Thoughts on e-books & e-readers

I have been spending a lot of time recently reading material in the e-book format.  I must admit, I am a paper diehard in many ways.  For books, particularly technical books, I really prefer the printed hardbound editions.  Not only do I seem to “bond” with the book, but I also highlight sections, write notes on pages and on some occasions even flag a page.  For long e-mails, I tend to print them as well.  I seem to absorb the material I am dealing with more effectively that way.

Final editing is another occasion when paper is also a preferred medium for me.  Errors that seemed invisible on the printed screen just seem to jump out on a printed page.  I better cover myself here and say I did not print this posting before doing a final edit ;-)

J.H. Newman once said, “Growth is the only Evidence of Life,” an observation that I have found remarkable insightful on many levels over the years.  It is part of my motivation and passion for continuing to be a lifelong learner across a broad array of subjects.  In this case, it has motivated me to take another look at e-books and in turn, e-readers. 

A variety of drivers are fueling the rise of e-books including price, ease of access, and low cost e-book reader and the “green factor.  Sure paper is saved, storage space (which is a critical issue in my home – between all of us, there are way TOO MANY books), and possible energy savings.  However, I am always a bit suspicious that “green” numbers may not be correctly calculated on a true net-net basis.  Nevertheless, there are significant motivators beyond environmental considerations.

I have also used enough e-readers to understand their advantages, particularly with all the material we have to process through daily.  These e-readers generally let you perform text searches, place electronic bookmarks, and, in some cases, create your own notes.  These features can be powerful tools, thought it may take time to find what works well for your particular needs.

On a document basis, PDF is the most common form of electronic publication I suspect most people encounter in their life (I am considering web content in its own category).  PDFs are great for sharing documents and making large libraries of reference material available in a simple and consistent manner.  A number of e-book libraries are PDF based for this reason.  Depending on how the PDF was created, it may share most, if not all, of the features of an e-book.

Commercial e-readers and associated devices are designed to enable the purchase, storage, and viewing of material from a specific source(s).  These readers tend to use propriety formats and licensing terms. 

The market leader and strong innovator in this space is Amazon.  Their Kindle devices and tablets are the most significant force behind the proliferation of e-readers and the associated publishing market.  Amazon’s devices continue to flood the market with a stream of innovative enhancements.  On the backend, the library of material grows daily.

Amazon has also created a software-only version of the Kindle reader for other devices.  This software enables cross platform capabilities for the Kindle and is a shrewd move on their part.  In essence, Apple is making another reading platform for Amazon.  Amazon’s software enables users to access their “Kindle” on their PC, iOS device, or Android device with a good experience.  These devices use the cloud to sync so the experience and appear nearly seamless.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Sony’s reader are other popular examples.  I recall reading an article last year that listed 10 software e-readers of notable quality available for the iPhone alone.  There is a lot of activity in this area.

A lack of standards has created a nagging problem for end users.  In many cases, these readers are sourcing from propriety libraries which are not interchangeable.  For example, as of today, books bought on Amazon’s Kindle store cannot be read by Apple’s iBook reader and vice versa.

It gets worse.  While the Kindle reader makes provisions for a user to read their purchased content on more than one device, including saved “notes” and “bookmarks,” the iReader does not.  In fact, you cannot even buy a book from Apple except via that application.  There is not a provision, at this time, to read your books from a Mac or PC.

Content “ownership” is also an area of great confusion.  When I buy a book, I can take it home knowing it is mine.  Other than outright theft, it cannot disappear due to the actions of a third party.  I would like to understand, in simple terms, what is happening legally when I “purchase” an e-book.  Is it non-revocable?  What happens if the provider were to go out of business; does part of my library disappear overnight?  What about bookmarks and notes?  Are these protected and, if so, what are the service levels?  How will new editions of the books be handled?  The legal issues surrounding e-books is constantly evolving and the terms of each transaction seem unique to the provider involved; what applies to one case is unlikely to apply to others.

There have been cases, well covered in the news, where some publications have been pulled back from Kindle users.  In other cases, “corrected” versions of books were pushed onto devices, replacing existing versions.  I find it troubling these actions can occur without the user’s permission.  Clearly, in these cases, it is a far cry from having a book safely stored one's own shelves.

On the personal side, I confine my e-books purchases to a few sources.  I am hoping market forces and a standards push will enable interchangeability in the future. 

CIOs and their IT organizations need to work with their stakeholders and help their organizations map out clear strategies.  Legal needs to be closely involved as there could be important IP issues.  As an example, consider the possibility an employee’s electronic notes in a book might contain proprietary information.  Other important considerations include the "lending" of books between users and what happens when someone leaves the organization.

It is going to be an exciting ride for everyone.  I will post future updates based upon my personal and professional experiences in this space.  But in the meantime, it would be a good idea for organization to make sure they have plans in place to manage this important capability.

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