Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A few thoughts on ebooks circa December 2010

This post is inspired by Tracy Crawford's recent buzz about the imminent arrival of Google books. Her husband is one of the high level people at Google involved in that product. My own interest is mainly as a consumer. As an academic, I can buy thousands of dollars worth of books a year. One year, about a decade ago, I totaled $2000 on technical books. Fortunately, I had a grant to pay for it.

Lately, I've been getting into ebooks. It's a way to carry your library everywhere, and they're often dramatically cheaper. I've migrated from the iPad and iBooks to aldiko and kindle on my Android phone. Recently, I bought the kindle to improve the reading experience. It works well with both drm'd and non-drm'd content even though it's restricted to mobi and pdf.

The sum of my experience is that the kindle hardware offers by far the best reading experience of all of these platforms. Couple that with kindle's software support on multiple platforms and Amazon has packaged up an unparalleled electronic reading experience that requires very little effort on the user's part.

Here are the parts of that experience that particularly impress me:

  • Having access to your library anywhere is wonderful.
  • Having multiple device support for your library is wonderful, particularly if you can get advanced features like color on devices that support it.
  • Being able to sync your reading location in specific books across devices is great.

Right now, the kindle only offers full support for these features for books you buy from Amazon. This doesn't seem completely unreasonable to me. Yes, there's lock-in, but you can also make the case that book revenues are needed to support the infrastructure. Further, for how long is there lock-in really? For instance, I read pleasure books and basically throw them away. References for specific products are really only worth keeping for a year or so until the products become out of date.

There are a few technical and theoretical references that I've kept for decades. But, those are the exception, not the rule. For the general throwaway reading I do, DRM and proprietary platforms (as long as they're cheap and ubiquitous) are not the issue.