eBook Formats: You’re Getting Screwed And Liking It

I hate proprietary things. I really, really do. Even when proprietary is done ‘for the right reasons’ such as the standards aren’t up to snuff or standards bodies move to slow. Proprietary products kill markets and potential just like Proprietary Networking Kills Opportunity.

Maybe it’s because I just watched Moneyball last night and the message “evaluate what is important” resonated with me. At least in the movie, re-evaluating what was important in players stats changed the game for the Athletics and subsequently baseball.

Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that corporations are looking out for the consumer. They are not.

Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, <pick your favorite big corporation>. These companies are not your friends. They are not looking out for your best interests. They are not in business for your benefit. They are voracious entities whose sole purpose is to get as much of the pie as they can get.

The result is that their very actions hurts themselves and hurt the consumer. Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft place a great deal of value on proprietary file formats. By doing so, the file formats locks us directly and via network effect, into an ecosystem and limits your choices for other products. Let’s take office file formats as an example.

Microsoft’s .doc document format became the eminent format and Word became the eminent word processing package. This happened for a number of reasons like Microsoft practically giving away to schools and colleges, packaging Word on systems, offering Office at steep discounts to OEM’s, etc. All of these actions combined effectively shut out the competition but that was just business. The bad part was the ensuing lock-in from direct use of Word and the network effect of others also using Word thus forcing you and anyone you shared Word documents with into using Word.

Yes, you could read and write Microsoft’s document format with Wordperfect and other word processors, but having lived through that experience for 3-4 years, I can tell you the translation was spotty at best when the document format became even moderately complex. Bullet lists would not translate properly. Font formatting was a mess. Line spacing was all over the place. Yes, you could save a file in a different format like RTF, another proprietary format, or plain old ASCII text, but let’s face it, those are both non-starters. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you will do something and you often can’t make others bend to your will.  It took a ton of work by end users to make Wordperfect read and write Word files. As more and more people and organizations used Microsoft Office, the effort to interact with others became burdensome. It was easier to switch than fight. I switched to Word even though I preferred using Wordperfect.

If the Wordperfect Coropration, then Novell, then Corel, could have dominated the word processing landscape, the only thing that would have changed in the last 20 years is the file format and the bad guy but the result would be the same. A single file format tied to a program with translation being spotty at best.

The point is not “bad old Microsoft.” The point is “bad old proprietary file formats.”

If, at the time, there was a document standard (I am honestly not sure there was) that could have been adopted, the office suite market would be very different today. We might have office suites that at the very least differentiated on features and approach. Consumers, whether an individual or multi-national corporation, could make a choice based on their functional needs. I was told by lawyers at the time, that Wordperfect was used throughout the legal profession because the document layout would not change when a document was moved from one computer to another—a very important requirement. There were other reasons such as a cadre of legal professionals used to Wordperfects keyboard short cuts and other features. I don’t believe that is the case today.

Fast forward to today and let’s focus on eBook formats as one example. There are a number e-book formats. This Wikipedia article lists 17 formats. I am pretty sure that there are more. None are compatible with each other and some readers simply use multiple rendering engines to display different formats. Some formats like Amazon’s format are only displayable within Amazon’s own software. If there isn’t a Kindle application for your platform, then you can’t read Kindle books. It’s ridiculous.

The consumer, that would be you and I, is screwed. There is no need for proprietary eBook formats other than for device and reader makers like Amazon and Apple to lock you into their product set. Apple went way, way out into left field with their iBook Textbooks and iBooks Author software which, at least today, can only be created on an Apple device and can only be viewed on an Apple product. Apple’s iBooks Textbooks announcement would been laughable if they hadn’t partnered with three big text book publishers and are embarking on a program to sell these to public and private schools. K-12 today and colleges later on.

Here we go again. A big company using a proprietary format to lock-in customers and remove options. I am afraid that the education system may take a bite from this Apple and we will end up with another 20 years of stifled innovation and competition.

I’ll wrap with a quote from a blog iBooks Author, a nice tool but… written by  Daniel Glazman, co-chairman of the W3C CSS Working Group.

When a piece of software is so well designed from a UI point of view and could become such an attractor in terms of usage, I feel this is a totally wrong strategy. Opening up everything and using only carefully chosen standards and matching the version of WebKit used by Safari would have given an immense and almost unbeatable competitive advantage to Apple, would have attracted even more people to the Mac platform and would have turned the iBooks Store into the primary online choice of publication for all new books.