The global eBook platform I have been describing—dubbed the Miranda Proposal in earlier posts—has such powerful potential, both socially and economically, that there will be significant competition among those who would seek to build and control it.
Prologue part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 Epilogue
The leader in the eBook platform war could well arise not from high-tech software and hardware companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, but from the book publishers themselves, who have the most to gain from controlling the platform, and the most to lose if they fail to secure that beachhead. In many ways I hope they succeed.
The problem with software and hardware companies controlling our media is that they really want to restrict you, as best they can, to their hardware and software. The companies I mentioned are focused on selling their own devices, so they have a stake in developing a proprietary eBook platform that will only work, or work much better, on their systems.
But tomorrow’s eReader won’t be locked to a specialty device, like a Kindle or a Nook. It will be your smartphone or tablet—whatever device you have at hand from whatever manufacturer. All devices are now eReaders, and with cloud technology, each device will know what you are reading and which page you left off, no matter which device you used last. (Picking up where you left off across devices is already a Kindle feature.)
The ultimate goal of device manufacturers is to sell devices, not books, so they have little motivation to create marvelous eBook platforms based on open standards. Amazon makes far more selling electronics and clothing than books, and would probably give away eBooks just to entice you to visit their store.
There is a real danger in having a tech company control the eBook platform of the future. Apple is already trying to make content itself proprietary, in the area of self-publishing. The license agreement for iBooks Author states “If you want to charge a fee for a work that includes files in the .ibooks format generated using iBooks Author, you may only sell or distribute such work through Apple.” Yikes!
This is, as far as I know, the first time that a software license agreement has stipulated that you must sell any works you create using that software in that software manufacturer’s store. It’s as if Microsoft were to insist that all creative works you create using MS Word have to be distributed through MSN. Or for that matter, that all video you take using a Sony camera has to be distributed via Sony Entertainment. It’s an extraordinary stance, and I hope that it fails in the courts. (Then again, what self-publishing David is likely to rise up and fight Apple?)
While brilliant platforms can arise from software giants or even startups—one has only to look at Facebook or any of a host of Silicon Valley companies—the most likely candidates for the Miranda Proposal ideal are those who can combine content (books), social networking, and an integrated third-party application marketplace. The hardest part is the content—unless of course you are a major book publisher.
Unlike device manufacturers, book publishers create books. If they build an eBook platform it will more likely be based on a vision of where the book will go, delivering value to readers. This is why I believe that tomorrow’s eBook platform should be developed and delivered by a major book publisher—one with the financial resources to fund it, the marketing power to promote it, the vision to build it correctly, and enough inventory to stock it from the day it launches.
A major book publisher would have the ability to generate a social network quickly, based on the mindshare they already possess. They would not be inclined to build on a proprietary, restricted model, because they are not trying to push a specific device or software platform. An open platform that runs on every device might not sell more iPads, but it would certainly sell more books.
The major book publishers could collaborate on such a project, as an open platform standard, or perhaps one publisher will rise to the occasion and create the ultimate eBook platform themselves, charging a small “platform tax” to distribute books by other publishers. But the eBook platform, to be truly valuable to readers and to deliver on the vision of social transformation I have proposed, will need to support all books just as much as it supports all devices and all of its human readers around the globe.
Specialty book publishers who focus on art history books, scientific books, academic courseware, and self-publishing can of course succeed in building specialty platforms if they do a great job of catering to their audiences. But the Miranda Proposal vision is about a global standard for all eBooks.
In all likelihood, the company to achieve mindshare with a platform that delivers the right combination of features (not to be confused with the most features, Mr. Gates) will become the de facto standard for the future. Why? Because the company that delivers the right combination of components: valued content, social networking, and a robust third-party application marketplace, will be all but impossible to displace.
Barring of course all the potential for major missteps, including poor scalability, bad interface design, buggy software, unmanaged complexity, flip-flops over privacy, overzealous multimedia, interruptive advertising, or flawed digital rights management policies. Come to think of it, forget what I said about impossible. Platforms are always a challenge to build.
But do it right, and you will have the world of readers at your doorstep.