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The eBook Format Wars

books_really_suckA lot can happen in one week.  Seven days ago, I was madly researching eBook readers, gung ho over the prospect of quasi-unlimited digital storage, heaps of portable reading material, and so on and so forth.  Now, my interest has skydived.  Why?  It’s those bloody format wars.

I’ll just say first off, I have no claims to being a tech expert; I’m a consumer and I try to be informed, but that’s it.  So as a potential consumer, this is how I see it: Without stripping DRMs, there is no single portable device that reads all the major eBook formats.  And that’s a pain.

I guess it comes down to the three As: Adobe, Amazon, and Apple.  Adobe is associated with but not tied to the Sony eReader, and has the edge when it comes to library e-lending.  My home e-library offers only proprietary formats like Adobe’s, and it’s fine if you own one of the supported devices; it’s not fine if you have a Kindle or portable Apple device.  Ergo, since I want to keep the eLibrary option open, I’d have to go with a device compatible with Adobe – which, according to Steve Jobs, is practically the Root of All Evil.  In an interesting twist, Apple now sells digital books (iBooks, natch) under the non-proprietary EPUB format.  Which means you could read them on most readers, including the evil Adobe Digital Editions (ADE).

But why shouldn’t I go for the Kindle?  It isn’t just about the huge book selection, or the free 3G and Whispersync service – many reviews agree that even when ignoring the extras, the Kindle delivers one of the best, if not the best, e-reading experience on the market.  No muss, no fuss, just a device that stores and reads books.  And with the WiFi-only version now available for $139?  Talk about turning up the heat.  (Some think the Kobo started the price war when it was released at $149, and thereby shot itself in the foot, but that’s another story.)  If one were willing to ditch the library option, the Kindle appears to be an awesome alternative to Adobe.  So I thought of three possible scenarios under which I’d buy a Kindle:

  • City council shut down the public library.
  • I drastically increase my book purchases.
  • Amazon opens a low-cost, internationally-accessible eLibrary.

Not impossible.  But at this stage, not likely.  And neither is buying an Apple device, BTW, because it’s waaaay too expensive.

Ideally, the industry would settle on one format without leaving the other 50% hanging, so that the winner would be generous enough to provide support for all the other books facing impending obsolescence.  But it’s like looking at Betamax and VHS all over again.  Or Blu-Ray and HD DVD.  I’ve heard of people owning as many as three or four eBook readers, one for every major format.  There is no way I am willing to do that.

Of course, who knows where Android will fit into this scheme.  Or the Blackberry, which has vague Bluetooth-y sync capabilities with the Kobo-Chapters-Borders conglomerate (yet another contender).  However, this doesn’t change my main point about the format wars: They may be interesting as hell, but they’re still a pain.

– Jean AAR

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