Saturday, May 11, 2013

By hook or by Nook

One of the big tech stories this past week that caught my eye, was the announcement that Barnes & Noble's Nook platform may not be long for this world. At least not in it's current shape. Apparently, the hardware hasn't been performing as well, financially, as needed, and so the latest word is that Microsoft is trying to buy the Nook experience and allow B&N to exit the hardware market.

As a Nook user, I find this very sad. I've own one of the original Nooks, that had the little mini-touchscreens below the main e-Ink screen, and it's been a great device for the years I've owned it. When I got my iPad I specifically continued buying books in Nook format because I wanted to continue to support a bookstore that I really like going to. However, it looks like all of that might be coming to an end.

From Microsoft's perspective the deal is a big win for them, if it goes through. They get a huge headstart on their eBook ecosystem for their continuing mobile plans. Similar to Apple's iBook store, Google's Play bookstore, and Amazon's Kindle bookstore, Microsoft would gain an instant audience for its new eBook experience. Allowing them to boost their standing against the other players in the mobile market.

However, the bigger question that is raised by all of this is, what is the real role of eBooks now-a-days. Similar to digitally delivered music and movies, eBooks have followed the traditional path of being locked down with DRM and limited to a single store. If you buy a Nook book, you can only read it using Nook software. If you buy a Kindle book, likewise, it's only able to be read with Kindle software. Some vendors, like Nook, have even gone so far as to remove you ability to read a book if your credit card expires in their store. This really means that you don't truly own the book you're reading. You're just given a license to read it in perpetuity, as long as you continue to be a customer of their store. It's like a book-specific library card. 

This model only lasted so long in the music side of the world before it was dismantled. But not before it gave a chance for companies like Apple to build a customer base for it's iTunes store with its iPod devices. Now that we have a diverse setup of devices that can read eBooks, it's probably about time to look at changing this model. Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft/B&N all have an ecosystem that has been built up for years. They have well established customer bases, and can start to look at loosening up their DRM practices, yet retain customers to their individual stores. But it's going to take customers, and companies like Apple and Google to push publishers to make this change.

A couple of publishers are starting to experiment with DRM-free books, such as TOR and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books (h/t Wes). One can hope that in the future more publishers will take a more forward thinking approach and open up their material, and it looks like Microsoft will be playing a bigger role in that discussion going forward.