Blog Post

With Sony's ePub Move, Adobe Wins

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

smallreaderSony’s announcement today that it’s throwing open the doors of its e-book store and reading devices to the ePub standard is certainly good news for consumers. ePub — and open standard developed by the International Digital Publishing Form — is already supported by a growing number of major publishers and a growing number of reading devices. With Sony on board, consumers will have greater flexibility over how they buy and read e-books.

The move is also clearly a bid by Sony to establish itself as the No. 2 in the e-book market behind Amazon’s Kindle before the Barnes & Noble/Plastic Logic alliance comes fully online next year. But the big winner in today’s announcement is Adobe Systems (s ADBE).

While Sony is embracing the open, XML-based ePub standard for delivery and viewing of e-books, those e-books will still come wrapped in copy protection. As part of today’s announcement, Sony said it will scrap its own, proprietary e-book DRM in favor of the more widely supported Adobe Content Server 4 (although the ePub standards has no native DRM the ePub Container format, which bundles e-book content with metadata and other elements for delivery over the Internet, can support third-party DRMs, including Adobe’s).

As Adobe’s GM of ePublishing, Bill McCoy, pointed out in a blog post yesterday, the Sony announcement brings the number of e-book reading devices that are compatible with Adobe’s Server platform to 17, marketed by nine different vendors. Whether by accident or design, the Adobe server system is emerging as the leading e-book publishing and DRM platform after Amazon’s Kindle platform.

Why is that important? As I point out in a report on the e-book market released earlier this month by GigaOM Pro (subscription required), Amazon’s e-book ambitions go beyond simply selling a lot of Kindle devices. Taking a page from Apple’s iTunes playbook, its goal is to establish Kindle as the dominant e-book publishing and distribution platform. And as Apple has amply demonstrated, when you control the platform, you control the value chain, which means you reap a disproportionate share of the value that’s exchanged.

And the best way to maintain control over a platform — again, per Apple — is through the use of proprietary DRM. Like Amazon’s Kindle DRM, the copy protection at the heart of the Content Server platform is proprietary, in that Adobe owns it. Unlike Amazon, however, Adobe’s standard is openly licensable by others. While that still leave Adobe in an enviable position — able to collect licensing fees from both ends of the value chain — it’s clearly a more friendly environment for publishers and consumers than Amazon’s walled-garden approach — and may be publishers’ best bet to avoid getting trapped by Amazon the way the record companies were by Apple.

Interestingly, the odd man out here could be Barnes & Noble. The B&N eBookstore supports the ePub standard, but for now it’s sticking with its own DRM system rather than adopting the Adobe platform. Barnes & Noble was undoubtedly hoping to position itself as the industry’s best alternative to Amazon, but it may just have been outmaneuvered by Sony/Adobe. Two contending platforms is good for business. Three just might be a crowd.

Paul Sweeting writes The Media Wonk blog and is author of an upcoming report on the e-book market for GigaOM Pro.

22 Responses to “With Sony's ePub Move, Adobe Wins”

  1. Sony switching to Adobe’s DRMed EPUB is actually very good news for Kindle owners. All the LRX files I previously purchased are now downloadable in this format. this DRM has already been cracked (just google it). using this tool, you can remove the DRM from the EPUB file, import it into Calibre and easily export/convert it to Kindle or any other format. so in effect, anything you buy from SONY now can be read on ANY e-reader device.

    Previously, the proprietary Sony LRX format was one of the FEW DRM formats that had NOT been cracked!

    Thanks Sony!

  2. I do not buy crippled ebooks, period. Not on my original Sony Reader and not on my Kindle 2 now. There are plenty of titles available in portable form and any publisher who thinks I’m going to rebuy my books every time a new device comes out can just starve.

  3. Adobe wins? Really??

    As we learned from digital music, the DRM scheme that runs on the most devices doesn’t necessarily win in the end. Adobe’s DRM might very well turn out to be the PlaysForSure of the eBook world. Widely licensed, but only contributing to a small fraction of total media sales.

    Amazon will retain its huge lead in ebooks until someone matches the Kindle’s ease of use and media acquisition.

  4. Steve153

    Marketing-type Question for Ric & Robb (and anyone else who’d like to answer) — What would you think about an approach where you (the ebook buyer) could buy an ebook, resell it if you’d like through some sort of electronic transfer where it disappeared from your ebook reader and reappeared on someon else’s ebook reader (just like a paper book), and also make a limited number of copies (maybe 5 copies?) so you could have copies of the ebook on your laptop, your iPhone, and your ebook reader, etc.?

    That would help alleviate the valid concern of authors and publishers that, with out some form of DRM, there would be no way to stop endless free copying & distributing of copy-righted ebooks; and at the same time, it would seem to allow ebook consumers enough flexibility to do what people do with print books (and a little more). Do you think most eBook consumers would find this to be reasonable approach?


    • Steve,

      From a marketing stance, looking from a higher level than just ebooks, consumers don’t like it when things they are used to do are taken away (a natural human behavior). When I was in the media DRM space (yes, admittedly part of my past…I even have a patent) I used to use the example that if you can’t let people who own say a movie go watch that movie at a friends house or let that friend borrow the movie then it DRM will never work. Media needs portability. So specific to your question, and interestingly something similar to a concept I had explored while at macrovision, If you gave a consumer whom purchased the ebook (or movies, etc.) the ability to allow friends to borrow it or outright transfer ownership then I do believe consumers would be open to this.

      Think of a website that allowed me to check out digital content I purchased to others or even to my other devices. My friends could borrow my movie, book, etc. but I would still retain ownership (and can even be in control of getting my movie back too by revoking the rights :-). I can also transfer ownership, either free for for money as you described. Conceptially you can think of each person being their own library – sometimes they let friends check out their content and sometimes they sell (like used books).

      But the issue I think has never been about if the consumers would adopt such a model, it’s the major pubs and media companies unwillingness to try such new approaches. I guess they’re fearful of losing control? I don’t know. This is my concept of a clearinghouse and I think would be the best solution for both consumers and media companies. Media companies get some form of DRM protection and consumers get portability and would be less likely to pirate.

  5. The problem I still have with any DRM system is that it’s still tied to a device and not to a user. When I buy an ebook, game, software, whatever, its ME that has the rights to it, not my Kindle or my laptop. Seems there needs to be some type of license clearinghouse where consumers can have access to what they bought and use it on any compliant devices they own and change devices over time.

  6. This is another great example how broken ‘business in America’ is! Lets continue to chase greed and embrace any models that show some success in supporting that agenda. Of course, in the mean time, lets also embrace an already obsolete technology in our quest to feed the voracious maw of consumerism while simultaneously screwing over any desires the paying customer has, to get content the way it wants!

    As with the last 11 locked down protocols, formats and technologies I will be doing my level best to propagate and support players interested in bringing an open system to consumers that actually meets their needs! Corporate America has turned people like me into unreasonable thieving heathens when not so long ago we were considered discerning customers. WAKE UP AMERICA!