Web Browsers and the Future of eReading

This past week Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all announced major intiatives in online access to books. This has led some to wonder whether browser-based online-only access to texts will become the ultimate solution for digital consumption of texts. Personally, I don’t see browser-based access to digital editions as a panacea, but as a sign of the bigger obstacles that remain in the way of mainstream adoption.
First, in audio and video media it’s clear that consumers want untethered access to full downloads of their content, including the ability to use the content on dedicated devices. None of the countless “personal storage space in th sky” solutions have gained broad consumer adoption. Online-only browser-mediated access may be acceptable for transient access to freely available content, and is certainly a fine way to allow users to preview content. And providing a usable solution for immersive reading on electronic displays has proven challenging. So it is hard to imagine page-flipping JPEG images on standard notebook monitors, online-only in a web browser proving compelling to end users, even if dressed up with an AJAX or Flash-based RIA.
And we have some real-world data points. Zinio delivers digital magazines to over a million subscribers. Zinio’s standalone Reader client is the prevailing solution despite a nice Flash-based online-page flipper option (“Zinio Express”). In Japan, eReading on mobile devices of both texts and comics is proliferating rapidly, and while the first wave including a lot of browser-based online solutions, publishers and solution providers there are telling me that users are increasingly choosing client-based solutions that enable full-book downloads and offline access.
Yet the experimenting that publishers like Random House are doing with online access to texts with partners like Amazon should also be viewed as a natural response to the fact that we as an industry haven’t adequately solved the hard problems for offline access to digital editions. DRM for eBooks is confused at best, and the proliferation of different eBook formats, most of them requiring users to install custom clients, is a nightmare. PDF is the closest to an “MP3 for digital texts”, but it is only a great solution for final-form paginated content and it’s easy to create PDF files that are too big or otherwise unsuitable for digital consumption. Online reading of JPEG page images in a browser may be a mediocre user experience but it bypasses all of the format, DRM, and custom client installation issues.
Page-at-a-time online access to eBooks has its place, no doubt, and you can expect to see Adobe work to further such solutions. But I believe that to really make digital consumption of book-length textual content happen, we as an industry need to step up and solve the hard problems. When we succeed, I believe we will look back in a few years and see online JPEG-flipping readers not as a harbinger of the “MP3 of eBooks” but more akin to the cheesy .WAV audio clips that used to be commonplace on web sites.
Of course in the long run things will cycle around. I still buy the “network is the computer” vision and believe that someday my personal digital storage won’t be in a hard drive I need to see or touch (or worry about). But there is no reason that digital consumption of books need await some pie-in-the-sky “Web 3.0” future.

4 Responses to Web Browsers and the Future of eReading

  1. Dwight Kelly says:

    Our company, Apago, develops software for creating e-mags and e-books in PDF format. We constantly hear two problems mentioned with PDF magazines – the size of the initial download of Reader vs. browser-based solution and the production problems trying to produce a high-quality yet reasonable small PDF file for distribution. The New Yorker choose a DJVu-based custom application for their 80 year anthology with excellent results. Most of the pages were scanned from original publications. OCR was NOT performed. Rather they created an excellent index from their card catalog keywords and summaries. PDF tools and viewers need improvements before they will be the universal format for e-books and e-mags.

  2. Tom Evslin says:

    We offer four free alternatives for reading the serialization of my novel hackoff.com: an historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble: browser-based, chapter pdfs, rss subscription, or email subscription. So far the split between the four is about even. All available at http://www.hackoff.com.
    However, many people still pre-ordering the physical book from Amazon. Unfortunately can’t tell whether they’re the same people who are reading online or not.

  3. Les Hirsch says:

    I think the real value in online access to content lies in the ability to create customized, one-off publications based on specific search criteria. The business and technical hurdles that lie in the way of taking a “traditional” book and making it an e-book PALE in comparison to taking 17 different articles, each with its own DRM, and creating a single instance. Nonetheless, I think this is where there is the most value — especially to PDF.
    PDF offers tremendous value to the dynamic e-book segment – It is the perfect container for the dynamic e-book: it’s portable, secure, supports XML, DRM, printable, and it’s ubiquitous. I can easily envision a world where, with vast amounts of textual content available on-line, users would require the ability to dynamically assemble e-books based on specific search criteria. This could apply to anyone from students and researchers who need to amass varied historical content and media types to support specific research, to the businessperson who wants his real-time, customized, printable or on-line personal newspaper waiting for him in his inbox. These types of personalized publications (p-books?) would have lasting value to users and would require a format such as PDF, as opposed to a browser.
    I think you sell the whole e-experience short if you focus on converting a 300 page paper book for the sole purpose of making it a 300 page e-book. We have to think smaller… when is the last time you went to the iTunes store and bought an entire CD?

  4. gendalf says:

    With the original New Yorker magazine DVD installation, the program
    requires you to swap DVDs everytime you want to see an issue.
    That is annoying. Instead, you may want to install all the
    New Yorker magazine directly to your hard drive and read off
    the hard drive without having to swap DVDs. Since the install
    program does not let you do this, you have to slightly “hack”
    the New Yorker installation. You could attempt to mount virtual
    hard drives, one for each DVD, and switch between them through
    the virtual hard drive control panel. But this is tedious. In
    Windows XP, follow these directions, and you will be able to
    copy the New Yorker to an external or firewire drive so that
    you just need to connect the drive to any computer and just
    install the New Yorker from the hard drive to that computer and
    read off the hard drive:
    1) Install the New Yorker to your external hard drive, using
    the installation DVD. Let’s say your base directory for the
    New Yorker installation is:
    e:\newyorkr
    where e: is your external hard drive.
    It will have this directory structure:
    e:\newyorkr
    \help
    \Issues
    \Uninstall
    2) Make a new subdirectory in your newyorkr base directory
    called “Install.” Then, copy the entire contents of the
    DVD 1 installation directory to the Install sub-directory.
    Use a program like Karen’s Replicator to do this, since
    Windows sometimes has trouble copying huge multi-gigabytes
    amounts of data in one shot. The Karen’s Replicator program
    is available at:
    http://www.karenware.com/powertools/ptreplicator.asp
    The new base directory and sub-directories now are:
    e:\newyorkr
    \help
    \Install
    \Issues
    \Uninstall
    3) Go to the Install directory, and find the Issues
    sub-directory. Move all the issues files (the .djvu
    files) to the Issues sub-directory of the newyorkr
    main directory.
    4) Also, copy all the issues files from the other 7
    New Yorker DVDs to the Issues sub-directory of the
    newyorkr base directory. This may take a few hours
    because this is maybe 55 gigs of issues! Use the
    Karen’s Replicator program for a smoother copying
    experience.
    5) Now, edit the database file. Go to the newyorkr
    base directory and find the database file, which is
    ny-sqlite-3.db. This is an sqlite database file,
    which you must edit slightly using an sqlite editor.
    One such editor is VisualSQLite, available at:
    http://www.download.com/Visual-SQLite/3000-10258_4-10407146.html?tag=
    Open up the ny-sqlite-3.db database in the Visual-SQLite
    program. When you first load up the Visual-SQLite program,
    you see a window at the bottom left, where you can execute
    commands. Type the following command in the window and
    execute it:
    update Issues set DiskID = 9 where DiskID > 9;
    Save the database, if it does not automatically save.
    This command will change references to DVDs in the
    database so that it makes the program look for issues
    files in the Issues sub-directory of the New Yorker
    directory on the hard drive.
    6) Find the ny-sqlite-3.db file in the base directory.
    Make sure it has today’s date on it, showing that
    it was edited.
    7) Now, install the New Yorker from your external hard drive
    to the hard drive of whatever computer you want to install
    it to. Go to the Install directory and click on WindowsSetup
    to do so.
    8) To make it so that the installation reads the Issues off
    your external hard drive, make a change in Regedit.
    Run Regedit (You can find Regedit
    by going to the C:\Windows directory and finding Regedit
    there, or left-clicking on the Start button, going to Run,
    and in the Run command box typing Regedit). In Regedit,
    search for Yorker. This will find several references to
    the New Yorker Installation. After pressing F3 a few times
    to repeat the search, you will see the word InstallPath.
    double-click on InstallPath, and change the Install path
    directory to the base directory on your external hard drive,
    that is, the base directory containing the Issues sub-directory
    that contains all 55 gigs of New Yorker issues. In this case,
    change it to e:\newyorkr.
    You can now run the New Yorker such that it will read the
    issues directly off your external hard drive. With whatever
    Windows XP computer you want to install New Yorker to, just
    hook up your external hard drive to that computer and
    repeat steps 7 and 8. No annoying DVD swapping required!
    Once you change the InstallPath to your external drive base
    directory that contains the edited database, you don’t need
    the database in the installation directory where you installed
    the New Yorker on your computer. So you can just delete that
    database file, which is useful because the database file is
    a massive 587 megabytes. So if you install the New Yorker
    to C:\Program Files\New Yorker Viewer just go there and
    delete the ny-sqlite-3.db file. When you run the New Yorker,
    it will just read the edited database file off the base
    directory of your external hard drive.