One more reason to promote open formats and eliminate DRM.

TechDirt has a story about the software running electronic textbooks. It isn’t a pretty tale. The software, (not open of course) keeps track of the usage and reading habits of the students reading the text.

If your school is looking at etexts, are you concerned?

DRM = Digital Rights Management – AKA – Digital Restriction Management.

Jono Bacon is a long time Linux activist from the United Kingdom and currently works for Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. He is their community manager.

He has written a book about communities in the context of groups that share common goals like support for or development of open source software. The book has been recently published, and is currently on my to-be-read bookshelf (one sadly sagging from the weight of volumes there). However, Mr. Bacon has taken the extra step of getting his publisher to agree to an unusual thing. The book is also available for free.

Even if you are not a part of the writing or support of open source software, you may be reading this blog because you are part of the education community. You may also be part of the group MassCUE, for which this blog represents a special interest group. MassCUE is Massachusetts Computer Using Educators with a strong community.

Since you don’t have to pay for the book, you can certainly afford to read it. Go to it!

Early information says that this is the Ebook Reader to watch.

Basic and premium versions sound like they are scheduled for release by the end of 2009. The premium version sounds fantastic. Two touch screens that close to face each other and protect the screens, color, virtual keyboard on one of the screens, WiFi connectivity. More details need to be available, and I’ll probably want to hold one in my hands before I jump.

The basic model is slated for $150. If the premium model is under double that, it sounds like a winner.

Asus gave us an inexpensive, very portable netbook a couple of years ago. This sounds like the merging of netbook and ebook reader that will cover most of my needs, easy to carry, access to the Internet, ability to hold like a traditional book while reading the etext, and the ability to take notes in a more serious way with the integrated virtual keyboard.

I am really looking forward to getting my hands on one of these.

Can your imagining eye see your students carrying these around?

Publishers are in a quandry. How can they make money in tough times?

What if McDonalds gave ebooks away with a Happy Meal or Big Mac?

They would not need to give away files through the drive-through window. This would work like the Monopoly game with little pull-off tabs on the drinks, food boxes, fries, etc. On the tab there would be a code that would be entered at the McDonalds Web site. The code would entitle the tag holder to select from a group of ebooks. Happy Meal tags would lead to a list for kids. Big Macs another list. The list might vary from day to day or be modified on a weekly or monthly basis. Either way, McDonalds would be getting Web traffic, and a small amount of the cost of the Big Mac would go to pay a publisher or author. With “Billions and billons” sold, the potential income for publishers and authors could be significant over time.

Because the access is through a Web site, customers could even be given the opportunity to request titles. Imagine the impact on currently out-of-print titles, books that don’t make money for anybody, except for a few used book dealers.

The code could be randomized and time-limited in such a way that it could only be used once, avoiding unwanted “theft”.

The “inventory” cost would certainly be lower than the current cost for the little toys given out with a Happy Meal. Real cost would be the disk space and network charges incurred for delivering the ebook file.

The file would best be available in an e-reader agnostic format. I wouldn’t want McDonalds to need to sell or distribute a Ronald-McReader, though they might want to, come to think of it, especially for the kids’ books.

Maybe this is a chance for competition, too. If Burger King got behind some authors, with other authors for McDonalds and Wendy’s and Taco Bell and Ken’s Steak House and Arby’s and…you get the idea. Publishers could pit these retail giants against one another. “GET STEPHEN KING’S LATEST HERE!”, “WHERE’S WALDO?…WENDY’S, OF COURSE!” Maybe an author or agent could boost the per copy price to the author that way.

Is fast food even the “best” choice for doing publishing sponsorship? All you need is a company willing to pay for the right to distribute copies of ebooks. I’m not sure it would need to be an exclusive right. The method would drive traffic to a company’s Web site, for sure. Would romance novels be a hit with customers of Ralph Lauren or Victoria’s Secret? Teen authors at Hollister?

E-reader sales could really take off, too. The classic chicken and egg dilemma might be solved. Both are now on the menu at most fast food restaurants along with “the beef”.

Update (June 18, 2009) Just for the fun of it, I sent the suggestion to McDonalds through their Web site. The sent a reply (looked like boilerplate) saying they don’t acknowledge or accept suggestions from outside the restaurant system. It sounds like legal battles over ideas have happened before. But, hey, this is an open source/open education/open idea blog. Maybe McDonalds or somebody else will follow up on it anyway.

I don’t really understand economics. Why gas prices go up in the summer eludes me, for example. But I was very interested in Ransom Stevens’ clear analysis of the economics of the publishing industry in this age of Internet and ebooks.

[I am going to go back to do more scanning of the content of the parent site: whom I thank for Stephens’ article which is released with a Creative Commons license. Good.]

Ransom Stephens isn’t described as an economist either (the article link of his name leads to his ID as a technologist and physicist, but his article is both enlightening and clear. His analysis may be controversial in the era of Digital Rights Management and expanding copyright terms. But new authors come along all the time. A few of them get a book published through the current system. Stephens envisions that all authors would get their shot and a new “word of mouth” in the Internet would give more of them a chance. He does have the following statement of publishing gloom though.

Except for the case of textbooks – but that’s a different article (the answer: textbooks in printed form will truly, conclusively die).

Is this a future of books you can live with?

Do you have a different view, and how open do you think the process needs to be?