Futurebook 09/10 – what’s another year?

This post looks back at the first FutureBook conference in 2009 and towards the second. Some things have changed in the intervening years, as one might expect. Publishing’s cultural cringe towards the music industry has, as suspected, diminished, and piracy is less of an over concern, though George Walkley’s optimism regarding cloud storage widening our DRM options has sadly not yet proved justified.

On the eve of the second Futurebook conference, a comparison with its predecessor shows how rapidly the industry is developing…

One of the more notable aspects of Futurebook 09 was the number of speakers drawn from other industries, as if a nervous industry were uncertainly looking for advice from its more experienced siblings. The music industry was particularly well represented. In the opening session, 7Digital CEO Ben Drury gave a potted history of that industry’s relationship with technology, from wax cylinders to the cloud, while digital consultant Jason Dunne asserted that the public would ultimately abandon books just as they had vinyl. And in a telling indication of how quickly trends can change, Vodafone Head of Music Tom McLellan, seeking evidence for the increasing importance of mobile as a publishing platform, adduced the massive rise in the number of mobile phone users with unlimited data plans. Less than a year later, at Nokia World 2010, Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao would welcome the end of unlimited mobile data plans, telling delegates that “data pricing has to adjust”.

By contrast, Futurebook 10 looks on the surface to be a slightly more confident affair so far as its relationship with other industries is concerned. An afternoon panel exploring cross-media relationships in terms of “Partnerships, alliances and … commercial opportunities” offers an encouraging counterpoint to Publishers’ Association Chief Executive Richard Mollett’s keynote speech considering “the lessons learned from the music industry in tackling online copyright infringement”.

Piracy was also a prominent issue at Futurebook 09, with talks from two media lawyers, and a panel session dedicated to the subject. Alicia Wise from the PA gave a detailed introduction to their excellent copyright infringement portal, while Hachette Head of Digital George Walkley suggested, positively, that a move towards cloud-based services might open up the current narrow range of DRM options.

Revisiting my notes suggests how much has already changed in under a year. One of the final speakers at Futurebook 09 was Phil Wood, MD of Interead, who spoke with great enthusiasm of his company’s Cooler e-reader, with accompanying bookstore and publishing house. Sadly, Interead were wound up in June this year. It’s interesting to note also that the principal complaint amongst ebook users last year, as reported by both Alex Ingram of Waterstones and Marek Vaygelt of market research company Yougov, was that the range of books available was far too narrow. Though this remains a problem, any survey undertaken today would surely point to pricing as the major source of consumer annoyance. Since both Ingram and Vaygelt are returning to Futurebook 10, the latter to present insights from a research project on reading using tablet devices, we may yet find out whether this is indeed the case.

In such a rapidly changing world, though, it’s reassuring to note that some things remain the same. At Futurebook 09, Google’s Jason Hanley gave delegates a fascinating overview of Google Editions, the company’s already much-anticipated entry into the publishing world. Hanley’s set to return this year as a keynote speaker, again providing “an overview of Google Editions, what we might expect and when we might expect the new e-book platform”. One wonders if he’s been pencilled in to do the same again next year.

Futurebook 09 closed with the announcement from Bookseller MD Nigel Roby that a new “community for digital professionals” would be launched on the Bookseller’s website early the following year. Given that said community turned out to be the FutureBook site, it might be worthwhile paying attention to his closing remarks this year too…

Originally written for FutureBook on 28 November 2010

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Alastair, thanks for posting this. One does not always have perfect recall of what one said, on which basis I think that what I was referring to was a better consumer experience rather than full interoperability in the cloud, but with that important caveat, I still feel pretty optimistic about the changes we’ve seen in the time since the first Futurebook conference. At the time, the Kindle was about a month into the UK market, and up to that point, DRM for ebooks had been pretty much entirely ACS4-protected files sideloaded on to e-ink readers. As a publisher of ebooks, let alone as an individual consumer, it was a somewhat suboptimal experience – and anecdotal evidence suggested that it was a major pain point for readers. Since then, we’ve moved to a much better reader experience, with every major platform supporting content stored online and synced/delivered wirelessly to a variety of devices. For the overwhelming majority of readers, their library follows them from device to device without the fear of that content being lost on device failure or upgrade, with DRM operating fairly invisibly in the background, and – again based on anecdotal evidence – there seems to me at least to have been a sharp decrease in the number of complaints about DRM*. This is increasingly true as readers use tablets, smartphones and other general purpose devices with access to a range of e-reading apps. The only mass-market, platform use cases that I can think of that wouldn’t work now are accessing iBooks on non-Apple kit, or non-Amazon services on an e-ink Kindle; or switching an entire library from one platform to another (and I am uncertain what demand there really is for the latter – especially as we move into a world where Kobo, Google Play, Kindle etc can coexist in apps on the same device). There will of course be other use cases that readers may find desirable, such as rivalrous (or even non-rivalrous) sharing or lending, many of which are being developed in the context of DRM frameworks. And we can see examples of interoperable content models being developed in other media, such as Ultraviolet. All told, I don’t think one can regard the developments between Futurebook 09 and now as wholly unsatisfactory, and I retain the optimism that I expressed back then.

    *Of course, there are many people who would dispute this: on the whole, my experience has been that people who care about DRM *really* care about it. All I can say to that point is, YMMV.

    1. I think I’m one of those people who *really cares about DRM*!

      I agree that, as you say, different libraries all coexist on my iPad right now. I have iBooks and Kobo and Kindle and Stanza and Marvin on the go at the moment, and it’s easy to switch between them.

      What’s annoying about it from a consumer point of view is that my library is still fragmented. If I buy books 1-3 in a series from Kindle, but then I see book 4 cheaper on iBooks, I have to choose whether to keep them tidily in one place and pay a little more than I need to, or have them split between two apps. This is … suboptimal.

      Of course, what I do in practice is to buy the cheaper edition, strip the DRM, and then read it in Marvin or Stanza, which are much nicer reading experiences than Kindle, iBooks or Kobo. And this is really where my main objection to DRM comes in. It’s not that it’s terribly inconvenient for me – it’s so easy to remove I barely notice it – it’s that the reading experience offered by a platform drops way down the list of the platform owner’s priorities. Amazon customers can only read Kindle Books in Kindle, so really, why bother improving it?

      Marvin can only read DRM-free ebooks, and is developed by a one-man-band. It’s frequently updated and improved, is remarkably flexible, and includes all kinds of interesting web features. Kindle gets updated about once a year, as far as I can tell, and is still kind of nannyish and bare-bones. When no competition is possible in terms of reading apps, things don’t improve.

      It was instructive that the response of Amazon to Stanza – a lovely little iPhone ereader app with lots of nice features, which make iPhone Kindle look rubbish – was to buy the company and then completely stop development on it.

      1. @iucounu: I take your point re library fragmentation: it is on some level a suboptimal experience, but the question is how much that represents a pain point for readers. I’d suggest that many people are used to having media spread across different applications – for example, having music split between iTunes and Spotify apps. I’d be interested to know if there is any research on reader perceptions of this issue to back up this view.

      2. Well, it’s not nearly so bad as what happens with video – the films/shows you want to watch split between a variety of subscription services. I was recently appalled to see that the way they’re being marketed against each other now is, in a very cable-TV manner, to do with exclusivity of content. That, I think, is a pain point for consumers – “What do you mean Game of Thrones isn’t on Netflix? I’m not paying two subscriptions.”

        With music and books, the same catalogues are, by and large, available on whichever platform you want, so you’re right – it’s fairly low-grade annoyances we’re talking about here. It’s annoying to have two different ereading apps that don’t look quite the same and can’t be tuned quite the way you’d like them. It’s annoying to have to remember multiple logins, when losing one can lock you out of your cloud-based library. It’s annoying if one of your accounts gets nuked somehow because you violated some arcane regulation or crossed the wrong international border (as we’ve seen with Amazon and Google Play ebook content respectively.) I think it all adds up, though, to an unwieldy and unnecessary system consumers would be happy to see the back of.

        That’s all purely anecdotal, I know, and I would love to see research on it, yes (not sure how you could design that, though…?)

      3. Thanks to you both for starting a discussion over a piece I wrote nearly three years ago about a conference that took place four years ago – I feel now that it was definitely worth reposting this!

        George, I suspect you’re absolutely right that you were talking about a better experience more generally for readers, and I agree that the move to reading via apps (or devices) that sync with the cloud has been good for the consumer. I do however also agree also with Iucounu that the two key areas where it remains sub-optimal is in the fragmentation of readers’ libraries, and the quality of the reading environment. The latter particularly interests me, as I’m currently working on a piece (either an article or a talk, depending on who accepts it) building on a brief talk I gave last month in which I explored what might happen if publishers dropped DRM (or switched to a different form of it), and started to develop their own reading apps. The main benefit, so far as publishers would be concerned, would be getting access to all that data about the reading process that retailers currently hoard; for readers, a little competition might actually lead to a better reading experience.

        (One very small further point regarding the fragmentation of libraries between Spotify and iTunes – the former allows you to import your local media, and the latter is about to get Spotify-like streaming, so we may be getting convergence in that field, at least.)

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