Clash of cultures

About two years ago I wrote in the Bookseller about the bewildering range of e-book formats, the so-called Tower of e-Babel. There are a multiplicity of e-book formats out there—epub, PDF, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, Palm Reader, the list goes on and on—many DRM locked and designed for specific devices.

The device battle lines were clearly drawn and led by Amazon’s absolutist, almost Biblical line: "Thou shall read the Kindle e-books on the Kindle and the Kindle only, and will have no other e-reading devices before me".

Fast-forward two years and the landscape has changed. The e-book format question is still a vexing issue but Amazon has certainly opened up. Today you can read a Kindle book on a number of devices in addition to
the Kindle itself: iPhone, Blackberry, PC, Mac, netbooks, laptops, and presumably, later this month, the iPad. You cannot read Kindle on Google’s Android platform but that is under negotiation.

Amazon has achieved this not by suddenly becoming all chummy with the competition and opening up its format but rather by repurposing the Kindle reader and making it available on these other platforms. I note this because possibly the whole digital future of publishing comes down to Amazon and Apple and the way they react and negotiate with their partners and customers.

Amazon has obviously had the more fractious relationship with the publishing community, from its battles with Hachette and Bloomsbury in the UK two years ago, to the Macmillan fracas in the US a couple of months ago. But Amazon has been dealing with publishers for a decade and a half, Apple just a couple of years. Most publishers would claim to be device agnostic, but it seems much of the development money is going into Apple app development. This probably has to do with the iPad coming out imminently and the extra enhanced e-book possibilities the device affords.

Apple’s closed system is hugely appealing for publishers because it perhaps protects content far better from piracy. But it is this closed nature that publishers should perhaps be wary of—and I am not just  talking about restrictive technology but corporate mindset. Pouring all energies into Apple—and the most oft-repeated
phrase about the iPad from publishers is “game changing”—may help boost a restrictive system when what the digital books world needs is openness and interoperability.