Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kindling competition

On Saturday, the WSJ published an interesting compilation of celebrity New Year’s resolutions, with major names (Mitt Romney, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck) as well as prominent people who are mostly or entirely unknown to the general public. As they described their goals

For the New Year, The Wall Street Journal asked some influential people three questions: What professional project do you plan to complete in 2009? What personal resolution do you finally hope to keep next year? And what problem should your industry or professional community tackle more effectively?
One that’s directly relevant to readers of this blog (particularly after yesterday’s posting) is this of an Indian expatriate author:
Vikram Chandra, 47
Author, Mumbai and Berkeley, Calif.

PROFESSIONAL: I just started a new novel a couple of months ago, and in a magical, perfect world I'd finish it in 2009. But my last novel came in at 900 pages, so I'll settle for slow, steady progress.
PERSONAL: I'm the father of a 7-month-old baby, so I think it's time for me to get done with my driving lessons and face the terrors of the DMV.
INDUSTRY: I'd love the publishing industry the world over to accept fully and without further complaint that electronic publishing is here to stay, and to provide innovative, sophisticated and, above all, low-priced competition for the Kindle and Sony Reader.
His sense of realism about the future of dead trees is refreshing. His call for open standards (because that’s the only way the Amazon and Sony products will get competition) is the first I’ve seen from the content side, although such calls have been common from the consumer side.

Of course, there are two open e-book standards already, .epub and .opf, which are available to the maker of any reader. What’s missing is a content publisher building an infrastructure around distributing a large volume of content in an open file format.

Yes, it seems likely that the next entrant into online ebooks will emphasize open standards. As I noted in a chapter I wrote on open standards (in a 2006 book, openness is almost always a challenger strategy — not something firms do if they have a choice, but a weapon they use to gain leverage and increase the odds of success over established (proprietary) incumbents.

On ebooks, publishers probably don’t want Amazon exclusively controlling their channel to American readers, so perhaps (as record labels did for music downloads) they will support a challenger to Amazon.

So to compete with Apple’s iTunes and the lockin provided by its proprietary FairPlay DRM, the iTunes challenger promised in May 2007:
Every song and album in (our) digital music store will be available exclusively in the MP3 format without digital rights management (DRM) software. (Our) DRM-free MP3s will free customers to play their music on virtually any of their personal devices -- including PCs, Macs(TM), iPods(TM), Zunes(TM), Zens(TM) -- and to burn songs to CDs for personal use.
Sounds good? I think so. We could use the same choice for books as well, particularly since there’s only one Amazon reader to date (at least Apple has four different iPod form factors).

How would Amazon feel about this sort of competition? One might argue it should be all in favor of it — since the press release touting open MP3 downloads was to promote the Amazon music store. But, of course, now that they have a lead and lock-in built upon their market power and proprietary file format, for books (unlike music) Amazon probably considers open standards a bad thing.

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