More meaningless concerns about ebooks, part 2

Yesterday I explained a few things about e-books that were missing from the article Weighing the environmental costs: buy an eReader, or a shelf of books?. One of the Conversation readers commented the original article with several misleading or irrelevant statements, which I criticized as you can read in the first part of this post. All I got was more of the same: two more comments, both missing the point and showing little understanding of what file formats are and how e-books and all other digital documents interact with hardware devices.

Here is the first of those two comments, in italic, with my answers to each point:

Unfortunately, M., the fellow at that link shows he doesn’t know much about electronics or obsolescence, when he says “eBooks are just computer files”..

Dear A., that fellow would be me (as I clearly stated, “read my posts…"). And I do happen to know, and even teach, a thing or two about file formats and their impact on society. Let’s consider the rest of your first comment:

Indeed they are, and just as Word .doc files and Acrobat .pdf files require different software, there’s no guarantee that a vendor who sells readers and ebooks will want to make it easy for folks to buy these “files” from a competitor.

Of course. Just as there is no guarantee that any oil company or car maker will want to make it easy for folks to buy gasoline, or their next car, from a competitor. In practice, it never happens, simply because folks understand how car engines work well enough to not tolerate certain moves. The ONLY reason why the same things hasn’t happened yet with computer and file formats is because software is a much newer technology, that most people do not understand.

We’ve even had the QuickTime, FlashPlayer, MediaPlayer, etc. wars.

and many more, as you can read in this other article of mine on this very topic. Again, the only reason why this has happened so far is people believing that hardware obsolescence, planned or not, has files obsolescence as an unavoidable consequence. This is simply false. The sooner people will stop to make or believe certain statements as if they were laws of physics, the sooner vendors will “make it easy to buy files from a competitor”. This is not science-fiction. It’s just what has already happened with MP3 music.

Paper books & audio books have only the issue of language. Multimedia is fine, except when your hardware hasn’t the proper software and lacks access to a licensed player.

This is exactly the same issue already discussed. It’s not a different problems. Files are files. Problems like these happen only if their format isn’t open. But only as long as people remain ignorant.

It’s wise to remember that consumer electronics companies are in the business of making $, beyond all else. If a market forces them into good standards for us, great. It doesn’t always, however.

It’s wise to remember that consumers have no obligation to accept whatever request a company may make. “If a market forces them”? The market is you. Would you buy a car that can only use gasoline from one oil company? Or paper books that can only be read with glasses of one brand? Buying e-book files that only work on one reader is just as stupid. Do not ever:

  • buy e-book readers that accept only one (proprietary) file format and/or cannot load files from the sources you choose

  • buy e-books in proprietary formats that may not be supported a few years from now (ePub is the best, but not only choice right now)

And, there always remains the limitation of eBooks regarding sharing the volumes “files” one has downloaded – many files, 1 reader at a time.

That is true only when the files are locked with DRM. This is, indeed, a big problem, but one that is completely separated by that of file formats and its consequences (obsolescence, etc). Please don’t mix the two issues, at least not before you’ve really understood the formats one (but support the public libraries that refuse DRM). Let’s now look at…

The second comment

All it takes to destroy an eBook, or hundreds of eBooks on an eGadget, is a system error -software- or a hardware error, or the simple reality that flash memory storage isn’t itself for ever, and is especially limited if files are added & deleted often. You may not even know the system is doing that, when you download another new eBook.

This is true for anything you store on any digital device, from your tax return to your health records and photographs. It’s an issue you have to face and solve for good the moment you accept using computers, not just when looking at e-books.

Above all, this is a problem for which there is a very easy solution that I had already explained in my first comment, see the “They can be stored simultaneously…” part.

Of course all it takes to destroy thousands of files in one second is one software or hardware fault, that is events that are far more likely than some natural catastrophe. But the paragraph quoted above doesn’t tell the real story, which is:

all it takes to destroy hundreds of eBooks or other files is an user so **stupid** that he did not protect himself from such events with automatic backups on online free services like Dropbox and/or on a few USB drives that only cost a few bucks

These days, doing multiple automatic backups of files is so easy and cheap that if you are already able to power on a computer and have Internet access there is no excuse to not do it. Hardware and software fragility is not a reason to avoid ebooks. Especially when you realize that you cannot do multiple, automatic backups of paper.

Then again, remains the ever-present reality:100 books -simultaneously sharable with 99 people; 100 eBooks- oops

That only happens when there is DRM, see above. Digital books have limitations, but they are not the ones contained in those comments.