After the obligatory period of speculation, Amazon’s Kindle 2 has arrived. It was announced a couple of weeks ago amid much fanfare and hoopla. Initial reviews give it good marks, but time in the hands of actual end-users will tell the tale. It looks like the design has seen some improvements, and I’m glad to see any type of e-book technology make a little headway. Engadget enjoyed a grand unboxing yesterday, so we’re off to the races.
In thinking about e-books, e-book readers, and how libraries might approach this technology, a number of questions come to mind. One question, however, stands out above all others: How do we free licensed e-books from the tethers of vendor web sites? Most of our e-books are viewed through the Adobe Acrobat reader or through some other proprietary format that depends on having a plug-in installed on a desktop computer. While this is sometimes okay for searching technical manuals in the office, this is completely unacceptable for extended reading. Many vendors who peddle e-books to libraries kind of miss the point that THE REST OF OUR BOOKS ARE PORTABLE. If the e-book is tied to a vendor’s server, then users are also tied to that server. That means that the users must have a computer and a persistent network connection to access the content. Even the tiny netbooks out on the market don’t match the portability of a book.
If we can’t get past that question, then the other questions become even more difficult. I’ve read of a number of libraries asking whether they should offer specific devices for accessing their e-book collections. Assuming that they could work out appropriate licensing with a vendor, do libraries really need to get involved in supporting another exotic technology? Maybe – maybe not. Depends on the library, its resources, collections, and the needs of the patron base. Not all patrons will even want to read electronic books, but for those who do, libraries would probably be better served by letting patrons pick their own reading devices. The Kindle 2 and Sony’s Reader are both viable options, but so is the iPhone. As smartphones become smarter, there will be even more options for both hardware and software.
Libraries have enough to do just trying to make sense of the formats. Take a look at NetLibrary’s Full-Text eContent FAQ. In trying to support NetLibrary, libraries are looking at three different plug-ins: Adode Reader (Windows), Schubert-It PDF Viewer (Mac), and DJvu Reader (Windows/Mac). Go to ebrary, and it doesn’t get any better. They have three different versions of a proprietary book reader. Amazon’s Kindle supports Mobipocket books, plain text files, and – you guessed it – Amazon’s own proprietary format. Sony Reader supports PDF, TXT, RTF, SecurePDF, and ePub. Few organizations have the time, inclination, or resources to support so many competing formats.
In spite of all that though, there is a growing market for e-book content. If the publishers could just get together on standards for formatting and server-free licensing, that could do a lot to really help the market take off.