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Free: PDF vs. MP3?

In among all the recent interest in free I wanted to pick up on something I mentioned in passing (I think during a question) at RRO a couple of weeks back.

We have an increasingly broad range of options these days for electronic reading devices – be it the basic (phone, computer), dedicated (Kindle, Sony Reader), or phantom (iPhone / iBook etc).

But as publishers continue to founder around digitisation, formats, DRM and the like, we have a disconnect between the demand and supply of electronic files to go on these devices. Without a single, unified offering for content in the right formats (and at the right price) then where can readers go to get their writing?

They’ll go anywhere. If we look back to the birth of the MP3 platform, then it was very hard to get music in that format without resorting to “free” (or rather, pirate) sites. Napster was pretty much unchallenged from the late nineties until the launch of iTunes in 2003, which itself took a while to get the market share it has.

As a result, music fans – who really did want to get access to their music collections in the new format – flocked to illegal services, arguably because the industry couldn’t supply them with something that the community (who were ripping and sharing their own collections) could. (And the music business is still feeling the price of it: I heard a statistic on the radio the other day suggesting that for every song bought, five are downloaded illegally.)

And so it struck me that seeing as the most common file for distributing “books” in is either Word or PDF (but particularly PDF as it’s also used for grouping scanned images of pages as found on pirate sites) there is a valid parallel to that of MP3, which was a brilliant compression format. Compression isn’t so much of an issue in books, given that text is usually very lightweight, and that we have lots more bandwidth than we did 10 years ago. But the PDF is the format of choice for fans to share pirated books among themselves – and as such, could be tarnished as the perfect vehicle for transmitting pirated ebooks?

It’s a bit of a weak question really, I suppose. Of course it’s the perfect vehicle. That is what it was built for, it just hasn’t been adopted in quite the way Adobe possibly hoped, other than in the printing business.

But I wonder what comes next from the industry? Perhaps there really is a covert, unified, rallying movement under way from the conglomerates that will come out with a single channel (perhaps, say, a competitor to Amazon / audible) and in a month’s time, we’ll be astonished by the vision, prescience and execution by a troubled business of a way to draw hope from its future?

Or perhaps (should such an insatiable demand actually exist, and I can’t say we’ve been shocked by recent images of angry readers waving Kindles on the streets outside corporate publishing house head offices, demanding ebooks) we’ll see something else. Imagine if hackers got into the archives of one of the printers and “liberated” all those poor PDFs to go back into the wild, among readers, where they’d be happiest?

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Future of the book, Publishing, Web, free.

Free (conomics) // Apt’s links for February 13th

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