Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Do We Need Multiple eBook Formats?

I made a reference earlier this week to the Betamax/VHS battle. I don’t know what the demograph of this blog is but it’s possible a few readers furrowed brows at the reference to Betamax. For those who are too young to remember, Betamax was a popular video tape format developed by Sony in the late Seventies/early Eighties which competed with the VHS format that ultimately became the consumer tape format of choice. I don’t know how the battle raged in North America, but in the UK, which was emerging from a recession (yeah, we had them back then, too), people generally didn’t buy videos to keep, at least initially, but rented them. Generally towns were polarised by the formats, with video rental shops dictating what format player you bought, or more likely back then, rented.
Betamax tape top, VHS below
The formats weren’t compatible, so you plumped for one or the other. The popular belief is that Betamax was initially the better quality format, using a wider tape; VHS was slimmer which has its own advantages. By the time the battle was over VHS quality had overtaken Betamax and Sony quietly slipped in with the consensus, manufacturing VHS format recorders. The point of all this rambling is to point out that while the market loves competition, it hates being constrained by artificial packaging. There’s a famous marketing book that proves that you can’t have a Coca Cola company without a Pepsi – the market rails against monopolies. So while it’s great news that we’ve got Sony, Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble all competing for the eReader market, not all of these products are compatible with all ebooks. My guess is that has to change.
The first chink in the vertical separation of formats is the emergence of the super-eReaders, the Kindle Fire, Kobo Vox, Nook Color mini tablets. Running on Android there’s a hint of convergence which can be added to the capability to upload the various proprietary Android Apps for free. So consumers can read their Kindle books on their Kobo Vox if they wish. This is actually a significant chink; it should force competitiveness in eBook pricing as a minimum.

There's a whole host of eBook formats out there, as this Wikipedia article testifies; but in reality there's only two that affect the majority of us - Amazon's .azw and the open standard .ePub.  Amazon's offering is a modification of the mobipocket format that has a few technical differences, most significantly the DRM (Digital Rights Management).  DRM makes it harder to copy eBooks, potentially reducing piracy, which as an author I suppose I should be grateful for.  The ePub format is an open format, which means anyone can use it, and it is probably the format pirated the most.

If this was the Eighties, .azw was Betamax and ePub was VHS then the writing would be on the wall - given that the Amazon format is more restrictive than ePub - but there's one critical difference this time around; by some accounts Amazon have cornered 70% of the eBook market.  Of course, it depends what's being measured; statistics are rarely straightforward, however they certainly do have an extensive reach.  Christmas 2010 was a defining period for both Amazon and the eReader industry, the point in time that the tipping point of acceptance was approached - at the time many thought it had been reached but a year on it's clear that the acceptance is still wavering in the air.  But Amazon did a great job of promoting both the concept and their product last year and have maintained the pressure since.  And in the face of increasing competition they've kept the pressure up with an intensive media campaign coupled with an attempt to secure exclusive rights to published work, a scheme if successful that will deprive other eBook sellers of access to certain books - I've declined the offer, but somehow I don't think I was the main target.

If Amazon were to get its way it would effectively create a monopoly, marginalising the competition.  I personally don't think they will succeed, and the market forces I discussed above will help prevent them from achieving their goal - and anyway the mini-tablets being sold now more or less pull that rug from under them.  Consequently, with or without direct action from consumers, I believe Amazon will have to accept the inevitable and incorporate the ePub format.  It will only be a hop, skip and a mini jump for the main eBook sellers to be able to sell us books that will work on any eReader.  As consumers we can shop around for the best deal for the books we want to read - it gets my vote, even if it does drive the cost of my own books down.  Importantly, as consumers we would choose eReaders, mini-tablets and anything else that may be around the corner on the basis of what they do, how well they do it and what we can afford, not based on which book format we feel locked into.

The sooner Amazon accept this, the sooner they can achieve the real value-adding activity they can provide - true competition for Apple in the iPad style tablet market.  Instead of creating a new monopoly, they can help break what is the exception to the rule in marketing - the Apple iPad monopoly.
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