It takes something truly ridiculous to make me write an out and out rant. Still, every now and then I read something that I can’t avoid responding to, because of the degree to which it misrepresents reality in an area I both care about and am knowledgeable in. Yesterday I had that experience when I read an article contending that proprietary eBook formats are good rather than bad, and that while “someday” we may have a truly interoperable eBook format, for now we should just sit back and appreciate proprietary formats in this area.
This is the same nonsense that has been propounded in every single media format that has ever been created where there is a dominant vendor that wants to stay that way. It’s what Microsoft has contended for decades about desktop software formats that underlie its Office productivity suite, and what we also saw in the early days of digital music. In each case, vendors (or, in this case, sales and distribution channels) have sought to gain, or retain, monopolist control and lock in their customers by fighting the creation and universal adoption of a standard that would allow freedom of movement and true competition in the marketplace.
Here’s the article I’m referring to, and here’s the membership list at the website of idpf.org, the organization that develops the ePub standard that Amazon doesn't support. On it you’ll find a very impressive list of over 360 member companies from around the world. But you won’t find Amazon, which uses its own proprietary standard instead of ePub, although you will find Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google and Kobo on that list. And here’s the member list for Readium, an open source project that develops and maintains a reference system for rendering EPUB 3 publications (disclosure: I represent Readium). You won’t find Amazon or Barnes & Noble on that list, either, although you will find Apple, Google and Kobo.
The other side of playing this game is to make sure that everyone can still use your products, whether or not you’ve implemented the industry standard. Amazon does that by offering free downloads of its Kindle software for the Microsoft PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and so on, so that no matter what reader you use, you can still buy your book at Amazon. Or just read it in the Cloud. Want to read your Barnes & Noble or Kobo book on your Kindle, though? No dice.
That’s the same strategy Microsoft employed when it knocked WordPerfect and Lotus out of their preferred positions thirty years ago, making it possible to seamlessly import documents created under those programs, but making sure that exporting them back again met with less than perfect results. For the last ten years, Microsoft has fought an ongoing battle against the OpenDocument Format (ODF) to try and keep it that way, something I’ve written hundreds of blog posts about here.
Also like Microsoft, which dramatically reduced updating Office after it wiped out the competition (as it also did with Internet Explorer, after it wiped out Netscape, until it was once again challenged by Firefox), Amazon continues to provide an extremely mediocre presentation of actual books on devices. Only recently has it announced something as basic as new fonts, many years after the initial release of the Kindle. It has, however innovated vigorously and successfully on its family of Kindle devices, in order to win over as many customers as possible to its proprietary platform.
Joshua Tallent, the author of the article I’m referring to, rightly points out that other platform vendors, like Barnes & Noble and Apple have also engaged in proprietary activity. But at least both are members of idpf.org. And to say that current vendors are using proprietary formats simply, “because proprietary formats just work” is at best a semantic dodge. By my definition, “works” means “works on any device I choose to buy.”
Making products work on one device is easy. Making it possible for true competition to be active in the marketplace and give true freedom of purchase and movement to customers takes more work – and the results are far better. And where vendors decide that it’s in their economic interest to do this, they do it. With thousands of new standards every year.
That’s why you can buy a phone from any one and call anyone else; buy a tire from anyone and put it on whatever car you own; buy a Wi-Fi router and connect anything to it; and buy just about anything else in the world and use it the way you want to. Except eBooks. There’s a reason for that, and it isn’t technical.
Authors are the victims of this nonsense at both ends of the supply chain, because Microsoft still controls the desktop (I’ve written about the consequences of that reality here), and Amazon still controls the distribution channel to most readers. That means that instead of being able to simply create a book in your favorite word processor and publish it directly to every Internet bookstore with a few keystrokes, you’re stuck with a miserable experience preparing your files, and then uploading them multiple times at multiple sites with multiple issues to deal with at each.
It’s bad enough that this is the situation we’re stuck with, but it’s intolerable to have to read someone contending that we’re better off this way.