In our modern, tech-driven age one of the major subsets of monopoly is proprietary data formats. If you can set it up so that the only way to access the data is to pay you for a way to read it, you can rake in the cash. The version of that that people my age are most familiar with is the VHS vs. Betamax wars, in which Sony tried hard to make video tape inaccessible to anyone who didn’t pay them, but it was a standard tactic in the early days of computers. Right up through the early 1980s, all of the computer manufacturers and most providers of sophisticated programs made their data formats proprietary and incompatible with anyone else’s to the extent possible, and employed legions of lawyers to prevent others from creating conversion software that would allow users to escape “lock-in”.

Nowadays we’re seeing a repeat of that tactic in electronic book formats. The Sony rôle is taken by Amazon, with proprietary formats for the Kindle, and the VHS-equivalent is .epub, a semi-open standard being adopted by Amazon’s smaller competitors. Kindles won’t read .epub, and Amazon keeps the specifications of its own formats close to its vest and won’t license them (or won’t except at prohibitive cost), so competitive e-readers can’t load them. They have in common the .mobi format, a legacy of MobiPocket, but .mobi doesn’t have a lot of the features both manufacturers and users want in an electronic book.

Unfortunately for Amazon (and for anybody else seeking to establish a proprietary format) the world is full of programmers who learned from the early days of computers to hate that tactic with the heat of a thousand suns, and are prepared to put their coding effort where their hearts are. Conversion from Betamax to VHS and vice-versa required a complex, expensive machine; there weren’t many companies with the capability to develop and manufacture such a thing; the result was that it was easy to detect and deter violators of the Betamax licensing provisions. Conversion from any computer file format to any other requires… a computer and suitable software; computers are ubiquitous, and computer software requires programmers to stay up late and code; it’s virtually impossible to even detect a programmer punching keys in the basement of a house somewhere in Eastern Europe, let alone find out what he or she is working on so as to deter them from that attempt. The predictable result is conversion software, which is already starting to appear.

The three I’m familiar with are Calibre (note the spelling), Jutoh, and Scrivener. They each have a different focus: Calibre is primarily library management and conversion; Jutoh focuses on the .epub format, and is a way to edit files in that format more or less directly; and Scrivener, which has been popular on Apple for years and is now available for the PC, is primarily utility software for writers but can read and write a number of different formats. Calibre is free. The other two are payware, but the cost is within reach of anybody who can afford $200 for an ebook reader in the first place.

For the owner of an ebook reader who isn’t concerned with authoring, Calibre is the right choice. All of the readers come with (proprietary) library management software. Calibre aims to replace that, and can connect directly to most readers; its conversion capabilities are extensive, and are or can be made more or less transparent. Hook your Kindle to your PC, use Calibre to download and file a .epub from B&N, and transfer that to the reader. It’s all automatic, with the only thing you’d notice is that it takes a little longer than a simple file transfer. It isn’t perfect — the format it’ll convert to is .mobi, not .avi or the newer Amazon format, so if the book is complex the result may be missing some features. We can expect that Amazon will field a legion of lawyers to make sure that continues to be the case, but if all you want is to read the book, the process works fine.

For authors who are already using a compatible workflow (which most are: Microsoft Word as the origin document) Jutoh works well. Its developers are directly connected to those working on .epub, so it probably has the most complete set of facilities for managing that format. Once again, its access to the Kindle depends primarily on the .mobi format, so some of the gee-whiz features may be missing. It’s easier for an author than Calibre, because Calibre’s focus on library management creates some clumsiness, especially for incremental development, i.e., editing and new versions.

Scrivener comes closer to matching my writing workflow, but it isn’t very useful as a general file-conversion utility. The capability is there and usable, but that isn’t what the program was designed for. Mac-using writers have raved about Scrivener for a long time now, and having it available for the Microsoft environment will probably attract a host of new users, but they’ll mostly be writers or wannabees. A person who just wants to read ebooks and doesn’t intend to write them will find it formidably complex; Not Recommended for such an individual. Again, its access to the Kindle is mainly via MobiPocket.

The common thread in all this is that Amazon is vigorously developing new, better, flashier proprietary formats, leaving the .mobi format as an orphan, and employing lawyers to enforce the full rigor of copyright law to freeze competitive e-readers and the developers of conversion software out of their revenue stream. If Jeff Bezos were to ask my advice (not bloody likely!) I would tell him to abandon that approach. The whole point of .epub is that it’s a relatively open, common format, and later versions have a good feature set. If it doesn’t have a feature Amazon wants (other than proprietary lock-in) the .epub developers would welcome assistance from Amazon’s highly competent army of programmers to incorporate it.

They won’t do that. Thanks to some very smart moves in other venues, Amazon is the Big Kahuna of the ebook, and sees their competitors as ankle-biters whose primary utility is that they’re useful as defenses when the SEC comes calling. “No, of course we’re not a monopoly, look at all the competitors we have!” No doubt their bean-counters are sniggering at the vain attempts to depose them from their perch, as the cash rolls in.

I would urge them to caution and avoidance of complacency. In the late Seventies Sony was the Big Kahuna of video tape, making money at a ferocious rate and prepared to deploy schools of legal sharks to maintain its position. It’s worth noting in that respect that Beta/Betamax/Betacord was, in fact, a superior format, with better definition and more satisfactory synchronization than VHS — but VHS was easier to build, and didn’t require substantial payment$ to Sony in order to deploy it. Smaller manufacturers, working on a shoestring to bring product to market, adopted VHS, and Betamax was eventually nibbled to death rather than either winning or going out in a blaze of glory. Beta was always the preferred option of professionals in the video business, and now that DVDs and Blu-Ray have more or less eliminated video tape from the consumer market, most of the surviving tape users are still working in Beta — but they’re a small market, and always have been. When tape was “live”, consumers went with VHS, and Sony failed at its attempt to lock everybody in to its revenue stream.

Something similar is very likely to happen in the ebook business, although the situations aren’t precisely parallel. Unlike what Sony did, at present Amazon isn’t charging a premium to users of its format(s), but if it achieves lock-in the clamor from the bean-counters to start doing that will be well-nigh irresistible. Even if they don’t, there are enough programmers out there who despise proprietary formats that the pressure to decode and reverse-engineer them will be equally great, and keeping the lid on via deploying platoons of copyright lawyers is a short-term solution at best, because if the decoding/encoding system escapes onto the Internet at any point the effort will have been futile.

Again, at the moment Amazon isn’t acting like a monopoly or near-monopoly, but there are a growing number of people who recall the near-inevitable consequences of the establishment of a monopoly and View With Alarm the growing power. One thing Bezos and company could do to at least partially head that off would be either to open their formats to competitors (and conversion software writers) or to adopt a relatively open standard. It would reassure people that, even if the Big Kahuna achieves full dominance in the market, others would continue to have access, and would go a long way toward decreasing any feelings of resentment that might result in either programmers or the legal system attacking them. Embrace .epub, Jeff. You’ll spend less for lawyers and programmers both, and get fewer people mad at you.

But since he won’t, conversion software is needed. It will be available, too. It already is, and more will come along. Users of e-readers should seek it out and support it, if for no other reason than to keep Amazon honest.