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The e-Book Wars: Is Pornography Next?

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Back in the simple analog days of the 1970s and 80s, giant global forces faced each other in a do-or-die battle over video formats for consumers -- VHS vs. Betamax. On the VHS front was the originator, JVC, along with powerhouses Matsushita (Panasonic), Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Akai. Facing them was the mighty Sony, Betamax's champion, plus the allied legions of Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Aiwa, and Pioneer. Since neither format was compatible with each other we, consumers, were given an either-or choice of which pricey equipment to buy for shooting home videos or watching movies in our living rooms. Today, nobody knows how many obsolete Sony Betamax machines are collecting dust in garages, but there must be stalwarts out there who take great comfort watching victorious VHS being Darwin-ed out of existence by the digitally evolutionary DVD format. Sony can now feel vindicated because their Blu-ray has won out over HD DVD in the recent HD format wars. And on and on it goes.

The latest battle pits the country's major book sellers and gadget makers -- including Sony again -- with competing formats, all fighting for dominance in the burgeoning e-book market. And here we are, again, having to chose between, not two, but a gaggle of pricey machines for downloading and reading books on our handhelds.

This means, if you want to buy a book from Amazon.com and want to read it on your $279 Sony Reader -- you can't. If you buy a book from the Sony e-Book Store and try to read it on your $299-$489 Kindle -- you can't. If you download an e-book from Barnes & Noble and want to read it on your Kindle -- you can't. If you buy a book from Audible.com and have a Sony Reader device -- you get the idea. It's up to us, again, to handicap the products in the hopes that the device we put our money in will not end up in a garage sale.

Make sense? Not to Steve Haber, president of Sony's Digital Reading Business Division, maker of the Sony Reader. "It's very sad to see other companies launching their proprietary e-book format, very sad if this becomes a splintered industry where this only works with this store or that one."

And the splintering goes on. "There will be a whole host of reading devices announced in the back half of this year," says William Lynch, president of barnesandnoble.com, with it's reported seven hundred-thousand on-line books for sale. Industry wide, e-books continue to grow significantly as sales reached $113 million in 2008 up 68.4%. For Barnes & Noble, that's a good thing. Their e-books, Lynch says, "have more software compatibility with more devices than any company in the world." He's talking about the roughly 21 million iPhones and 15 million Blackberrys out there that support their e-book format. And next year, B&N partners with Plastic Logic's proprietary 8 1/2 x 11" reading screen.

So, again, it's about competing, non-compatible formats. With their proprietary software for Kindle readers only, Amazon has adapted a "we-win, you-lose," VHS vs. Betamax business model. Their competitors are being quite polite about it in public but on the playing field, Amazon is the identified industry obstacle. B&N's Lynch is diplomatic when he tells HuffPost, "We'd be open to talking to Amazon but that would be up to them." In the meantime, insiders tell HuffPost that Barnes & Noble and Sony are holding compatibility talks as a counter to Amazon.

The best solution to this format face-off, says Sony's Haber is one software format, an open device that allows any book to be read on any device. Public libraries currently offer e-book downloads in either a PDF or what is called an EPUB format, or both. EPUB is compatible with the Sony Reader and others, but not the Kindle. Sony says many publishers have already decided that EPUB is the industry standard and so has Google with their public domain book offerings. All Europe is on it, they say. Sony is hoping that as more and more publishers provide EPUB files and the standard gains critical mass, everyone will support it. "It's a tower of Babble right now for consumers. We're looking towards a day when we all offer books in the same format," says a Sony spokesperson in an email.

What's Amazon's take on all this? HuffPost's requests for Amazon's input for this story went unanswered.

If Amazon continues to follow the VHS, 'win-lose' model, they might consider the "Myth of Betamax Porn" as a marketing strategy. It is a myth, which means it's never been verified, so it can't be proven to be causal -- but it sure is corollary. During the VHS-Betamax wars, pornography was readily available on VHS tapes but not on Betamax. Is that why VHS won the war? Who knows. Since annual internet sales of pornography are estimated to be in the $3-5 billion range, will we start seeing e-book porn being offered by Amazon for their Kindle?