Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Saturday, February 25, 2006

eBook Reading Software

The first thing any eBook owner finds out is that certain software will work on their hardware and some won’t. Most eBook readers have only a single operating system. Some PDAs and nearly all handheld computers will take on several. Further, if you count your desktop PC or your laptop as your eBook reader, they too will take on several reading software types. With the limited space I have here, I can’t possibly go into each and every eBook reading software – so I’ll take on the most well used types after I discuss platform software in general.

Almost every eBook reading device (as a stand alone reader) comes with a proprietary platform software that will allow books to be downloaded to them only as their software type. The first eBook companies then cut deals with publishers to market books using their software. Frankly, this went over like the proverbial lead balloon with consumers. Consumers don’t ever give a darn about various company’s profit sheet, and they shouldn’t! Consumers want versatility and across the board buying power – they don’t want to be limited by some boardroom’s greedy little deals. Hence, these agreements all went up in flames, as they should have and the first eBook ideas failed en masse.

Loading to these proprietary formats was a nightmare, because whatever eBook file you held then had to be converted to their format. Many formats could not be converted at all from one into another. Most didn’t take photos or illustrations unless they too were individually embedded by hand. Further, the supply of available books was sorely limited, which all in turn limited the usefulness of an eBook reader and the marketplace rightfully shunned them.

Then along came Microsoft and Adobe. They saw the future and it was the paperless society. They knew that if the human eye was to make contact with words in the 21st century, is was NOT going to be on antique paper but a glowing screen. This was the real beginning of practical, useful eBook reading. The first thing both companies did right was to make the software available for free. These formats can be read on nearly all desktops, laptops and hand held computers.

Microsoft immediately stumbled in this race by linking downloads and their reader to what they call a “passport” scheme. This was ostensibly to protect authors and publishers from being relentlessly copied and shared, as was the case in the music industry. Unfortunately, it also immediately limited the usefulness of their product. For example, of the 10 or so computers and handhelds I have, Microsoft will not even allow a “passport” for half of them by their arbitrary limitations. (Can you even imagine that? “Here, we would like to offer you a product, but you can’t actually have it! You, consumer, have exceeded your limits.” What the heck is this all about? Rationing an electronic product?? It’s a good thing Microsoft isn’t in charge of the potato chip market.) Further, publishing to Microsoft Reader is a difficult, non-user friendly ordeal that is not easy or fun. The good news is that once you get though all the profit-motivated hoops, the reader ends up in a very attractive final product that can resemble the original look of the hard-copy book if the publisher works hard enough. But at the end of the day, Microsoft has made it very difficult on everyone by keeping their eye on the buck instead of the consumer. In the end - this is not a good idea for the consumer and the buck goes somewhere else.

Adobe came along about the same time and launched their Adobe reader, also a free download. But Adobe somehow managed to bypass ALL the problems associated with Microsoft Reader. They don’t have any ridiculous “passport” scheme in place. (They allow the publisher or document originator to control document access internally.) Further, the publisher or writer develops the document then “publishes” it to the Adobe software. The end product looks EXACTLY like the original and the author does not have to worry about the magic of how that happened, or formatting or illustration compatibility! As far as the reader is concerned, the product is very clean and looks exactly like the hard copy in every way possible. It is a brilliant, easy to use from both the publisher’s angle and the consumer. It would be very hard even to improve on this product at all – it is nearly perfect.

In March, I will review eBook reading devices. It looks like SONY has developed a reader that may actually finally bridge the gap and make eBooks a mainstream device. As soon as I get my hands on one (due on the market this spring), I’ll let you know. It looks like the SONY reader will seamlessly import Adobe manufactured documents - a real first in eBook platform capabilities. I wonder why it won't also import Microsoft Reader documents? Hmmm - I guess SONY couldn't scrounge up enough passports...

PS. The device shown above is the first eBook reader platform - the RCA Rocketbook. It was the device that hooked me. It has its severe first technology limitations - but it was just way cool - just like my Apple II 16K marvel.