There has been so much excitement about the iPad as an ereading device that it is easy to forget what it is really good at: the internet. And this could be a problem for the book trade because it may just hand the keys to the digital books future to Google.
The current model of downloading DRM ebooks on to a device is problematic: if the Kindle and Sony ereader were electric cars, they would be the Sinclair C5 - noble but fatally flawed devices that sort-of point towards a future, but a different future that will never happen.
One of the biggest problems with these devices is interoperability, something that current DRM prevents. If I had spent that last year buying my ebooks for my Sony ereader and then decided that I wanted to buy an iPad I would not be able read the ereader books on my new device. This is a problem for book buyers who want to return to the books they love. Amazon have side stepped the issue with their Kindle app which would allow me to read Kindle books on my iPad. But this does not address the long term issue: what happens to my ebooks in 5 or 10 years time as devices change and evolve? DRM, as it currently exists, means that I can only access my books on the brand of device I bought originally: if I choose to jump ship to another brand, I run the risk of losing access to all my previous purchases. And in 5 years time plenty of other brands of ereader capable devices will be available.
There is a solution to this problem. If I am committed to reading ebooks on a tablet device - and judging by sales of the iPad, millions more will be committed to this experience than the dedicated ereader experience - I could start buying my ebooks through Google editions when it launches. Because these books are stored in the cloud (ie on the internet, like web based mail stores individual emails) I can access them from any internet capable device, be it a reader, a tablet device or even a laptop: my ebooks suddenly become platform agnostic, shrugging their metaphorical shoulders at whatever shiny new device I choose to buy. Right now the experience of reading a book through my web browser is not great, but HTML 5 will quickly change that by producing a richer web experience. The signs already point in this cloud-based direction. Google's Chrome operating system is designed for portable netbooks but it will, no doubt, also be able to power tablet devices at some point (just as Android is used to power the Nook). Chrome is, in essence, a browser and nothing else. It lets you connect to the internet where you can access your email and your documents in cloud-based applications. It will also let you access your cloud-based books but it will not let you download them.
And the music industry has been here before. Apple stopped using DRM for their tracks some time ago so that users could download iTunes music on to any device. But this is old hat now because the music industry is all about the cloud. Spotify in the UK and Europe and Pandora in the US have both signaled a shift in the way music is consumed. Previously, users downloaded their tracks onto their computer or device but a Spotify account means that downloading is no longer necessary. For less than £10 you can access a library of music that you can play on multiple computers and multiple mobile phones. And you can share an unlimited number of tracks with friends and colleagues easily (they still need a Spotify account to play the music though). It is not a great leap in the imagination to see a book version of Spotify snapping at the heels of proprietary ebook stores by offering a better experience and a longer term way of storing and accessing ebooks. But only one company appears to moving in this direction: Google. So could it be that by producing cloud-based ebooks they have already won the ebook war? And, what with the continued debate within the trade about the Google settlement, is it right that Google could become be the best source of ebooks?
DRM is not something that I think we should do away with. It is important. However so is interoperability and a long term view of ebooks as products. The industry needs to grow digitally to last and we need to start thinking uncomfortable thoughts about how we help readers access books in the way they want before companies like Google lock up the market.
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