A quote in the Guardian, about the Kindle and ereaders in particular, from Kate Pool, deputy general secretary of the Royal Society of Authors, “It is not that I am a Luddite… I want to be sure I am not buying the wrong thing. I don’t want to be left with a Betamax when everyone else is watching VHS.”
I rather doubt that will happen.
The VHS – Betamax thing was a farce. Betamax was technically superior, but VHS had film industry support, so until DVDs came along (and the format wars started all over again), we were saddled with an inferior video recording system.
The thing is, though, that each format – VHS and Betamax – was incompatible with the other not just electronically, but mechanically too. You could no more play a VHS cassette on Betamax than you can cruise up the M6 in a paddle steamer (though given the weather we’ve had lately, wait a while!).
Ebooks aren’t like that. By the way, have you noticed how some people are emulating Apple – Waterstone’s, for example – by going for eBooks and eReader?
Anyway, back to ebooks, which are essentially software (not precisely, it’s just an analogy – the Kindle firmware is the OS), and don’t suffer from the physical problems VCRs had – code can be manipulated, metal and plastic, not so much. And software, as I mentioned previously, is available to convert to and from various formats, and that will probably be a growth area – I’ve already, in advance of my Kindle, converted a bunch of downloads from Word to PDF. It’s not exactly hard.
Problems will arise with Digital Rights Management, as with Waterstone’s ebook implementation, which will doubtless get in the way of any format changes. DRM prevented – might still do so for all I know – many DVDs, especially those from Sony, being played on PCs. The assumption was – and this shows what a low opinion the people who want your money have of you – anybody loading the DVD into a PC would do so with the sole intention of copying it. Doesn’t that just give you a warm, moist, feeling?
Anyway, it was only a matter of time before hackers nailed the problem. Officially, their software was legally killed off, but it’s still around on the web. If ebooks, and their readers become big enough, doubtless there will be a way found around the potential DRM fubar.
If I buy a DVD, or an ebook, it’s my property, and I should be able to do what I like with it, within the law (which is not the same as “subject to conditions imposed by a third party, like Sony”), just as I can rip the contents of a CD to mp3, or burn mp3 files to CD. I see no legal difference between mp3 and ebook file, though I dare say the lawyers will have that in hand already.
On a different tack, there was an instance, not too long ago, where Amazon deleted a book, which had been downloaded and paid for, from all Kindles. Whatever the reason – I’ve read that the publisher withdrew the digital rights – Amazon had no right to go into peoples’ Kindles and delete the book**. It was legally sold and legally bought. What happened after that is largely irrelevant – you can’t turn back time.
**Don’t know if they refunded the cost, but even if they did, it was still wrong.***
I mean, if you buy a Ford Focus next week, in a year’s time the dealership can’t come and take it away just because Ford had decided they didn’t want to do business with the dealership any longer. Yet, in effect, that’s just what Amazon did.
The Kindles – when we get them – will be linked by wi-fi and the Net to Amazon, so they could conceivably pull the same stunt again. However, based on what I’ve read, and been told by Amazon, the Kindle can be operated as a stand-alone device by turning off its wi-fi and using a USB cable to transfer books you’ve previously downloaded to Kindle for PC.
I’ll be able to confirm that once I get mine, as I have a bunch of books in Kindle for PC.
However, getting back to the point from which I’ve wandered – potential format problems – Amazon are big enough to be able to rejig the firmware of the Kindle to accommodate different formats, and provide it via Kindle for PC or as a simple download, uploaded to the Kindle via USB. And I have little doubt that a DRM work-around will emerge, too, to allow ebooks to be read across both Sony’s ereader and the Kindle (and the Kindle-style clones), and whatever new platforms might emerge over time.
Unlike a Betamax, which would remain a Betamax until the end of time, ereaders can evolve.
***Seems like Amazon have learned from that event – see the last sentence here.