On the evilness of the emerging ebook app ecosystem

The theme at the upcoming Science Online NYC panel is Enhanced eBooks & BookApps: the Promise and Perils and I guess I'm the perils guy. The purpose of this post is helping me to get some of my thoughts down on pixels and, as a by-product, I guess it's tipping my hand a little bit for the other participants on the panel.

This session and my role as skeptic comes out of the Science Online session on ebooks in North Carolina this past January. I believe I may have refereed to the emerging ebooks app ecosystem as "The Dark Side."

My point was not to explicitly demonize app developers or book authors, just as my somewhat over-the-top title for this post isn't meant to demonize anyone either. My beef isn't with the authors, publishers and developers themselves -- they're are understandably acting in their own self-interest. It's the ecosystem that's arising from that multitude of self-interested actions that I have a problem with, that I'd prefer not to evolve into a tragedy of the commons situation.

My hope was -- and is -- to more-than-gently prod people to think of some of the perhaps hidden downsides of relying on the app model for distributing and monetizing ebooks. In other words, the kinds of marketplaces we see emerging in the iTunes and Android app commercial developer ecosystem and which is epitomized by the app The Elements.

The idea is that apps are easy to monetize because they're tied to the platforms they're explicitly developed for and as such they are extremely difficult to pirate and share illegally. In other words, if you want to read The Elements, you more or less have to buy it for your iPhone or iPad. You can't download it illegally, you can't borrow a copy from a friend or from the library unless your friend or your library are also willing to lend you their device. (Like my library, for example. We have an iPad loaded with The Elements and other apps that we lend out.) (And no offense meant by using The Elements as my example, it's just a good exemplar.)

Which is great. For developers, the sky is the limit creativity-wise and for the owners of the content the business model is very easy to understand. It's just like physical books except there's no pesky first sale rights to ruin it for everyone.

Plus, the people who buy your app don't really own it in any meaningful way. Like I said, they can't easily resell it, lend it, donate it or share it. In fact, it could break and be unusable for the "owners" at any time due to an operating system upgrade or if some online piece stops working.

In the longer term, it's not clear how apps such as The Elements could follow their owners to new platforms or new devices. Certainly the content for something like The Elements could have a very long lifetime, say even fifteen or twenty years. If you bought it today what do you think the likelihood is you'll be able to access it in that time frame. It's like if book publishers could make you use their proprietary glasses to read their books.

We have print books in our library that are hundreds of years old and are just as readable today as they were back then. Similarly, many digitization projects have uploaded public domain (and other) content into the cloud. These books have a long life ahead of them -- many of them exist in stable archives in formats that can be preserved over a very long term. It's hard to see how the apps that are being created in such a rush today will have the opportunity for such a long life.

Will someone be able to read and study The Elements five years from now? Ten? A hundred? Five hundred? And not just the content, of course, but as a artifact in the evolution of books over time.

So, what would I like to see in an ebook ecosystem?

  • Standards-based development, concentrating on HTML5 and browser-based development giving content at least a measure of device-independence.
  • Archivability and preservability, which will be much more practical in a standards-based environment.
  • A business model for library ebook purchasing that's built with library budgets and budget-cycles in mind. I'm not sure we have a definitive example of this yet, nor do I really think it'll be a one-size-fits-all model, but there certainly is a lot of work to do here. We'll probably need a set of business model.
  • A recognition that ebooks need to partake of an open cultural commons in the same way as print books did -- and it fact should be able to partake in such an open cultural commons in ways that print books never could.

And for those of you attending the Science Online NYC session, please don't think of this as me showing all my cards.

Some further comments.

First of all, I have no problems with content creators being fairly rewarded for their efforts. Authors, editors, publishers and production people should get paid. My beef is not with getting paid, it with the apparatus.

Also, I realize that we're in a transition period and that apps will not go away anytime soon. I'm actually OK with that as a way to get people used to paying something for digital content.

And most of all, my own ideas are evolving and changing. There isn't one answer to any of the questions that are floating around the publishing industry.

Some of my older posts which are relevant to this topic:

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This nicely presents the conundrum faced by people like me who like what ebook apps offer writers. Great fodder for our upcoming ebook session.

Let me add I am secretly hoping that some technical solution will arise â perhaps inspired by this SONYC session? â that gives authors, developers, and publishers the ability to present and get paid for good, rich, innovative publications and also give readers and librarians some long-term, cross-platformportability and simple archive and borrowing mechanisms. This might require platform owners or publishers to open things up a bit -- or publishers to retain the right to publish not just in Kindle and Nook etc., but in some html-5-like open system. I say all this amid and out of a rather slight knowledge of such technical matters. Thus the session, where between the panelists and the audience, we hope to draw out at least some ideas on how to pursue a workable path.

David, I too hope that our session will inspire developer and publishers to work more on accessible solutions to providing content while still facilitating fair payment. It's a difficult problem on many levels, both technical and social. On the other hand, Apple locking down payment within iTunes has already started publishers innovating solutions, with I think Kobo looking at more browser-based ebook delivery.

The iPad / iPhone is a shiny toy designed to generate profit by removing or restricting your rights or abilities.

The has been demonstrated very well by numerous actions of Apple Corp, such as not including industry standard connectors, by requiring that iTunes is used to transfer content and most outrageously, by replacing the screws on devices returned for repair with a new patented screw design for which screw-drivers are not available - thus denying the owner of the device the ability to open it.

This is the environment which consumers, developers, authors and publishers and entering when they buy an iDevice or create content for it.

In as much as their is evil in the system it exists in Apple Corp surreptitiously taking away the rights of all the other players in the ecosystem.

Of course, the other players should remember that 'All that is required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing'.

Consumers - don't buy Apple!
Content creators - there are many other ways to deliver your content, even on to iDevices i.e. as a web page.

Looking at my bookshelves, something like 75% of my books were bought second-hand...

Felix: just because Apple doesn't do things you way you want them to do doesn't mean they're evil. Apple is not "taking away the rights of all the other players" unless you include people who pirate music, videos, and software. The iPad has gone beyond the hobbyist's plaything and is now an appliance. Most people who buy iPads are regular people, not gearheads who want to take it apart and make it do other things. We just want something that works well, not a device that requires constant tinkering.

How does Apple remove or restrict your rights? By working with the music companies, Apple was able to eliminate DRM on music purchased from iTunes. It's the companies who sell software or books that don't want you to copy their intellectual material. Apple is only protecting these companies' rights. You might as well complain that a bookstore is restricting your rights by requiring you to buy a book instead of just walking away with it.

The issue that John addresses is not device dependent - it's the entire concept of an electronic ecosystem that is constantly changing. Electronic app-based books purchased today obviously have a limited life. Contrast that to the printed book, which can last centuries. Libraries have been in the business of safeguarding our culture for a very long time. How can we do that now with this new ecosystem? That's the question, not whether a company that makes a device you can't open is evil.

Sometimes I worry that librarians will never consider the practicalities of the new systems they tout, but that's certainly not true here - a sensible, informed, balanced perspective that I (a publisher and author) am happy to see. I'm frustrated every time an ebook is less practical than a paper book and frustrated even more by people who don't recognize that there are pros and cons to all formats. Thanks for your good sense!

Karen, thanks. I definitely tried to be as balanced as possible while still making my point as firmly as possible. I guess the title of the post is a bit unbalanced, but I think there too I'm using it to emphasize my main point -- that the app ecosystem is closed and contrary to broader social and cultural values. But more on that in a few weeks in NYC...

Hi John, you may want to bring up the Borders closing requiring people to move their content from Border to Kobo Reader apps (I have been putting this off, I should really just stop procrastinating and deal with it). Makes you wonder what would happen if say Amazon folded etc. Personally I prefer the Baen model which provide multiple unlocked formats which I can put anywhere at will and download as a much as I want. Thanks for posting, this topic is one of the major factors why I have not bought an ereader/tablet at this time.

"We have print books in our library that are hundreds of years old and are just as readable today as they were back then..."

One sees this statement regularly when wishing to trump printed books over ebooks, but the statement is highly deceiving, in particular when one recognizes the unfair comparison of the ebook "ecosystem" vs printed books as individual objects. Certainly one can find individual copies of books that are 100s of years old still in readable condition on library shelves today (we won't go into the not-so-minor detail of most people not being able to read these books anyway, since they're mostly in Latin). But as an 'ecosystem' the printed book has had a very checkered, indeed mediocre, history. First the vast majority of copies of printed books have not survived, and most titles have been lost as well. For example, I just read that all of the famous composer Michael Praetorius's printed works have not survived.

Because the publishing of books has always been, in varying degrees, a labor-intensive and costly undertaking, we can only surmise how many great works never saw print.

Books are a terrible medium for preservation: they rot, they get wet, they are eaten by insects, they burn, they are indeed highly susceptible to being irreparably damaged. Just ask a preservation librarian what can happen to a book with the slightest mishandling. For the past couple of centuries publishers, who generally consider books as 'consumables', had no problems printing books on acidic paper. My library of some 4000 books is filled with publications from the 60s and 70s that are literally crumbling apart because of brittle paper.

So remember, when so blithely noting that your library has books that are 100s of years old, that they represent the few remaining survivals from an earlier time.

Roger, thanks for the comment.

My point isn't that print is fundamentally a better preservation medium than digital. It isn't. Digital has a vastly better potential for preservation than print. My point is that a closed app ecosystem is potentially worse than print -- potentially not preservable hardly at all. It would be a tragedy for an open cultural commons to create such a system.

Yes, Larry, I do. One of the stupidest things I've ever done was replace my print copy of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2nd ed) with a rather buggy CD Rom version.