Friday, 5 February 2010

Books Vs E-Readers -Why E-Books Are Not The Same As MP3s

In previous posts, i have looked at the benefits of and issues with e-readers. However many people extrapolate from the success of digital music, to suggest that the imminent dominance of e-books is inevitable, i disagree.

I think it is fairly safe to say that MP3s - or more generally digital downloads - are the future of music, however this was not always certain to be the case. Poor sound quality and restrictive Digital Rights Management (DRM) could have killed or constrained the adoption of music downloads, however both of these issues have now largely been resolved. E-books currently have similar problems (screen quality is not as good as print and DRM is almost always used for e-books), they also have some even bigger hurdles to overcome compared to MP3s. Below i will outline the additional barriers to adoption of e-books compared to MP3s.  

DRM and Poor Sound Quality were only a problem for legal MP3 downloads.
Looking back to the late 90's, MP3s did not become popular because the record companies offered digital downloads, they became popular because people could copy their own music and share it with their friends. Without this initial growth in usage, it is unlikely that MP3 players or digital downloads would have become popular. Furthermore if you ripped your own CDs or obtained copies from friends, they could be CD-quality and could be played on any device due to the lack of DRM. This offered a clear advantage over the legal sources at the time.

If the Napster/Morpheus/Kazza era was utopia, then why did legal MP3 downloads gain traction? In my opinion it was a perfect storm of 3 factors. 1) The record companies poisoned illegal sources with fake MP3s. There was a time on file sharing programs, when it felt like every MP3 was blank, looped or fake, which made things a bit pointless. Which lead to 2) Increased convenience and sensible pricing in the form of the iTunes Store. Ok you had to pay for the music, but the selection was vast and you knew you were going to get the right track. Finally, more recently 3) The availability of high sound quality, DRM-free downloads. It is much more palatable to pay for music when you know that you aren't locked into specific hardware or software. Also while you are paying the same price as a CD, the sound quality is as good.

Unfortunately e-books will be crippled by restrictive DRM and lower quality for the foreseeable future. Worst of all, because there are very limited illegal alternatives, there will be little pressure for publishers to improve the situation, they are in total control whether you like it or not.

MP3 is a common standard, e-books are not.
Fairly early on in the history of digital music, people settled on MP3 as a standard format. It was flexible - offering a variety of encoding qualities - there were also a wide variety of encoders and players available.

Over the years companies have tried to push proprietary competitors - WMA from Microsoft and M4A & AAC from Apple - however they are not widely used due to incompatibilities with hardware and software. In fact, they are almost never used voluntarily. They are either forced on customers due to DRM, or are used out of ignorance, as they are the default ripping options in Windows Media Player and iTunes. There are also some more open file types, most notably OGG and FLAC. While they offer many advantages over MP3 in terms of quality and a lack of license fees, they have never become widely used as MP3 is the established standard.

E-books currently do not have an established standard, each hardware manufacturer and store are pushing their own proprietary format. So while you can buy any MP3 player and be pretty sure that your files will work on it, there is a good chance if you switch e-reader manufacturer, your files will no longer work.

You can rip a CD you own to an iPod, you can't copy a book you own to an iPad.
An MP3 player made your existing music collection portable. Ok ripping CDs took time, but it meant the usefulness of your iPod was not totally reliant on making new purchases and a single source for content. You could copy your own CDs to it and acquire MP3 files from other sources, both legal and illegal. People were prepared to pay for the hardware because it meant that they could use their existing content in a new way, even if they never spent a penny after the initial purchase.

With e-readers you have to start from scratch, if you want to read a book on your e-reader you need to buy it, even if you already own it in paper format. This means that the usefulness of the device is limited to future purchases and does not make your historic purchases more valuable. This is the most significant difference between e-readers and MP3 players, the latter adds value to what you already own, the former requires you to spend and keep spending.

An MP3 player adds value to what you already own, an e-reader devalues what you already own.

You might only want to buy one track from an album, you almost never just want one chapter of a book.
Popular music is highly episodic in nature, each track can be enjoyed in isolation and sometimes there is little benefit to hearing the whole album. However historically you had to buy a whole album even if you only wanted one song. Therefore being able to buy only the songs you wanted, was highly beneficial to customers. Much to some artists dismay, being able to buy individual tracks changed the way people buy music.

Books on the other hand - with the exception of collections of short stories, poetry and some academic books - rely on the whole composition. No-one wants to just buy the start or end of a book, or a random chapter from the middle. The bottom line is, that other than increasing availability, e-readers will not change the way people buy books.

MP3s changed they way people could buy music, e-books do not change they way people buy books.

A book in isolation is useful, music has always been useless without hardware and power.
Since the demise of gramophones, you have needed a power source to listen to music. People accept that if they buy music, regardless of its format, they will require some hardware and proximity to a power supply to make it useful. Switching from cassette tapes, to CDs, to Minidiscs, to MP3s, the basic economics and function did not change. The paradigm was the same, people were using music in the same way they had been using it for decades. The advances in portable music players have been in making devices smaller, carrying a larger catalogue and increasing battery life.

This is not the case for books, people are used to the fact that they can use a book whenever and wherever they want. They don't have to charge it from a socket or buy hardware to read it, it just works. Moving to e-books relies on completely changing the usage model. While there is the benefit of being able to carry a larger catalogue, people still have to be convinced to buy additional hardware and accept the restrictions that requiring a power source brings.

A CD without hardware and power is a shiny coaster, a book provides value by itself. 

I guess you can't stop progress and for some people e-books will make sense, but i think the adoption of e-books will be far slower than the adoption of MP3s. And while the progress of MP3s has been relatively fast, keep in mind that even after over a decade, you can still get just about any music you want on a CD. 

Tomorrow i will post a round-up of my conclusions and most importantly what publishers could do to make e-readers a no-brainer purchase.

Books Vs E-Readers Series
4 - Why E-books Are Not The Same As MP3s

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