standard. As we learned with music, widely licensed and supported does not necessarily translate into market dominance. You’d get better insight into where this is all heading by breaking down DRM schemes by total unit sales. A graph of that sort would likely reveal Adobe’s DRM is firmly in the no. 3 position.

    To address your larger point of the need for interoperability, that’s something publishers can have today with almost no effort. DRM-free is guaranteed ticket out of this mess.

  11. Jessica Peter

    Wow, I didn’t think I’\d have such a response to this article since I don’t even have an e-reader, but man. That judge’s ruling that P2P book sharing is like the ancient practice of lending books has gotten me all fired up. I’m a Yahoo Answers fan (guilty as charged), and I always have a snarky answer for someone asking “Where can I get ______ book for free online?” Apparently, all they needed to ask was “Can anyone lend me their copy of _____ book online?” Totally legal now, apparently. Ugh.

    And you hit the nail on the head of one of the reasons I wouldn’t switch to e-readers – or at least not entirely switch; I still plan to get one someday. I like keeping books forever, and files and digital media don’t seem “forever” enough to me. How many times have I lost music/podcasts because of a computer crash? Er… a couple. Whereas I still have a copy of my dad’s (falling apart, paperback) Lord of the Rings books from the 70’s. Hm. You got me thinking!

  12. Wendy Keller

    It’s inevitable that there will eventually be a standardized technology behind this. It’s an exciting time in publishing, because one cannot but help foresee that the advent of these devices will allow people on the electric grid all over the world to access books from everywhere, anywhere, any time. Someday, the universal delivery technology will allow school kids in South America, Botswana and Watts access to the newest, best textbooks available. I can’t wait!

    1. roymond

      There are lots of high quality, open source, free textbooks available. Please check out the books at CK-12 (http://www.ck12.org/flexr/) and Light and Matter (http://lightandmatter.com). Fabulous textbooks in PDF and ePub formats. There is a serious effort to produce free textbooks that all can access, though the higher grades are getting most of these first, apparently.

  13. Pingback: One eReader to rule them all? « Indie Aisle

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