eBooks: No More Ownership?

App stores are not the future, says Google

Vic Gundotra, Google Engineering vice president and developer evangelist, told the Mobilebeat conference in San Francisco on Thursday that the web had won and users of mobile phones would get their information and entertainment from browsers in future.

On June 16th, I had this epiphany:

This led to a discussion with @jane_l of Dear Author and we concluded the eBooks would probably all be cloud-based. No one would be able to download them to keep. This is what Shortcovers does right now.

Given what Google’s Gundotra says in the above article, it seems that downloadable-to-keep-forever eBooks are going to be a passing artifact of digital history. Google is clearly all about the Cloud. And the dying dinosaurs of print would love the Cloud too, because then they wouldn’t have to do anything except collect the money that came in. No worries about stupid eBook formats or all that tsuris from readers about DRM.

But this raises some serious questions.

1) If people can no longer own eBooks, what does the price of an eBook “buy?” Only access?

2) If eBooks become access-only, how long is that access granted?

3) Will there be levels of access, with the most expensive one granting “perpetual at-will” access? (“At-will,” of course, would have the usual escape clauses about Acts of God, domestic disturbance, asteroids falling on the server farm, etc.)

4) What happens to the role of public libraries? Would they simply be a gateway to access a subset of eBooks for free, just like they offer today with proprietary databases (Books In Print, etc.)?

5) What about highlighting and notes?

Those who are skeptical about HTML5 adding true eBook-reading functionality to browsers should consider the power of the Palm Pre, which Palm claims is built entirely with CSS, JavaScript, and HTML5 over a Linux core.

This also puts Google’s ambitious plan to power hardware with its Chrome browser in a new light.

And, if you stop to think about it, it opens some social opportunities for eBooks, such as group reading and group annotations (but I wouldn’t want to see group highlighting — I’d bet most pages would wind up rainbow tinted!).

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