No other simple device has the power to change the world in the way that an open electronic book does. One with the hardware capabilities of the current crop of popular devices, but the software to browse freely and shop from any store too. An e-reader that can be expanded on, added to, and modified endlessly to the whim of its owner. Such a device yields the power to change how we both read, write, and publish for the better.
The open-source reader has everything that it needs to succeed already in place. The marketplace for electronic books, comics, and magazines is already well established, though highly fragmented by both vendor and publisher. Dedicated reading devices typically connect to one or the other e-bookshops, strictly limiting the width and depth of titles on offer.
Amazon has its Kindle range, connecting the buyer directly with its own e-book marketplace and nothing else. The business case for this type of approach is obvious; every single user device sold is locked into the Amazon library and only ever a single click away from purchasing a Kindle title. Similarly popular Kobo devices run their own version of the same scheme, connecting Kobo readers to the Kobo store to purchase Kobo published titles.
In contrast with these dedicated reading devices: phones, tablets, and regular lite-computers have the ability to browse and select from any online source with ease. The trade-off comes at the hefty price of readability; no-one wants, or is expected to, read lengthy texts on an LCD screen.
Devices of Today
Both Kindle and Kobo devices along with the already open BQ Cervantes offer the ability to load books, articles, and magazines with just a USB connection and an open laptop. There’s even an exceptional, open-source software package already to help you out. Calibre will assist in managing your e-book library and sync your computer to your device.
Manual library management and USB side-loading are perfectly viable options and a real alternative to the locked-down stores and devices on offer today. Even if the choice is one made on principle over practicality.
The current options on offer are somewhat similar to the 2006 MP3 player marketplace. Which, for the time, was honestly pretty great. People, media, devices, and publishers have all moved on a long way since.
From a technical standpoint, the e-book offers far fewer delivery challenges than even the small and simple MP3. An entire e-textbook is a fraction of the size of even the shortest pop song. The low overhead of the electronic file makes them incredibly easy to transfer and can be stored on a mere pittance of memory. A typical e-book for all its kilobytes of memory will eat up around 4–6 hours of reading time; making efficient entertainment use of the skimpiest of data plans.
We can guess then, the problem with e-book delivery is exclusively non-technical in nature. The issue likely exists somewhere deep in negotiations between retailer-manufacturers, publishers, and legal departments.
Even the seemingly all-powerful Amazon have so-far failed to position themselves in a Spotify, but for music, position. An attempt was made in the form of Amazons ‘unlimited’ library service. To its own fanfare, the retail giant announced that readers would be able to choose from millions of titles to read at will from its vast library for only a small monthly fee.
The service has so far been proven remarkably underwhelming. The library on offer omits many titles that anyone would actually want to read. New releases, the majority of non-fiction, and nearly all desirable older titles are excluded, requiring purchase from the traditional Kindle store from their regular e-book collection.
When e-ink screens and electronic books as we know them today were showcased many years ago these issues seemed like ones that would be tidied up within months of devices going on sale. A decade later, devices are still locked to their sellers, titles are either unavailable or laughably expensive in comparison to their paperback counterparts.
An open and capable eBook reader would have the ability to select which libraries books come from. In much the same way the Linux package manager allows ridiculously simple software installation from trusted sources; the ideal e-book reader should allow one-click downloads. The user should be able to browse a variety of libraries either by selection or, better yet, by having the device choose invisibly in the background.
Each publisher would be capable, if desired, of managing their own channel of titles, empowering anyone to make texts available to readers directly. An entire generation of small independent authors and publishers could be empowered to create and release without restrictions or barriers. A brand new generation of pulp-style digital magazines would be made viable by allowing publishing direct-to-reader.
The opening of the e-reader platform and availability of additional sources shouldn’t be cause to exclude retailers either. Both Amazon and Kindle are more than capable of providing well-curated, well-stocked, digital libraries amongst the device offerings. There exists more than ample room for skilled publishers to thrive on high-quality content in the digital marketplace.
This inclusion, of course, relies entirely on both major firms opening up their stores for access, search, and purchasing in a way that all but eliminates their single device model. You may as well ask Apple to port their iPhone operating system to cheap third-party devices while you’re at it.
The scenario that the e-book finds itself in today is one that has played out over and over again since the technology was born. The major players in the field have found themselves a comfortable, profitable position and little incentive to move. The question becomes whether the major firms are still nimble, and innovative enough to re-model their product for an almost inevitable future. There’s plenty of little guy firms out there hoping they aren’t. These are the startups and small firms taking charge and racing from behind to find out.
Amazon, even today, has done a fantastic job of enabling small publishers and authors to get books out there on the Kindle store. With the current direct publishing platform available, prospective authors can complete a book and have it with readers on the same day.
E-books are somewhat disappointing when you realise the technology is capable of so much more. Many people still loathe the idea of letting go of paperback copies for the look and feel of a conventional book. Without giving potential users, avid readers, and literary enthusiasts a powerful reason to make the digital leap; the huge market will remain entirely untapped.
Virtual stores could and should be teeming with weekly indy magazines featuring everything from obsessive niche interests to regular in-depth editorials. The format should be trivially capable of supporting pay what you want content, short and long-form periodicals, blog posts, tutorials, and far far more.
Amazon and Kobo are in a unique position to throw out their old, monolithic model and revolutionise the market single-handedly. They clearly have the market share, advertising space, and resource to do so. Both even have mature, capable, slick devices that can already handle the demands of an entirely new kind of platform.
Eventually, either a major retailer, device manufacturer, or tiny startup are going to find their way into a new device that changes the way we interact with news and media. Along the way they will inherit a new marketplace of advertising and revenue that comes with the territory.
More importantly, we will all inherit new ways to reach great art, opinion, and literature that would otherwise go unread and maybe even unwritten. Finally, e-books will reach the potential that they promised in 2009.