Could California Kill Kindle?

03Jan10

Stormy Peters thinks Amazon could get more consumer business by opening their format (Stormys Corner: Amazon, let me give you more money!). But I think there might be bigger stakes than that!

Over the weekend, I read that California has now approved the use of “electronic text books” in class, instead of the old-fashioned dead-tree kind. If you live in California (perhaps other areas as well), your first thought, like mine, may have been “Well, that will be the death of the giant-backpack-with-wheels-and-towing-handle industry!” California’s approved textbooks have been creeping up on the Oxford English Dictionary with each new cycle, and watching a 3rd-grader drag around a graduate-studies research library like a caboose has become a constant regret.

But, no more! The California legislature has allowed California schools to use electronic books instead of print. You can get that whole back-pack into an Amazon Kindle, or a Barnes & Noble Nook, or a Sony Reader.

Or, can you? You see, the legislature really only authorized the state Superintendent of Schools to find suitable e-books. And given the history of centrally ordered, custom manufactured, OED-busting gigabooks, the question will inevitably come up, “Which format shall we use?” And if you own a Kindle but the state chooses the Nook (or any other mismatched combination), well then, no, you won’t be able to get those books onto that device.

It seems like this e-textbooks idea has a very large chance to drive something approaching monopoly in the device market, unless the device vendors can be persuaded to use an open format. PDF is a possibility, but not so attractive as you might suppose, since it tends toward a specific page layout, yet these devices have different size screens: if you scale the page so it fits, you may not be able to read it. I’m sure that can be avoided, but at the least it means a constant QA effort to ensure that every page displays reasonably on every device. Which I’m not sure I see a textbook publisher doing. So we might end up with only one supported reader, anyway.

(This all sounds so familiar … oh, wait … the HTML Wars!).

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7 Responses to “Could California Kill Kindle?”

  1. Very good text. I’ve found your site via Google and I’m really glad about the information you provide in your articles. Btw your blogs layout is really broken on the Kmelon browser. Would be really great if you could fix that. Anyhow keep up the great work!

    • 2 jrep

      Thanks for the K-Meleon heads-up, but it looks fine to me (K-Meleon 1.5.3). Maybe you need an update? Or, what looks wrong to you?

  2. 3 Jamie Gray

    I wonder whether your parting comment hints at the answer – could the format be simply HTML? (well, HTML in a zipwad with images, CSS etc.).

    What you don’t get is any sort of DRM, or the restricted ability to tamper with the contents that you get with PDF. I found myself musing, “If only there was an open-source format for tamper-proof DRM”, but then realized that this may not be something that the open-source community is enthusiastic about…

    • 4 jrep

      I think there’s a bit of a battle here: the commercial interests are all on the side of DRM and proprietary formats. The government interests are all on the side of paperwork and contracts and oversight, which they only know how to do through cooperation with the commercial interests. The users are the ones who benefit from openness, portability, and freedom, but the users also mostly take what they’re given.

  3. 5 jrep

    David Lane has some interesting comments on the usability of these e-readers, particularly with PDF documents, at

    http://www.linuxjournal.com/content/ereadersnot-quite-death-paper

    I would roughly summarize his comments, in the PDF realm, as “Gack! It’s even worse than I feared!”

  4. 6 Stormy

    Or maybe instead of carrying 5 textbooks, you’ll have to carry 5 ebook readers!

    • 7 jrep

      Riiiiiight. Multiple triple-digit readers. THAT will keep costs down!



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