When (multimedia) fiefdoms crumble

Mike coined the term multimedia fiefdoms recently. He points to a number of different streaming, purchase and rental services for video content (movies, TV series) as the new battleground for users (consumers in this case). There are of course a few more sides in this battle, including music and books, but the idea is still perfectly valid.

What he didn’t get into the details of is what happens one of those fiefdoms capitulates, declaring itself won over, and goes away. It’s not a fun situation to be in, but we actually have plenty of examples of it, and these, more than anything else, should drive the discourse around and against DRM, in my opinion.

For some reasons, the main example of failed fiefdoms is to be found in books, and I lived through (and recounted) a few of those instances. For me personally, it all started four years ago, when I discovered Sony gave up on their LRF format and decided to adopt the “industry standard” ePub by supporting Adobe Digital Editions (ADEPT) DRM scheme on their devices. I was slow on the uptake, the announcement came two years earlier. For Sony, this meant tearing down their walled garden, even though they kept supporting the LRF format and their store for a while – they may even do still, I stopped following two years ago when I moved onto a Kindle – for the user it meant they were now free to buy books from a number of stores, including some publishers, bookstores with online presence and dedicated ebookstores.

But things didn’t always go smoothly: two years later, WHSmith partnered with Kobo, and essentially handed the latter all their online ebook market. When I read the announcement I was actually happy, especially since I could not buy books off WHSmith any more as they started looking for UK billing addresses. Unfortunately it also meant that only a third of the books that I bought from WHSmith were going to be ported over to Kobo due to an extreme cock-up with global rights even to digital books. If I did not go and break the DRM off all my ebooks for the sake of it, I would have lost four books, having to buy them anew again. Given this was not for the seller going bankrupt but for a sell-out of their customers, it was not understandable that they refused to compensate people. Luckily, it did port The Gone-Away World which is one of my favourite books.

Fast forward another year, and the Italian bookstore LaFeltrinelli decided to go the same way, with a major exception: they decided they would keep users on both platforms — that way if you want to buy a digital version of a book you’ll still buy it on the same website, but it’ll be provided by Kobo and in your Kobo library. And it seems like they at least have a better deal regarding books’ rights, as they seemed to have ported over most books anyway. But of course it did not work out as well as it should have been, throwing an error in my face and forcing me to call up Kobo (Italy) to have my accounts connected and the books ported.

The same year, I end up buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, which is a pretty good tablet and has a great digitizer. Samsung ships Google Play in full (Store, Movies, Music, Books) but at the same time install its own App, Video, Music and Book store apps, it’s not surprising. But it does not take six months for them to decide that it’s not their greatest idea, in May this year, Samsung announced the turn down of their Music and Books stores — outside of South Korea at least. In this case there is no handover of the content to other providers, so any content bought on those platforms is just gone.

Not completely in vain; if you still have access to a Samsung device (and if you don’t, well, you had no access to the content anyway), a different kind of almost-compensation kicks in: the Korean company partnered with Amazon of all bookstores — surprising given that they are behind the new “Nook Tablet” by Barnes & Noble. Beside a branded «Kindle for Samsung» app, they provide one out of a choice of four books every month — the books are taken from Amazon’s KDP Select pool as far as I can tell, which is the same pool used as a base for the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the Kindle Unlimited offerings; they are not great but some of them are enjoyable enough. Amazon is also keeping honest and does not force you to read the books on your Samsung device — I indeed prefer reading from my Kindle.

Now the question is: how do you loop back all this to multimedia? Sure books are entertaining but they are by definition a single media, unless you refer to the Kindle Edition of American Gods. Well, for me it’s still the same problem of fiefdoms that Mike referred to; indeed every store used to be a walled garden for a long while, then Adobe came and conquered most with ePub and ADEPT — but then between Apple and their iBooks (which uses its own, incompatible DRM), and Amazon with the Kindle, the walls started crumbling down. Nowadays plenty of publishers allow you to buy the book, in ePub and usually many other formats at the same time, without DRM, because the publishers don’t care which device you want to read your book on (a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, an iPad, a Sony Reader, an Android tablet …), they only want for you to read the book, and get hooked, and buy more books.

Somehow the same does not seem to work for video content, although it did work to an extent, for a while at least, with music. But this is a different topic.

The reason why I’m posting this right now is that just today I got an email from Samsung that they are turning down their video store too — now their “Samsung Hub” platform gets to only push you games and apps, unless you happen to live in South Korea. It’s interesting to see how the battles between giants is causing small players to just get off the playing fields… but at the same time they bring their toys with them.

Once again, there is no compensation; if you rented something, watch it by the end of the year, if you bought something, sorry, you won’t be able to access it after new year. It’s a tough world. There is a lesson, somewhere, to be learnt about this.

The misery of the ePub format

I often assume that most of the people reading my blog have been reading it for a long enough time that they know a few of my quirks, one of which is my “passion” for digital distribution, and in particular my liking of eBooks over printed books. This passion actually stems from the fact I’d like to be able to move out of my current home soonish, and the least “physical” stuff I have to bring with me, the better.

I started buying eBooks back in 2010, when I discovered my Sony Reader PRS-505 (originally only capable of reading Sony’s own format) was updated to be able to read the “standard” ePub format, protected with Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM (ADEPT). One of my first suppliers for books in that format was WHSmith, the British bookstore chain. At the end I bought six books from them: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (which I read already, but wanted a digital copy of, after giving away my hardcopy to a friend of mine), and four books of The Dresden Files.

After a while, I had to look at other suppliers for a very simple reason: WHSmith started requiring me a valid UK post code, which I obviously don’t have. I then moved on to Kobo since they seemed to have a more varied selection, and weren’t tied to the geographical distribution of the UK vendor.

Here I got one of my first disappointments with the ePub “standard”: one of the books I bought from Kobo earlier, Douglas Adams’s The Salmon of Doubt I still haven’t been able to read!

(I really wish Kobo at least replaced the book on their catalogue, since even their applications can’t read it, or otherwise I would like some store credit to get a different book, since that one can’t be read with their own applications.)

Over time, I came to understand that the ePub specifications are just too lax to make it a good format: there are a number of ePub files that are broken simply because the ZIP file is “corrupted” (the names within the records don’t match); a few required me to re-package them to be readable by the Reader; and a few more are huge just because they decide to get their own copy of DejaVu font family in the zip file itself. Of course to fix any of these issues, you also have to take the DRM out of the picture, which is luckily very easy for this format.

Today, Kobo is once again the protagonist of a disappointment, a huge one, in terms of digital distribution; together with WHSmith. But first let’s take a step back to last week.

While in the United States with Luca, I got my hands on a Kindle (the version with keyboard); why? Well, from one side I was starting to be irked by the long list of issues I noted earlier about ePub books, but on the other hand, a few books such as Ian Fleming’s classic Bond novels were not available on Kobo or other ePub suppliers, while they were readily available on Amazon… plus a few of the books I could find on both Kobo and Amazon were slightly cheaper on the latter. I already started reading Fleming’s novels on the iPad through Amazon’s app, but I don’t like reading on a standard LCD.

Coming back home, we passed through London Heathrow; Luca went to look for a book to read on the way home, and we went to the WHBook shop there… and I was surprised to see it was now selling Kobo’s own reader device (the last WHSmith shop I was at, a couple of years ago, was selling Sony exclusively). This sounded strange, considering that WHSmith and Kobo were rivals, for me in particular but in general as well.

I wasn’t that far off, when I smelled something fishy; indeed, tonight I received a mail from WHSmith telling me they joined forces with Kobo, and that they will no longer supply eBooks on their webshop. The format being what it is, if they no longer kept the shop, you’d be found without a way to re-download or eBooks, which is why it is important for a digital distributor to be solid for me.. turns out that WHSmith is not as solid as I supposed. So they suggest you to make an account at Kobo (unless you have one already, like I did) so that they can transfer your books on that account.

Lovely! For me that was very good news, since having the books on my Kobo account means not only being able to access them as ePub (which I had already), but also that I could read them on their apps for Android and iPad, as well as on their own website (very Amazon-y of them). Unfortunately there is a problem: out of the six books I bought at WHSmith, they only let me transfer… two!

Seems like that, even though WHSmith decided to give (or sell) its customers to Kobo, as well as leaving them to provide their ebook offering instead, their partnership does not cover the distribution rights of the books they used to sell. This means that for instance the four Dresden Files novels I bought from WHSmith, that were being edited, even digitally, by the British publisher, are not available to the Canadian store Kobo, who only list the original RoC offerings.

This brings up two whole issues: the first is that unless your supplier is big enough that you can rely on it to exists forever, you shouldn’t trust DRM; luckily for me on the ePub side the DRM is so shallow that I don’t really care for its presence, and on the other hand I foresee Amazon’s DRM to be broken way before they start to crumble. The second issue is that even in the market of digital distribution, which is naturally a worldwide, global market, the regional limitations are making it difficult to have fair offerings; again Amazon seems to sidestep this issue, as it appears to me like there is no book available only on one region in their Kindle offerings: the Italian Kindle store covers all the American books as well.

Again on procuring eBooks

I know that most of you who read my blog daily don’t care about my toying with eBooks, and only read it for the technical articles; on the other hand, I feel like I can at least talk a bit about that, given that most of my personal life is uninteresting and thus I rarely write of that at all.

Anyway, you might remember I had some trouble finding where to buy eBooks and at the end I settled with – for non-technical books that is – WHSmith and Kobo as they both sell Adobe Digital Edition ePub books. Finding mainstream non-DRM ePub seems to be impossible; maybe only on Apple’s iBooks store, but it still doesn’t warrant me getting an iPad to try — even though, if you have an iPad or iPhone and can tell me whether that’s the case, I’d be curious. Finding a second-hand old-generation iPhone shouldn’t be too expensive and if that can get me access to mainstream non-DRM’d ePubs it might be worth it.

Anyway, the two sites above actually give me enough access that I don’t miss most of what I usually read; indeed, Kobo actually provided me with a few curious readings that I might as well try. Also, even though the Dollar is rising again, buying the books from Kobo is, for me, slightly cheaper than WHSmith.

Also, the fact that they are no simple eBook store makes them more intriguing; I’m not that enticed by their eReader (given I have already my PRS-505 and I’m not going to drop it any time soon), but the fact that they have applications available for a number of platforms (but not Linux, dang it! If they did, and it supported activation of Adobe DRM’d ePubs, they would be so great I could consider getting the eReader if only to fund them further). Even if I will probably not use those, I can still enjoy the fact that they let me read the books I buy on the web with any browser, on my reader in ePub format (and thus anywhere the ePub format can be read!) and since a few days also on my Milestone thanks to their Android application.

A word about the DRM here; while I’m one of those people who, I said already, prefer to abide to restrictions as long as they are an acceptable tradeoff (for instance the audiobooks DRM on iTunes is acceptable because they do cost a lot less than on unencumbered form). While I can understand the reason why most publishers won’t even consider not using DRM on the files, and I accept that at least this way I can get eBooks at all, I don’t think the tradeoff is useful to the user in this case. Indeed, given the fact that not all devices using ePub supports Adobe Digital Editions, it can be quite harsh to have it applied. add that to the not all ePubs are the same and thus you might have to access the content of the archive to change it into something usable, and you get the picture. Luckily, the ADEPT DRM has been long broken so it’s not difficult to get clean files.

Anyway, as I said, Kobo looks a nice choice to me because of the presence of the additional applications (just to put it into perspective, while I’m not considering buying an iPad, were I to, I could still read the books I bought from Kobo, without going around the DRM, as they have an iPad application); for instance I could easily read The Salmon of Doubt from my browser, even though the ePub version uses the infamous DTBook format above. Unfortunately they don’t have *everything*… not yet at least.

Anyway, last night I didn’t sleep so I could finish reading Assassin’s Apprentice (somebody suggested this to me a few years back; on the other hand I decided to read this because me and some friends were to a fair where also the author was…). Nice book indeed, just a bit “slow” (took me almost a month to read it fully, and it was just 400 pages). Next step, though, I wanted to come back to Dresden’s Files; Butcher’s style is enchanting. Three books out, I was up to read Summer KnightGrave Peril I got from Kobo so I assumed they had the next as well; somehow, they don’t. So at the end I got it from WHSmith; it bears little difference, but it still strikes me as odd.

And in all this, there seems to be no shop for Italian eBooks; sigh. If only ChiareLettere had ePubs available.. their books are quite bulky and I would love to give them away and trading them for digital copies of them. I wonder if I should get more (technical) skills about this kind of publishing and propose to handle that kind of stuff myself. I would also know where to start, maybe.

Good news for my Readers

Sony Reader PRS-505 v1.1

I’ve been told I’m overly negative and critical about everything, be it Free Software or not… probably it’s true, the problem is that in my line of work, I always have to end up thinking for the worse, and that shows in my general behaviour. I’d rather be proven wrong, that something works fine, rather than be proven wrong that something crashes in flame.

But for once I am happy about something and I’m going to write about it. And going against the current trend, I’m also going to start with a “thanks, Sony!” — although this is not related at all with the PlayStation 3, of course.

Do you remember two years ago I bought a Reader (Sony PRS-505)? I’ve been using it on and off since then, although I ended up using it mostly for smaller things, plain text converter to LRF and similar, rather than full-blown books because of the problems with viewing PDF files.

Well, yesterday I received an advert from O’Reilly, where I bought some of the PDF books I have, and I noticed this line: “PDF, .epub, Kindle-compatible .mobi, and Android .apk” (with a link to a blog post announcement about the support for ePUB in the Reader… as it was, it happened just while I was playing with the Reader for most of my time and it always escaped me… probably because that was the time I ended up in the hospital as well).

The reason why I actually read through this O’Reilly advert (I admit I don’t usually look at that stuff much; I don’t send it to spam, but most of the promotional messages get sent to a different folder/label and it gets cleared out pretty soon), is that I am probably going to buy CJKV Information Processing as soon as I have time to read it (I was actually almost going to buy it right away because I needed it to finish a job, but since the customer might actually be considered “at risk” to me, this is not the case anymore).

Anyway, since I read this particular note I decided to go on to look at the O’Reilly website; after logging in, the “Electronic Media” section wasn’t working properly (I only got a “Data Error” loading), but a mail to O’Reilly (and about two hours) later, I could finally see the books I bought in June 2008, available in many different formats. Not all of them were available in all the formats, but all of them were available in PDF (which I already got) and ePub (which is what the Reader reads). I downloaded them, and went to the next step, getting them on the Reader itself.

The problem here was that… it had been months since I last used the Reader, so its battery was totally drained; it wouldn’t be such a problem… but it doesn’t charge via USB when it’s drained, it needs an external charger. While it has a connection for that, it didn’t come with a charger (and even that would have had limited use to me, given that this model wasn’t sold in Europe so in the best of cases it would have come with an American adapter). But now the connection looked more familiar to me, with a yellow color-code. A quick search later it turns out that Sony did something good: it uses the same charger cable than the PSP (PlayStation Portable)… which I got since last year, it was a Christmas present from my sister.

I actually wondered a bit about the relationship between the Reader and the PSP: not only they have the same charger, but they both use MemoryStick Pro Duo cards (and as I have used the SD card for other things, namely photos, since last time I used the Reader, I have set it up with a Memory Stick this time; I had a 1GB one floating around since I changed the PSP’s to 4GB to store digitally distributed games). On the other hand, Sony seems to have had enough common sense to support SD as well on the Reader.

Charged the Reader up, copied the ePub over with Calibre… it doesn’t find it, because I didn’t update the firmware when it was released. Okay, time to look for the firmware update, which can, obviously, be found on the Sony product page… but only for Windows. Now this is not nice, but it’s all too common… and similarly to Nokia, there is an absurdity: the management software is available for Mac OS X as well, but the firmware updater isn’t. Sigh. This is why I keep Windows virtual machines around.

After the upgrade, and after uploading all the books to the Reader, I was finally able to try it out, and the result is hell sweet! The O’Reilly ePubs look much much nicer than the sample books shipped with the reader itself, very readable even at “small” size. I’m most likely going to get the CJKV book named above from O’Reilly at this point, to read on the Reader (reasoning being that I’m scheduled to go around a lot in the next month, and going around with a 900 pages book on Eastern languages, in English, in Italy, really sells me away too much of a nerd… beside being clumsy).

This is a photo of my Reader displaying a page from the book Time Management for System Administrators that I’ve last been struggling to read with the “previous Reader” (which is actually the same hardware, but it really feels like something new now that I can use ePub). You can see from the photo that it reads actually quite nicely.

Sure, this model is now considered quite obsolete: it has no touchscreen, it’s slow, it has no wireless connection, and all that stuff, but it feels quite solid, and even if it’s two years later, the firmware update really gave it a new spin. And of course, given this version is basically “end-of-lifed”, there is an alternative Free firmware (given that the original firmware is based on Linux, this is not surprising), which seems to bridge some feature-gaps that were missing before.

Now, can somebody point me at some other publishers of ePub material? I don’t expect much to be available in ePub format for what concerns narrative, but maybe there is something out there. For what I can tell searching quickly, WHSmith has an eBook store, and it seems to have quite a few things that I’d be quite interested in (for instance the Wheel of Time series)… there are two problems with that: the books are only available as “Adobe Digital Editions” (so, DRM-locked), and I have no clue whether they sell to Italian customers. I could probably give it a try, the reduced price can be acceptable for some stuff at least. Unless, of course, it can be cleaned up in which case I’d probably give a lot of money to WHSmith…