Thursday, January 18, 2007

Some new media business advice

Hey, content providers! Want to guarantee that your ebook venture will not exist in 5 years? Create a business model by which you force end-users to wait in a queue for the "copy" of the ebook you've sold access to. I'm sorry, maybe I've missed something here, but isn't the whole point of electronic books the fact that patrons can have these items when and where they want it, rather than placing holds and recalls and all of those other annoying dead tree library antics?

Unfortunately NetLibrary doesn't seem to have gotten the memo on this one. A rare misstep for parent company OCLC (short for Online Computer Library Center, Inc.), which is normally out on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and books, NetLibrary tries to turn back the clock to the days when library patrons would literally come to blows over who got to use the Silverplatter CD-ROM next. It sucked then and it sucks now, especially when there's no reason on God's green earth for a library to agree to such crippling restrictions on ebook resources.

Maybe this is the library world's way of trying to persuade the publishing houses that we librarians are in fact not the enemy, but if the price to be paid for soothing Big Paper's nerves is committing to products that are as user-unfriendly as NetLibrary, maybe it's not worth it. I Googled "netlibrary sucks" just for the hell of it and got some independent confirmation of the kind of frustration its engendered among academic library users. Sez Leigh at Video Game Spaces:
It’s not very functional. It loads each page of the e-book (if you could call it that) separately. This means that, for one thing, it’s very slow to turn the page. It takes anywhere between 1-2 seconds to much longer than that to load the next page, depending on the time of day and the site traffic. The other aspect of the single-page loading feature is that you can’t just save the pdf to your hard drive and view it offline. No, you have to load the slow site with its clunky interface to view the book one page at a time.

That sort of interface is appropriate for something like Amazon, where it makes a lot of sense to put limits on the book viewing because they’re trying to sell a physical copy of the book. However, with an online library service it’s severely limiting. This sort of restricted viewing would be nearly last on my list of choices of how to read a book… slightly below a smelly and heavily highlighted used copy of the book, and slightly above a smelly and heavily highlighted used copy of the book that also has dead insects and vomit stains on the pages.

One of the other things that consistently irritates me about Netlibrary, other than this slow loading time, is that it logs you out after 15 minutes of inactivity. This means that you can’t take a break from reading or eat lunch or whatever unless you first write down the page number, because when you come back you’ll have to go through the lengthy process of loading the web page, logging in, finding your e-book again, and finding the page you were on, which is pretty slow because of the delay in loading each page individually.

It’s also only compatible with Windows, which means that if I want to read a Netlibrary book while I’m at school, I have to find the time to install Windows on my Macbook, which is really annoying. I’ve seen a lot of students with Macs this semester and these are all students that don’t have access to the service because of the poor design and limited compatibility. Also, it also doesn’t work for me in Firefox. I have to instead load Internet Explorer, with all of its security issues. Plus it occasionally hangs for no apparent reason (other than poor design), leaving me to spend a few minutes either trying to get it to load, or starting all over again with logging in, finding my book, and then slowly loading my page number.

Of course, the really insulting thing about Netlibrary is that they put all these restrictions in place at all, when they are a library service. I should be able to save the book to my hard drive, to be viewed offline at my convenience in the pdf reader of my choice. What am I going to do, try to sell it? You have to be a student at the library to even use the service in the first place… and who’s going to be interested in pirating academic books in the first place? It’s not going to be highly sought after like a new blockbuster film or new popular music. They should follow the model of allowing downloading, like article search sites do. Sure, I could download an article and then email it to someone… but who would I email it to that isn’t already a student somewhere — someone who’s already paying for their own access to these services? And then there’s the really insulting element of proprietary control of knowledge in the first place (emphasis mine).

I couldn't have said that any better. Not to sound too much like new media prophet Jeff Jarvis, but it's this simple: evolve or die. Any ebook scheme involving DRM so strict that you might as well check out the paper copy is doomed to failure. End of story. So that's the first and last time I'm going to use NetLibrary -- someone give me a call when publishers finally come to terms with Google and let them offer copyrighted works alongside of their growing library of public domain books, because right now this dog won't hunt. If the purpose of ebooks is to replicate all of the shitty features of paper books, why bother with the new technology at all?

Update: The Wired Blog has a timely post about the library world's flirtation with dubious forms of DRMfor its electronic content, focusing on the OverDrive Media Console. The amazing thing about both this and NetLibrary? No Mac functionality. While I'm by no means an Apple conspiracy theorist, you have to wonder how deals like these get made with public institutions and institutions of higher education.

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