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BY SEAN CLARK

In his post the other day, my esteemed colleague mentioned his preference for watching televisions shows online with sites such as Hulu. He mentioned the “brute force” distributor control that is slowing things down.  He said more, and I agree with most of what he said.  I won’t repeat it; you can read it on your own.  I want to chime in though (be forewarned, I can ramble like the best of them).

I derive a geeky pleasure from reading tech blogs like DVICE, and reading about future technologies being worked out by company labs now.  Sometimes, though, the technology we are aching for as consumers is actually a few years old.  Our economy and our society’s technological gumption both rely heavily on competition.  When companies are locked in battle, fighting for market share by creating the best product, the consumer and technology both benefit.  When their hearts aren’t really in it (as I would assert is the case going on with Sony and Amazon with their readers), the consumer and technology suffer.

I remember reading a long while back speculations about what was next for television producers after HDTV became the standard.  Well now it is, so where to next?  Some people say 3D, but that’s just a gimmick, and like it did in the 80s it will pass.  People still don’t want to wear those foolish glasses all the time.  So the real next step is internet-capable interactive televsion.  This means viewing soap operas and being able to change camera angles, playing along from home with game shows, controlling replays and stat bars on sporting events, and uploading clips from Lost onto your Facebook account next to your lame time theory tags.  This also means, as Nico mentioned, having regular access to sites like Hulu and YouTube right from your television.  Internet streaming boxes like (Roku and  Vudu) are bringing this to consumers currently, and soon some TVs will connect on their own.  But what’s taken so long?

Well, the television manufacturers already thought of this a while ago. Perhaps surprisingly, what’s holding things back is those clunky and outdated guide pages and menus in your digital cable box.  It seems that a while back Sony and Comcast got into a little tiff about who controls the channel navigation and guide software (and, more importantly to them, the embedded advertising) that viewers use to watch digital cable TV.  They ended up compromising, and the result is we the consumers are still stuck with clunky navigation for digital television that looks and feels–the whole On Demand delivery is laughably ugly and poorly organized–decidedly 90s-tech.  And because the heavy hitters did this, everyone else pretty much followed suit–at least that is my guess for why satellite providers don’t offer anything better.  Now that the cable providers have better bandwidth control, internet access and the advertising involved isn’t going to hurt their business. More importantly, they’ve partnered up with sites like Hulu so the modes of delivery are not longer at odds, monetarily speaking.

What does this have to do with ebooks?  Simply put, in much the same fashion as televsion a few years ago there are too many hands in the pot, and everyone is keeping their trademarked ingredient in a tight fist.  Okay, that was a dumb metaphor.  But the fact is, the corporations are not going to change their business practices unless they see good reason too.  Right now, they don’t see much demand for a full stew of open format ebooks and consumer-friendly reader pricing.  With the iPod, Apple had the convenience of toppling a lot of rather crummy MP3 players while they vied for power against the slowing CD market and start up intermediary formats like Sony’s MiniDisc.  Consumers were looking for a better (smaller and quicker) way to use, transport, and manage their music.  By being better than the rest, Apple quickly installed an enormous userbase and gobbled up the market share, allowing them to flex their muscle with iTunes.  Eventually this changed the music industry entirely.  Rather than looking for the best product to house their files, users now look for the best way to fill their hardware (be it iPod or Zune or whatever else).  Yet even then Apple couldn’t do as they pleased (or at least how they claimed to please): It took many years for them to finally rid their store of DRM.  This was in part because the recording companies had their own demands about price and DRM, and partly because it made more sense as far as spreading their market share to keep content locked to their device.

It won’t work the same for books.  While there are many of us who are looking for a way to carry hundreds of books with us at once, the average person very likely only carries around one maybe two books at a time (if that).  It is for this reason the Kindle is seeing so much success.  By allowing blogs and periodicals (unfortunately, for a fee) to be accessed wirelessly from anywhere, the functionality opens up tremendously.  Eventually, all the readers, if they are to succeed, will adopt this sort of functionality as well as basic word processing and note taking and cross-referencing software, just as most current MP3 players have the same basic functionality of the iPod. Unlike with MP3s though, the ebook surge is going to happen only when the software–not the hardware–gets figured out.  One of two things will happen. A.) One format will emerge that is the king of all the rest.  Some are trumpeting ePub as this very format, though I think we’ll see something with even more multimedia functionality eventually. Or B.) the readers all open to all formats, and DRM goes bye bye.  The creators need to focus less on the hardware, and more on the distribution.

Many people are calling (and rightly so) for DRM to be abolished in ebooks, and it likely will.  But I don’t think anytime soon. With it’s huge catalog and quickly growing Kindle user base, Amazon stands to be, if it isn’t already, in a very similar situation to Apple.  Most likely they are going to push their own content and ride it, as well as the Kindle’s premium price tag, for as long as they can (A).  At the same time, the publishing companies are in no rush to sell electronic versions of their books at price points significantly lower than what the market would demand.  Eventually books (this is my own guess here) will sell digitally for $8-$10 new; back catalog $3-$5.  There will still be hardcovers, but in lower volume distribution. This will happen much the same way as album prices dropped from $20+ to around $10 as the MP3 rose in favor.  But this is many steps down the path, becasue right now people are willing to pay stupid amounts for new releases, or just stay with paper.

What the consumers need to get there, both in terms of practicality and ease of use as well as prodding the industry forward, is an iTunes model for digital publishing.  This will more than likely stem from Amazon (the Sony eBook Store sucks, and there isn’t much else in terms of competition), but it doesn’t have to.  Now I realize that iTunes isn’t the only place to buy music, but it represents a centralization of an industry, and agreement by a collection of corporations to do things a certain and standardized way (B). If we really want ebooks to take off (and internet capable TVs, and efficient automobiles, and every other Jetsons gadget you’ve been hoping for), start praying not for one or two companies to lower prices out of the goodness of their hearts (the way they see it, people are literally waiting in line to cough up $400 for a Kindle 2 with a cover, then pay to access free blogs), while still playing their own game in their own court, but for all of them to find a consistency through tried-and-true competition.  Only then will the consumer start dictating things again, by means of the almighty dollar.

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