Some Thoughts on eBook Readers

Posted by Scott on Oct 12th, 2011

I recently became the owner of an e-ink ebook reader, the Sony PRS-T1. Inevitably the first question someone asks me when they see me with it is, “why’d you choose the Sony instead of a Kindle or Nook?” So here I’ll share my thoughts on that, and follow-up with another post reviewing the Sony model itself. Forgive me, this is a bit of a rant…

So, why go with this Sony model? To some extent it was a process of elimination. Let me first explain why buying a Kindle is out of the question for me. While it’s true that Amazon’s store offers the largest selection of ebooks, and their ereader hardware is of good quality, what most people don’t realize is that Amazon has made some very strategic choices to try to entrench their own proprietary format at the expense of open standards.

When you buy a Kindle, you’re locked into using a Kindle (or Kindle app) forever if you want to read the ebooks you bought using it. This is because the Kindle supports Amazon’s proprietary ebook format, and nothing else.

There does exist an open file format for ebooks, called ePub. Books in the ePub format are generally much more portable, and can be bought from multiple sources, such as Google Books. These ebooks can be read on pretty much any ebook reader platform (including Android tablets and phones), with one exception. Amazon has to date deliberately left out support for the ePub format in their hardware ereaders.

Amazon’s motivations for doing this are pretty clear – they are the indisputable market leader in selling books and they want to support their own proprietary format, and have no interest in seeing an open ebook format succeed, even if it has been adopted by the rest of the industry. Heaven forbid you buy an ebook from Barnes and Noble to read on their device. Amazon’s omission of ePub support is a blatant middle finger to the concept that a common standard can exist to allow people to buy ebooks from their store of choice and read it on their device of choice.

My friend Jason once said to me something to the effect of: “Amazon settled on MP3 [an open standard without DRM] as their file format for their music store when it was their chance to ‘stick it’ to Apple [which was using a format that locked users into their iTunes player and iPod devices]. But now that they’re the market leader in books, they won’t dare to support an open ebook standard.” I thought this was pretty insightful.

Now whether you care about ePub succeeding as a common format or not, when you buy a Kindle you are placing your book purchases at the mercy of Amazon for the forseeable future. You’ll be dancing to Amazon’s tune for whatever business decisions they make down the road, or risk losing the ability to read your ebook collection. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in submitting to this form of vendor lock-in. As such, I have no intention to buy ebooks in a proprietary format, whether it be Amazon’s or anyone else’s.

Unlike the Kindle, the Nook Simple Touch supports ePub ebooks (in addition to Barnes & Noble’s proprietary format, which is being phased out), so the Nook was at least an option for me. A neighbor of mine recently bought one, and I had considered getting it after trying it out. The only feature I found missing was the ability to play music on the device. I often read on public transit, and can be easily distracted if I don’t have something to block out external noise or conversations. So I decided to wait it out a bit longer.

When I recently saw that this Sony model was released, it appeared to offer the right features – everything that the Nook could do and a bit more (like being able to annotate ebooks, and of course an MP3 player). The reviews were quite positive, and even touted integration with Google Books and Overdrive Media Console (for checking out ebooks from the library). Of course the included applications try to steer you to buy ebooks from Sony’s proprietary store, but I could ignore that and stick with my ePub formatted books from other bookstores. The device was priced reasonably (which was not the case with Sony’s previous ereader models), so I decided to pick one up.

I’ll follow up with a short review of the PRS-T1 soon.

Kindle: Some Food for Thought

Posted by Scott on Nov 20th, 2007

Jeff Bezos demonstrates his business genius again with Kindle, their new eBook reader. Unfortunately, there are some other ramifications of proprietary eBook systems. Mark Pilgrim summarizes them well (and demonstrates some flip-flopping by Bezos) in this 5-act “play.”

Richard Stallman’s essay The Right to Read is referenced in this article and is definitely worth reading in and of itself.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d love a better platform for reading PDFs and web pages than my Nokia N770 web tablet. But Kindle is definitely not for me.

Defining Consumer Manipulation

Posted by Scott on Jan 5th, 2007

I’ve had a couple of lively debates about my last Amazon post with some colleagues. To explain my own views more clearly, I’ve used a hypothetical example that if Amazon were to put an obvious, large, blinking notice in your shopping cart when the price of your item had changed, I’d not have much of a problem with their practice. The crux of the issue is that Amazon is using one price to lure you into putting the item in your shopping cart, and then another when you pull out your credit card to pay for it, and is trying to do so in a way that you won’t notice. That’s why the brick-and-mortar analogy is so apt.

A second issue is one of time: a day is a reasonable time to leave an item in your shopping cart and expect its price to remain constant. I’m not arguing that people should be able to leave items in their carts for weeks or months and pay the same price – that’s just gaming the system the other way.

If Amazon made this process more obvious, they’d obviously stand to lose a lot of customers. I believe that’s a strong sign that something is wrong with this practice, and Amazon should know better.

Another Reason to Not Shop at Amazon

Posted by Scott on Jan 3rd, 2007

L.A. Times reporter David Streitfeld wrote the other day that he’s observed and reproduced the fact that Amazon subtly raises prices for customers shopping for obscure books, if they leave them in their on-line shopping carts for a day. The price increases were modest but noticeable (less than 5%), but what’s more bothersome is the feeling that Amazon is “gaming” you, its customer.

While some might say this practice is a better approximation of true free-market economics, Streitfeld makes an apt analogy of how people would react if this activity occurred at brick-and-mortar bookstores:

Imagine this: You go to a bookstore, browse, choose a couple of volumes. But you don’t want to carry the books around. So you ask the clerk to hold the tomes until Saturday, when you’ll come back to buy them.

When you return, the bookseller hands you the items but advises you that he’s raised the prices. “I knew you were hot to buy them,” the clerk says, “so I figured I could make a few extra bucks.”

I hope this article gets significant attention and gets people talking about the ethics of this practice. Even more so, I hope other booksellers take a hint from this controversy and post “truth in pricing” policies which clearly state whether they accept or reject this kind of consumer manipulation.

Please note I’m not arguing against price changes in general, which are a fact of life and have to happen. I’m talking about the situation which in the course of one day the price of something you want is increased, just because the vendor you’ve selected knows you’re preparing to buy it.

Amazon has a history of controversial business practices, including using its 1-click software patent against Barnes and Noble. The Free Software Foundation has updated their Amazon boycott page and is no longer running it, but it’s evident that the public reaction against Amazon made a big impact in this outcome. Let’s hope history repeats itself and Amazon is forced to re-think this business strategy.

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