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.