web analytics

Amazon Kindle eBook

Vox looks back at the ebook. It hasn’t made progress in a decade.

Publishing spent the 2010s fighting tooth and nail against ebooks. There were unintended consequences.

Source: The 2010s were supposed to bring the ebook revolution. It never quite came. – Vox

Long time readers of this site will know to expect ebook scepticism. Ebook readers do little for me. Yet that’s not the main objection: the ebook business model is wrong. 

Apart from a handful of exceptions, it is hard to understand the attraction.

Let’s get those exceptions out of the way first.

Flyers: Ebooks are great for avid readers who are long distance flyers. The hardware weighs a few grams and is not much bigger than a phone. You can carry an entire library for less space and weight than a paperback. It’s a strong argument. 

That said, I find my eyes tire much faster with an ebook than with a printed book. And, for reasons I can’t fully explain, probably to do with lighting, it’s not as relaxing if you plan to read before snoozing on the flight. 

These days I carry a couple of printed books in my carry on bag and another one or two in the stowed luggage. Yes it’s heavy and takes up valuable room. I can live with that.

Textbooks: There’s a case for publishing textbooks as ebooks. Indeed, many textbooks are only available in a digital form.

When I was a student carrying three of four weighty physics books back and fourth to the university was a serious workout. An ebook, especially one that fits in a pocket makes more sense.

There’s an added bonus, it’s easy to update an electronic text book. Doing that with print is hard. 

Large print: Being able to adjust the size of print so that ageing eyes can read is another argument in favour of the ebook. As the Vox story explains, this is one reason older people are keener on ebooks than younger folk. 

What’s wrong with the ebook business model?

In a word: greed. It costs far less to distribute photons and atoms that mashed up dead trees sprayed with ink. There’s no manufacturing, no shipping, no shopkeepers taking a reasonable but still heft retail margin. 

And yet ebook publishers ask customers to pay as much or almost as much for digital books as for printed ones. Their margin for each book is way higher than for printed books. As an aside, do authors get paid the same for digital copies?

Publishers can’t justify this. But it gets worse. If you buy a printed book, you can hand it to someone else after you have read it. You might sell it secondhand or donate it to an op shop. Either way, it retains value after it is read. Restrictive licences mean that’s not the case with ebooks. In other words, publishers get another bonus. 

Given all this, an ebook should cost a fraction of the price of a printed book, somewhere in the region of 10 to 20 percent. They don’t. The savings are not passed on to customers. 

If ebooks were priced appropriately, they’d sell, it’s that simple. Almost everyone carries a device which could act as an ebook reader. They could do better. 

The Vox story also makes a valid point about publishing and retail monopolies, which, if you think about it, also come back to greed. 

What could have been a revolution is, in part, a victim of greed.

Google and Facebook control almost all the world’s online advertising revenue. To get around this, news organisations and other online media use paywalls and subscriptions.

It makes perfect sense when there’s precious little advertising revenue to pay wages and other bills. Producing media costs money.

As Tom Foremski explains at ZDNet, this creates a new digital divide.

He writes: “The digital divide is about to get worse with the rise of subscription-based news media because of the failure of advertising to provide revenues for a sustainable business model.”

It’s another reason to not like Facebook. Another reason to fear Google.

Newspapers are not the only examples. Subscriptions, not advertising, pays for Video and sports streaming services. Pay-per-view is not new, but there is now more of it.

Here, the National Business Review hides all stories behind a paywall. The New Zealand Herald keeps the best stories for subscribers. They are not alone.

A second digital divide

As an upshot, low income people who manage to jump the first digital divide and get online, come up against a second divide. Subscription costs often shut them out from the best online content.

Free media has stepped in to fill the gap left by newspapers. Some free sites are good. the Guardian and RNZ both run excellent free news sites.

Some free media is darker. People with a hidden agenda and money to spend can publish plausible looking news. Although plausibility isn’t essential here. Manipulators have free run to bombard readers with lies and misleading information.

Propaganda

Look up an international story on Google News. You’ll find links to certain sites that are openly or not so openly propaganda sites. There are Russian and Chinese examples. In some cases intelligence agencies pay the bills.

Other free news services might push extremist ideologies or misinformation. Lies are common.

People who buy subscriptions end up better informed. They can make better choices. They may even live better, healthier, even happier lives than the poor souls on the wrong side of the second digital divide.

Zuckerberg Facebook F8 2019

Facebook used its F8 developer conference to tell the world about plans to build a private social media service. Speakers, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, hammered home a conference slogan about the future being private.

Zuckerberg did nothing to redeem Facebook’s tarnished reputation.

Instead he undermined the message that he and his company wanted to send.

That joke isn’t funny any more

After promising users a more private feature he went on to joke about it with the audience.

He said:

“Now look, I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this, I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.”

One of the things I often tell people about these speeches is that you have to, metaphorically, listen to the words and the music.

Written down the words look plausible. If you see a video of the speech you’ll see Zuckerberg laughing. At least it made him sound insincere. You might worry that this young billionaire is laughing at his company’s users. He has publicly disrespected them in the past.

Zuckerberg’s jokey delivery certainly fell flat with the audience. That video clip could be set to echo down the years if Facebook’s privacy plan goes sour.

Zuckerberg tone-deaf

It’s another example of a tone-deaf response from the leader of a company that has swung elections and been accused of stirring up hate crimes.

If Zuckerberg didn’t think Facebook had a problem when he made his speech. It has one now. He did nothing to address the biggest question hanging over Facebook: why should anyone trust the company?

There’s another question arising from the F8 conference keynote. Facebook is a huge business. It’s worth about half a trillion US dollars. It doesn’t make things. It’s not really a software company in the traditional sense.

Switching focus from inserting targeted advertising in a user’s social media feed to helping them communicate privately is a huge jump. There is a relation between the two, but it doesn’t map well.

Appy talk

Facebook already has a lot of messaging. There’s the Facebook Messenger. There’s also WhatsApp and the messaging feature in Instagram. Integrating the various messaging tools and building them into a new, useful service isn’t going to happen overnight.

Making messaging private means using encryption. Facebook says it will use this technology. Yet encryption is something governments don’t like. Given that a lot of governments also don’t like or trust Facebook that could see the company tied up in complex regulations.

My other fear about the news from F8 is there is too much focus on cosmetic changes to the business. Take the site makeover that was revealed. This may be intended to send a message that Facebook has changed, but it’s more a case of the leopard changing his spots.

Likewise Facebook’s Secret Crush feature. It could turn out to be creepy if poorly implemented. But you can’t help thinking it’s main purpose is to distract people.

New Zealand and France will work together to make it harder for terrorists to broadcast violence through social media. The move is a response to the March 15 attack in Christchurch which the terrorist streamed live.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris next month to discuss plans. They timed their meeting to coincide with a G7 digital ministers Tech for Humanity event and a separate Tech for Good summit.

A media statement from Jacinda Ardern says:

“We all need to act. That includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies.”

Social media terrorist toolkit

This nails the problem. Facebook and other social media outlets have become part of the terrorist’s toolkit. In part they have spent recent years encouraging ever more extreme and violent content on their sites.

Social media companies know that extreme material resonates with audiences. In effect, they have turned people’s anger into rivers of gold. Rather than calm things down, they have learnt that ramping up fear and hate is a lucrative business.

Profit explains their reluctance to act in the past.

Inevitable

Given this, it was inevitable that a terrorist would one day choose to live-stream the murder of dozens of people. It happened in Christchurch, but the live atrocity could have been anywhere.

It’s good to see Jacinda Ardern work with Macron on this. Neither New Zealand nor France are able to fight these battles alone. It’s also good to involve the G7. The more allies the better. It will take co-ordination from many governments to rein-in the social media giants.

Until now the likes of Facebook, Google with YouTube and Twitter have acted amorally.

Above the law?

If they appear to believe they are above the law, that’s because in a sense they are.

The social media giants are all US-based. They can point to that country’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech as a justification for not policing content loaded on to their sites.

What’s more, the US gives them Section 230 protection. In effect, they have legal immunity for what they publish, although there are exceptions. This sets up a climate where the big social media companies act as if they can do whatever they want.

Reputation not considered

In an ideal world, these companies would fear their reputations and long-term business prospects are risk if they don’t take more responsibility. We’re not at that point yet.

Australia has laws which could see them prosecuted for actions like showing the Christchurch terrorist attach video. Incidentally, there’s a report this morning saying these images are still online and easy to find.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can afford to laugh in the face of small governments. To a degree that’s been their strategy until now. Even medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom are openly disrespected by social media executives. Facebook even dismisses ad hoc groups of countries working together.

New Zealand, France and the G7 are a more powerful combination. They can act together. Yet that last sentence has an important word act. The countries must do more than just bat ideas around in a talk fest. They must take collective action if anything is going to change.

I talked to Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon about the NZ, France effort to tackle violence on social media

My Box screen display

Sky TV is celebrating a court win against My Box, the streaming service that advertises its ability to play Sky’s content for free.

The Auckland High Court ruled that My Box cannot describe its service as legal. It confirms that using its hardware and software to show Sky-owned material is a breach of copyright.

The court will hold a hearing to decide costs early next year.

Sophie Moloney, Sky’s general counsel says: “This decision, along with the recent ruling against Fibre TV boxes in Christchurch, sends a very clear message to New Zealanders that these services are not all they are cracked up to be.”

Sky’s roundabout victory

What’s curious about this case is that Sky didn’t manage to win a straight legal victory over video piracy. It took action against My Box and the company owner Krish Reddy under the Fair Trading Act.

In effect, Sky’s successful legal argument was that My Box was making claims about its service that were misleading.

This echoes the way US authorities finally managed to nail gangster Al Capone because of his tax evasion, not his more serious crimes.

My Box pirate

What’s pleasing about this case is that Reddy is an out-and-out pirate. This isn’t like a bunch of kids being busted for watching a naughty episode of a show that isn’t even available through legitimate entertainment channels. It’s not like someone bittorrenting a missing episode or using a VPN to watch BBC coverage.

Sky has a far better moral argument here.

Reddy may not be a gangster, but his My Box business is copyright piracy on an industrial scale. He claims to have sold 17,000 boxes.

While you can’t argue that every one of those 17,000 customers would have otherwise subscribed to Sky, it’s clear that Reddy sucked a lot of money earmarked for video entertainment out of an industry that struggles to pay its way.

Last year I received one of the My Box spam emails. Heaven knows how the company got hold of my details. It did come via a long defunct but still forwarded email address.

Wake up call

The fact that it was spam is a wake up call in itself. But the email wasted no time telling me that I could get content for free without paying a Sky subscription. It looked crooked.

Piracy is in decline. There’s less need to steal content when it isn’t expensive to buy from the likes of Netflix or Lightbox.

Even sport, which comes with more of a premium price tag, is affordable for most New Zealanders. At least in relative terms. A year-long subscription to Bein Sport NZ or Sky Fanpass is roughly a couple of days pay for someone on a minimum wage.

Sky is My Box’s most obvious victim. In a way so are the people who paid the company money and believed they were getting legitimate access to streaming video services.

In theory, any customer would have a good case to demand their money back. I suspect they, like Sky, will find there are few if any assets left in the business.