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» Ebook Readers And Ebooks Aren't There Yet
Ebook Readers And Ebooks Aren't There Yet
I would love an ebook reader that really worked. Sadly they don't exist yet. These are the reasons I probably won't be getting an ebook reader for some considerable time.
First and foremost, I worry about access to my books. With paper books, they're always available. You just have to pick one up and it's ready to read, even if you haven't touched it for twenty years or more. With ebooks, this is not the case and might never be the case. Digital Rights Management (DRM) and file formats are two technical issues with ebooks that could render a book I buy now unusable in twenty years.
First, think about file formats. How many of the file formats available today will still be usable in twenty years? Which of the technologies that exist to read them will still be around in twenty years? If I'd had a library of ebooks on Atari or Commodore, BBC Micro or Sinclair QL machines and formats, what could I buy today to read those books? If I had my library safely backed up on cassette tapes of five-and-a-quarter inch floppy discs, what could I use now to retrieve them?
When you consider that the life of a paper book may be at least your own lifetime and maybe very much longer, just think how much technologies have changed in that time. Just think how much faster they are changing now.
DRM is a completely different issue but has similar problems. My main gripe with DRM is the notion that when I buy a book, I don't actually own anything except a license to read it (on a certain technology). Each time I want to read an ebook under some DRM regimes, I need to ask permission by logging in to the owner's service to verify my identity and my ownership of the license. I can't lend my ebook to other people. I can't pass my library on to my children. It isn't clear for most of these schemes, how I could resell my ebook. The business models around DRM are not customer friendly.
But that is only part of the problem with DRM and ebooks. What happens when the company that owns the book and licences my copy goes bust? Hopefully, a similar company will pick up the rights and carry on providing access. But what if it doesn't? Where is my book then? Does this mean that, if I buy an ebook, I have to trust that the company that supplies it will last my whole life, or that I'll be fortunate enough that an unbroken chain of companies will own the book and keep my access going?
And that isn't all. What if I change my ebook reader technology? Can I guarantee that the DRM that used to work to provide access on my old technology will now work on my new technology? What if I change readers every two years for the next two decades? What are the chances that I'll end up with a reader that has backward compatibility for the rights management scheme that was enforced by my first ebook reader? It is the same technical problem as for file formats. They change. Technology changes. There is no guarantee of backward compatibility forever. Sooner or later, one's library will become obsolete and inaccessible.
Frankly, I don't want that to happen to my books. I have many books in my shelves at home that were published fifty or more years ago. Will people in fifty years time be able to say that about their e-libraries? Or will books have to be constantly re-published – and re-purchased - so that they can be read on the new technologies yet to come?
So access is an issue that bothers me. The other main problem I have with ebook readers is less important (because I think it is a problem that will be solved one day) but is one which currently prevents me buying an ebook reader. They are just not as good as books. They are not as easy to use. You can read a book comfortably in a very wide range of lighting conditions, from bright sunlight to a gentle night-light. You can easily navigate within a book. You can add any number of bookmarks. You can annotate it. You can take it with you on holiday without needing to take a charger or worry about whether there will be telecoms access on the appropriate network when you get there. You can set it aside for a month and pick it up without finding its battery is flat. You can change your broadband supplier without losing access to your library, or your favourite bookshop. You can have one or a dozen books on the go at the same time, without needing extra readers. You can lend a book to someone else, without having to give them your reader too and making all your other books inaccessible. You can scan or photocopy or OCR a book and do things with the image or text-block you have created which, as long as they are within the 'fair use' provisions of copyright law, won't land you with a lawsuit from your book licenser for DRM infringement. The simplicity and practicality of a paper book make it easy to operate. You don't need to learn a new interface each time the technology changes because the technology doesn't change.
One day, an ebook reader will emerge which is as easy to use as a real book but we are still a long way away from it and, as long as there are dozens of different ebook readers on the market, each slightly different from the next, the problem of there being no perfect reader will always be with us. We are still waiting for the ebook equivalent of the Apple Mac to be invented. When it is, no doubt the equivalent of IBM or Microsoft (Google? Amazon?) will come along and clobber it and then take twenty years to take us to where we could have been all along.
Of course, the world has to go through the excruciating process of switching from paper books to ebooks – with all the mistakes and losses this will entail. I dread to think what will happen to books that are published today in exclusive deals with a single technology platform supplier. In ten or twenty years they may not exist in any form that anyone can actually read anymore. What becomes of ebooks for which there never was a physical copy? Do we just lose them forever?
The 8th Edition of the Hutchinson Encylopedia (1988), for which I wrote the computer entries, became one of the very first books in the world also to be published on CD ROM. I'm very glad I have a paper copy of this book, though, since the proprietary format of the CD ROM version required the installation of its own, platform-dependent reader. My first Sci-Fi novel was written on a BBC Micro and saved on discs that really were floppy. That the whole of this technology died off and disappeared many years ago seemed fine until the day I lost the paper printout. Which is to say, if you live long enough (and I'm not that old!) you will have seen examples of the way that modern ebooks and ebook readers are headed.