I’ve been quite interested in the potential of e-books for some time, but not had any direct experience of using them. Well, happily for me, Santa left an iPod touch in my stocking this Christmas, and I was straight on to iTunes, to download the Stanza e-reader application. From there I went of to project Gutenberg and downloaded a few free copies of public domain books. Well, I am blown away by the ease of reading with this app.- I found myself picking up the iPod at all sorts of odd moments, and as I had to make a short (well, 1 hour) train journey for work on Friday, I was dipping into those PDFs I’d downloaded for reading later. (You know: the ones you never actually read.) Now, I’d probably  never have printed those documents out, let alone carried them with me on a business trip, so, for a short while I was convinced that there might be something in the idea of mobile learning after all. Well, I’m still quite convinced, but I found that we still have some way to go. Accessibility remains an issue, although I think the Stanza app tries hard in this respect, and the inventiveness of the developer community so far makes me reasonably convinced that we’ll see further improvements.

Well, if this is so wonderful I thought, I should perhaps buy a book with real money. So I went to the web site of a leading UK bookseller and looked at their e-book catalogue. There were plenty available. But first, I thought I’ll see if others have reported any technical problems. Indeed they had: – I found  this message on one of the Lexcycle (developers of Stanza) support forums in response to a complaint that the book they had bought wouldn’t open.

This particular error usually means that the book is encrypted with Adobe DRM, which Stanza Desktop does not yet support and the Stanza iPhone only supports the eReader DRM.

Well, fair enough. I’m not criticising Lexcycle for this. Stanza is after all a free app, and for all I know this may have been fixed by now. (The message was from September 2009)  But why are publishers/booksellers using DRM to stop customers doing as they please with their own property? I know they’ll say intellectual property isn’t quite the same as a physical artefact, but the digital world changes business models, as the music industry has found out.  I would have thought selling something that can’t be used as the purchaser wants is probably not the most effective way of ensuring a high volume of repeat sales. If they’re worried about breaches of Copyright law, then there are legal remedies they can pursue.  (Although before they do that, they might usefully look up the phrase “Open Source”).  While I’m on this topic, I was also astonished at the high prices that they charge for e-books. It’s not as if e-books have higher production costs, after all, so presumably this designed to stop e-books undermining print sales.  I think the most likely long-term outcome is that one of the more experienced digital players will come up with some sort of literary equivalent of  iTunes and the traditional booksellers will just lose the business.

Which is a shame, because once I’ve got off my high horse I can see a great deal of potential for this kind of easy document portability in HE, and I think books do need to be readily accessible.  I like Stanza partly because it sits on the iPod which means it’s potentially part of a suite of apps, rather than being a dedicated e-book device, but also because it offers features to bookmark and annotate your text. all we need are  linked Refworks, Blackboard, Moodle and WordPress apps, and we’re away! Paper is so 2009!