James Linden

~# data ninja / linux guru / web dev geek / robotics nerd / idea machine / N6NRD

On eBooks: An Almost Pointless Rant

I've often been asked about my personal opinions regarding the eBook format wars and related topics. Generally, I avoid lengthy discussions about them, but I have decided it is time to put some of my thoughts into words. It may be rambling at times, so bear with me. Many things I think are by no means original and acknolowdgements to all the different contributors would be longer than the text itself, so forgive me for not typing out a bibliography.

Currently, there are many formats from which a user may choose when creating, publishing, or using an eBook. This often leads to confusion and frustration, as there never seems to be a true "correct" format to choose. One format may work well for the user's PDA, while another may be suited for their desktop computer. This means that users need to worry with two different formats, just to fulfill their own particular needs. The case for publishers is quite different. Publishers must attempt to gauge the market saturation of each format based on only vague statistics which are often highly inaccurate in the first place. Once they have made assumptions on the value of each format, they must decide which ones to actually provide to the end-user. Naturally, we cannot ignore such factors as DRM, distribution methods, etc. in this equation. So many variables often intimate small-time publishers and keep them from taking advantage of eBook technology. Larger publishers may choose to "ramrod" a particular format, generally based solely on their own market perspective. All of these factors are further influenced by corporate marketing and direct vendor pressure. Unfortunately for the end-user, Such is the taste of capitalism.

Capitalism should not be the name of the game in certain venus, and I would much prefer a socialist mentality in regard to eBook technology. Innovation is crucial to any growth, but too many conflicting changes surely hurts all. Some of the "bigger names" in the eBook world, limited as it is, have come together to attempt to build a "standard" for eBook formatting under the banner of the Open eBook Forum. While noble, this act alone will not suffice to solve the prevailing issue. Content authors, publishers, distributors, and end-users alike must collaborate on the solution, or the entire puzzle will not be completed. OeB's high membership fees and limited perspective, if left unchecked, will only serve to make such matters worse.

I have had the pleasure of living both in the United States and Canada, and I dream of a country built upon the merger of the two. To some, this would be heresy, to others, a pipe dream. Call it what you will, but I will not cease to hope for such improvements. In Canada, I feel safe walking down almost every street, no matter the time of the day or night. When I go into the local library, I am recieved by staff whom are helpful and courteous - from deep down, not fabricated or forced. People help each other in small ways everywhere I look: to cross the street, or hold the door, or clean up spilled coffee. Older people often offer to let me go ahead of them in line, to which I always refuse. Yes, there are homeless and needy persons in Canada, most of which have simply set upon harder times than others. In the States, I generally analyze each street, judging threats to my safety and sanity, and what such threats may inflict upon others around me. When I walk into a store, I am taken care of by employees who seem to be only waiting for lunch, closing time, or their next break. They are polite, but not often forthcoming with real helpfulness. I often feel the need to manipulate situations to extract the assistance I may need, or compelled to spend long minutes "shooting the shit" with nervous, chatty people who seem to only want to make themselves feel like they are doing their job, and don't particuarly seem to care what I think. Most of the homeless people I have met in the States don't appear to be motivated to change themselves or their lives. Don't get me wrong, my comparisions between the States and Canada are not based on scientific statistics or studies, but more of a random sampling of my own experiences in small towns and big cities. I love the United States and Canada, each for it's own particular qualities.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with eBooks? Like most things in life, everything has something to do with anything else. The mentality seems to be so similar from one venue to the next, it is hard to decipher the line between them. Many people I talk to about eBooks don't grasp the possibilities of the technology, nor can they appreciate the hardships in the evolution of it. Authors seem to be timid about eBooks, lest their meaning is lost. Publishers are paranoid and don't want "their" product to be pirated. Vendors don't see it as a viable technology, because they can't make a big enough profit. End-users are confused by too many variables, and give up on getting a solution for their needs.

If each group of people in the equation decided to lay aside their own personal fear, wealth, paranoia, and frustration, we could build the eBook puzzle, together, to the benefit of all. Unrealistic? Maybe. Impossible? Never!

What if one construction company decided to do every portion of a project instead of subcontracting out to qualified people for each piece? If this were the case, a single contractor would have to be so large as to have all its own experts from every imaginable field, from concrete to plumbing and everything in between. Such a company would be so large as to surely collapse upon itself under its own administrative load. Projects would be bogged down in their own mire. This is insanity, you are surely saying, but is it? The industrial revolution led to specialization of professions so that each piece of a puzzle could be put in its place by those best qualified to do so. Have we, the eBook community as a whole, not learned from the lessons of history? A single format will never solve every issue, nor a single company serve every need.

Multiple formats is not the issue at the heart of our woes. Capatilistic companies do not shape our perspective on their own. We, the authors, publishers, vendors, and end-users, all must build own solutions based on our needs, working together when possible.

When the founding fathers of the United States came together and wrote the framework for modern government, they did not have all the solutions, nor were they so arrogant as to believe they did. They did, however, believe that they and their successors and decendants would and could find solutions to the issues. Abraham Lincoln did not have answers to the underlying sociological issues of racism and slavery when he uttered the words "...all persons held as slaves...be then, thenceforward, and forever free;". Winston Churchill said, in 1941, "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." Little did he know the price of such a stance that would come in just a few short years. To this day, history shows that because a portion of the world did not give in or yield to force, most of the world remains generally free.

There is no right or wrong way in the eBook world, much like most of life itself. We must simply use "good sense" and "convictions of honor" in building the foundation for the future of literature. Printed books will never become extinct, but like everything else, they will have their place in the world. Bantering and soapboxing issues doesn't usually solve them. If you think you have a better idea, work on it, and see what the world has to say. Alexander Graham Bell did. Henry Ford did. Edward Jenner did. Igor Sikorsky did. Why not you?

Do I have practical solutions to some of the actual issues? Yes, I do. I have been working on them, with a lot of input from other people, for the past four years. Do I have everything solved? Don't be absurd, I'm only one man. Do I want to help solve the entire puzzle? Absolutely!

photo of James Linden
Founder / Head Geek
Digital Dock, LLC
aka kodekrash & N6NRD
Alexandria, LA USA

What I Do

Linux administration & virtualization
Data mining, storage & analysis
Web development

What I've Done

Rescued a skunk
Built Prime GNU/Linux
Contributed to Spidering Hacks