My first experiences and my thoughts on e-Book readers, DRM and the next wave of change

In the past week I tested the Iliad by the Dutch iRex. I have seen one of the prototypes of their reader in 2003 / 2004 when working for and was longer aware of their existence.

This weekend I also bought the Barnes & Nobles Nook and the Sony PSR-350. For all the non-DRM content I have, mostly documents for my work and converted to ePub format using (the amazing, though slightly buggy) Calibre and doing normal reading, the devices are amazing.

It works perfect, as long as you do not have large or complex diagrams in your text. Because with these devices, screen size “pocket book” diagrams become unreadable.

In this article I will cover the user point of view DRM, what is Flawed about it and why people will pirate books, what I discovered while brainstorming over the consequences of what I held in my hands (that these devices might just as well introduce a new new revolution as big as MP3 and the Internet) and what according to me the key parameters are to make eBook readers something that will replace your bookshelf in due time.

Let’s begin with the beginning. My experience with ebooks starts in 2002. I am approached by Sander van Kempen at the end of 2001. He has bought which has a daily visit of 150, growing to 300 people per day. With MobiPocket and Overdrive (at that point the main party for eBooks in the US) as two parties delivering eBooks, he wants to move to a commercial site.

Using BeBit for electronic / online payments and the data and systems offered by MobiPocket and Overdrive we built an online shop where people can buy and download commercial eBooks.

My 2003 view on e-books and e-book readers

At that point in time, ePaper is still in the laboratory and e-reading devices like the RocketBook, there is not much to read an eBook on, except for:

  1. Your computer or laptop
  2. Your PDA

Both are flawed. You can not take your laptop to some place (like the toilet,) sit down and have a relaxed read. It is just too clunky and big for that.

The PDA had other issues. The screens had a resolution of 320 by 240 or 320 pixels, with the Sony CLIE as one of the top-models at that time, small memory and limited battery life, not something you really want to read e-books from.

Due to these limitations, it would take at least 5 years before eBooks would catch up and break through to the mainstream. Or so we thought.

In 2005, when was acquired by a Dutch publisher and we closed our professional relationship, that 5 years had not changed as the changes we thought were required to make eBooks break through had not arrived by then.

Breakthrough factors

There were several factors required to make eReaders into a breakthrough technology.

  1. The device itself:
    1. Lightweight
    2. Easy to hold and use
    3. Easy to read with
    4. Enough storage to store hundreds, even thousands of books (allowing you to carry your entire library)
    5. Rugged – when you drop it, it will not break
    6. Fast enough to give you a good experience (no “freeze” when you turn the page)
    7. Enough screen real-estate and the option to make annotations – to kill the need for paper
  2. The content:
    1. Easy to obtain
    2. Easy to install and accesss
    3. Easy to backup and transfer to other devices (no device-lock-in)
  3. The price. As “reading books” is no primary activity:
    1. Affordable / priced low enough to make it a no-brainer

2009: iPad and Kindle

As the iPad arrived in 2009, Amazon dropped prices on the Kindle to under 150 US$, knowing a serious “Kindle-killer” had arrived. With that, and having the right elements lined up–

  1. An easy access to countless books
  2. The right price
  3. The right weight
  4. Enough memory to store a lot of books
  5. A screen which is almost as good as paper and can be read in bright daylight

— eBooks became a break-through technology.

2010: Kindle, Nook, Sony

Currently the Kindle, Nook and Sony e-book readers are the leading three. iPad might play a certain role, but having had an iPad in my hands and looking at the price, I think it will not be an eBook-reader killer. The same goes for the up and coming Android tablets. Where they have to offer many other benefits, including full color displays and the ability to also play video, I think ePaper – for all its limitations including update speed (slow) and colors (black, grey and grey-white) will have a glorious future in front of it.

One of the most important is the fact that it does not emit light. It IS more easy on the eyes.

Kindle, Nook and Sony are not there yet either.

Sony eBook readers and touch screens

Sony has it right with the touch screen. The PSR-350 which I bought works like a charm. Using both fingers and the stylus on the screen is intuitive and makes complete sense. Going from the Sony to the Barnes and Nobles Nook or the IRex iLiad almost feels like going back to the time of steam power driven engines.

Sony definitely got it right, there.

Nook, Kindle,WiFi and online stores

The Nook and Kindle offer two things not (yet) provided by Sony:

  1. Direct and easy access to their online eBook stores
  2. Direct and easy access to the net

The Sony not being able to go online is a handicap. It limits the use of the device. In November this year, Sony corrects this gap with the PRS-900, but offers a screen the same width as the 350. Which renders it “quaint” and quite useless for more than just reading books. When you want to read PDF documents, you will have to divide them in 2 sections on the screen. And looking at how the 350 deals with that, Sony has still some work to do in the Software department.

2011: the 9″, 10″ and 11″ screens

There are something like 20 different producers (also check this overview) of eBook readers. Only a few – including the Iliad – have a real estate bigger than a pocket book.

Reading PDF documents is no fun on these small devices. 12 pt Times Roman is unreadable on the iRex as the contrast and grey-scaling make the character look like broken tokens. Deciphering  diagrams (reading text with font sizes going down to 10 pt and smaller) is impossible and zooming into parts of the document is – again – “quaint”. Sony does have “drag = pan” but the slow response of the ePaper and the limited screen real-estate is not helping here.

Looking at the Skiff-reader, we seem to going into the right direction of a “paper killer”. The screen real-estate of 9″ x 11″ (roughly A4) is large enough to make sense. The resolution of 1200 x 1600 pixels (and 174 ppi) gives you a nice fine-grained view so that details do not get lost. Combined with touch, stylus and annotation on paper a device like the Skiff is a wet dream for anyone doing stuff with a lot of documents (like architects and software developers like me  and lawyers and writers like my girlfriend).

Skiff, however is recently acquired and the question is if this is vaporware, or that the Skiff will someday soon hit the market.


While color is definitely important, and proof of concepts are there, it is not the main factor to make eBooks go mainstream. It will be the very next neat new thing that makes it move into the “now we do not need printed paper anymore” area.

The big show stopper: DRM and machine/software bound content

The current DRM models are a mess. When I buy an eBook, there are two things that bind me:

  1. The format of the eBook
  2. The device on which I install it.

The Format: When I buy an eBook in ePUB or MobiPocket format, I can not read that content on a eBook reader that lacks the software for that. The iPad and the Kindle are two of such readers, refusing to read any DRM content outside their own propriatary format. Apparently the implementation of DRM itself can vary per reader and device as well. So if I bought a DRM protected ePub book on my Sony, it might be that my Nook is not capable of opening that book, as it does not support that specific DRM implementation.

In other words: the books I buy can not just be read anywhere. This is a major limitation on my freedom as a consumer.

The Device: When I install my MobiPocket-eBook on a device, I have to register that via the MobiPocket Installer software to the MobiPocket DRM database. The handshake as I know it is as follows:

  1. The MobiPocket eBook installer reads the “device ID” on which you want to install the book.
  2. Together with your client ID at MobiPocket, the MobiPocket DRM service creates a Device Specific Key given back to the eBook installer.
  3. Using this Device Specific Key, the DRM protected (and encrypted) eBook is unlocked for that device and can be read there.

ePub and the Adobe e-book format use similar approaches.

Different DRM formats

The most common DRM formats today are:

  1. Mobipocket
  2. Topaz
  3. ePub
  4. PDF

In most cases the publisher will publish the content in as many different formats as possible, to reach as many people possible. As each format has their own specific issues, the publisher might choose to only select a few.

Apart form the pain and agony this can give when not implemented properly, it leads to another problem:

Limited amount of keys = limited amount of devices

Let’s take an example to make this clear.

Say in the next 10 years you build up a library of 1000 books (if you are a heavy reader like me, buying between 30 to 100 books per year, this is not so hard). Due to several reasons, every 2 years, you move to a new location and a new house.

Each time you take all your books with you. Some of them being in your possession from your early youth.

What DRM currently involves is that :

  1. Each time you move, you are forced to tell your reseller for each book you bought, that you moved and on which address you books reside now
  2. After moving 5 or 6 times you are forced to leave some of your books behind as you ran out of keys allowing you to bring those books with

If you do not do this, according to the current rules on DRM, you are not allowed to read the books you bought on that (new) device. When you decide to crack these books open, and say “Fuck all” to these limitations, you are performing an illegal act according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (see summary here) and thus breaking the law.

As the current DRM model is designed to be device bound, after registering your books on 5 to 6 devices, you run out of keys.

Why this makes no sense – part 1

With the current state of development, each device I buy to read eBooks lasts about 2 to 3 years. This means that in 10 to 12 years, and five devices later, I will have to leave some of my books behind and re-buy a key for the ones I want to take with me. WHILE I ALREADY BOUGHT THEM.

Why this makes no sense – part 2

When I buy a book, I buy access to read the CONTENT. As the readers and the devices should not matter, it is strange that I am bound to a specific FORMAT with a specific sort of encryption that might be refused by the software on another device I bought, as the VENDOR decided that they only implement a very proprietary version of that specific format.

In other words: access to YOUR books might be denied by the vendor of the machine you bought, as they find it unfit to their business model to support the specific format of the book you bought on another machine somewhere in the past.

Why cracking eBooks makes sense

When you buy eBooks, you want to be master of those books, without you having tell everything from your shoe-size to your favorite color and shapes to ask someone else for permission to put them on a new machine  (see “Limited amount of keys” above). You simply want to pick them up, put them on a reader and be ready to move.

Like what you do when you go on holiday and you pack your bags.

Cracking the files releases this almost paranoid big-brother style: “I want to know who you are, what you are doing and on which machine you are installing it” meddling by the provider of the encryption on the eBooks you bought. While this tracking might make sense to the “Owner” of the copyright, it cripples the entire concept of freedom you can have with a medium like eBooks, where your library is endless and close to indestructable.

Another reason why cracking eBooks makes sense is this:

  • When you – as my retailer – are going to ask me all kinds of questions about things you have no business about, in order for me to be able to get access to something I BOUGHT, you offend me and I will start finding ways to get what I want without you in the middle at all.

One of these ways is via the gray and black circuit. Do a Google on “bittorrent” and the title of the book and very likely you will find a cracked version.

What publishers do not seem to get is this:

  • If and when you offend your client AND ask money, your client will either say “Thank you and goodbye” or will try to get the same thing via the black market

This is unless you create a totalitarian state.

Why the ACTA makes sense

The ACTA makes sense from the point of view of the Content Owners. They paid for that content. They could make money from it. Using online systems they can collect all kinds of data about you so that they can sell more stuff to you. The more control the content owner gets over this process, the more money can be made.

If content owners could, they would have laws installed especially for them, allowing them to spam you to kingdom come. There would be laws allowing them to buy data about you, telling them who you are, what you like and what you bought in the last 10 years.

If they could, they would have cameras at your house, observing your every moment behavior, so that they can test and invent new products to be even more catered for your needs.

This knowledge is money. It is sales power.

Lucky for us, we do not live in a world like this. The law protects our privacy and has specific rules in place that forbid the use, sales and abuse of personal data.

Lucky for us, because without these laws, we would live in an absolute state very much like Orwell described in “1984”.

So to look at the other side of eBooks – let’s take a look at the benefits. But before we go there:

Is DRM bad?

I do not think DRM is “bad”. Like “getting rid of money” does not solve future economic crisis, getting rid of DRM will not solve the problem of publishers wanting to make money from the books they publish and have invested money in.

DRM is not bad. It is just defined in a very stupid way, trying to solve a problem that is not well defined in a way that is almost offensive, taken how much effort you have to make and how much information about yourself you have to give to be able to use and read something you purchased. The main question is:

  • How do we protect our investment from people duplicating and consuming our content without bringing any revenue stream back?

Here is the other side: Without some sort of protection, Publishers might as well just give their books away for free to begin with. Where that protection in the physical world is-

  • It will take you more effort to make a personal copy of this book then it will earn money and then to buy it

– in the digital world, a copy is made in seconds and without loss of quality.

What should be different?

  1. Bind the purchase to the content, not to the packaging (= the eBook format)
  2. Bind the purchase to the person, not to the device
  3. Make it friendly for the user and allow the user to stay anonymous

We are a long way from this (meaning – it will take another 3 to 5 years) before people will be fed-up and pissed off enough to make a difference for the people who think it is an awesome solution to bind a purchase to a specific format (ePub, MobiPocket, PDF) and specific devices (Nook and it’s machine ID, PC and its machine ID, etc)

Content publishers have to learn that the more control they try to get over us and their content, the more resistance and piracy they will meet.

Until then and until publishers start to get this and find another and better balance, consumers will crack open these formats, share the files online in any format imaginable and available via any service that will allow them to. And if these services are too dangerous for many reasons including the watchdogs from the DMCA and the ACTA, they will use and spread copies on memory sticks and other data carriers.

Here is the bottom line, most Intellectual Properties owners do not seem to get:

  • As long as your set of rules and your pricing do not make any sense to people, they will make an effort to hack, crack and jailbreak your system.

Why eBooks make total sense

When I look at my bookshelf, I have about 3 cabinets and 3 rows of books stacked in front of each other. The total count is somewhere between 800 to 1200 books and on a yearly basis I give about 30 to 100 books away via the Dutch version of Craigs list to anyone who wants to drop by and collect them.

When I go on holiday, or abroad for my work, I usually take 2 to 3 books with me, adding about 1 kilo of extra weight to my luggage. And that is AFTER discarding 7 books from a total stack of 10 I would like to read.

eBooks take no space. One device weighting about 300 grams can carry easily over 500 books to read, from comics to novels, to technical reference books to documentation I have to read for my work. The content of an extra suitcase.

eBooks are the MP3’s of the 2010’s. They are about to create a new paradigm-shift of the same- and even bigger magnitude as the iPod did in the 2000’s.

Why the readers will replace your bookshelf

Once the DRM-guys have their shit sorted out in a way that works for them and us (YES, I want to pay for content, and YES I want to be free to do whatever I want with it as long as it is within reasonal bounds) e-readers will replace your bookshelf for the following reasons:

  1. You can take your entire book-collection anywhere, anytime and read ANY book you own anytime you like
  2. It is small and compact. One book-sized object of 300 grams replaces over 400 kilos of dead paper
  3. You do not have to worry about safety (“what if the house burns down?”) – As you can make countless backups (taken the DRM-guys – blah blah blah) and put your stuff on any and all of your devices, including a newer and improved reader any time you want
  4. You no longer have to care about the extra burden of your books – Moving to another house will be easy.
  5. You will not get out of shelf space – as the price of memory keeps going down and the capacity keeps going up

They all seem like open doors to thread. Still, if you still think now that paper books will be there to stay for a while, think about it twice.

How many CD’s or Cassette Tapes are you carrying with you today when you go somewhere? Or do you use have some kind of MP3 player instead?

Why eBooks might be bigger than Internet in the next 10 years

In 1984 we did not have Internet. We got our content via person-to-person file transfer, dropping by at a friends house, bringing audio tapes with us and copying files from one tape to another.

This “netwerk” was based on friends of friends of friends who would buy the software, crack it, collect them on tape and distribute them via parties and private gatherings. Then, via those friends of friends of friends, they would end up at our tapes and running on our computers.

This “human file transfer network” also got a name: “Sneakernet”. And from tapes we moved to floppies to professionally produced CD-roms containing entire Software Suites available for 2 to 10 euros, depending on the Black market market value.

In the past ten years, most of these networks have been replaced by Bittorrent and Bittorrent-like networks online. The principle is still the same.

Sneakernet is not only used for the distributon of cracked content.

Sneakernet and the One Laptop Per Child project

Here is a brief description from this “One Laptop per Child” site:

‘Sneakernet’ is a term for transporting information between computers by carrying it from one place to another on a removable medium, such as a USB Flash Drive, CD or DVD. Someone uses their shoes (possibly sneakers) to move data around instead of using the telecommunications network. The term is often used jokingly, but several organizations have successfully implemented Sneakernet ‘networks’, linking villages in developing countries, universities or businesses.

The advantages of a Sneakernet have not changed since:

  1. Low budget for the end-user – no infrastructure needed
  2. Low cost and long distance – as far as you can travel or can have your data travel
  3. No dependencies on technological infrastructure – no cables, transmitters or satellites needed
  4. Faster for large quantities of data than (low bandwidth) data transfer – a box with 20 x 2-Terabyte hard drive is transported faster by car than via cable

One eBook-reader per child

Imagine you live in the middle of nowhere, in some country that is piss-poor due to whatever reason. Whether this is in Africa, Asia or South America. Your only access to information is either via:

  1. Some crappy books left behind by Tourists
  2. A slow internet connection in the village 40 miles from your home and one day travel away
  3. Some books locked in a library in that same village 40 miles from home

Now imagine someone gives you an eBook reader, with the entire library on there on everything you need to know:

  1. How to speak and read English (or any other language that will help you further) – starting with the “P is for Pig” to nursery rimes to grammar to language
  2. How to build a better village – telling you how to deal with specific issues, how to improve systems and so on
  3. How to do better trade – dealing with open market principles, the roles of middle-persons, distribution chains and so on
  4. Different books on different topics – like socialism, capitalism, dictatorships, democracies
  5. How to build organizations – from simple groups to entire companies and production lines
  6. How to use your brain more effectively – by understanding perception, decision making processes and communication principles

This information is there until the eBook breaks down. It is there, regardless of (internet) connections being operational or not. It is there with you, regardless where you are.

As the readers can be charged by anything that is able to deliver between 3.5 and 5 Volts of current, a diesel engine or a Solar Panel are enough to keep the battery going. As the battery use of an eBook reader is very low, the recharges can be over long spans of time. Weeks to months depending on your use.

Selected properly, one single eBook can contain all relevant information the whole of “civilized” humanity has been collecting and upgrading in the last 10 centuries, leaving out all the fluff and focusing on those books that matter.

This will never work on legal content

Here is the choice I see before us:

If this would happen, take place, being picked up, would you download legal / paid content on these devices?

If I would be on this project, and we have to do this NOW, instead of three years from now and looking at all the political bullshit and money grabbing that might go on in such projects, (“consultants” being hired, asking tons of money for “advice” you could have found yourself in different ways,) I would say: “No”. But if you are a legal entity taking care of such projects, make sure that you yourself are not linked to these projects.

Including the content and depending on how much content is in the public domain each of these readers would cost between 1.000 to 10.000 euro. (100 to 1000 recent books, not available for free yet). The rest might be stuffed with a good selection from the free and copyright released books from Google Books.

Why this might change the world – again

More than money or direct access to online content, knowledge is the key to a better life and improvement in the personal situations of people.

It is like the old and overused proverb:

Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today.

Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime

We have seen the shift and ripples going through our world due to the introduction of Computers Internet. Out of nothing, in hardly any time at all and based on completely virtual means, Microsoft, Google and FaceBook became big global players. Trading of stocks and bonds changed. Communication changed. Everything changed due to this.

Cut off the internet today, and it is like falling back to the dark ages, where horse and carriage where the fastest ways of transportation.


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