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Predicting the Death of a Media Format

151636019_02e45bc286[1]I came across a thought provoking blog post today. As you can probably guess from the title, it covers the death various media formats and tries to predict when CDs will die.

The blog post itself is interesting, but my main interest is that it got me obsessing about the death of ebooks and ereaders.

What follows is my musing on the death of ereaders and ebook formats.

Here’s an excerpt from¬†Predicting the Death of a Format:

For my purposes, a format is dead when libraries do not accept that format as donations to a Friends of the Library (Book) Sale. Cassettes, vinyl, 8 track and VHS are dead. Books (other than textbooks and encyclopedia, reader’s digest condensed books, magazines), CDs and DVDs are NOT dead.

VCRs that used VHS were introduced in the mid 1970s: let’s call it 1976. (I remember seeing contemporary Der Spiegel ads for them years later when doing unrelated research, but I also remember babysitting at a house that had an unusually ancient VCR from 1978, IIRC; I would have seen it in 1984 or thereabouts.) Libraries were refusing to accept VHS donations sometime after 2000, let’s call it 30 years later.


So a format’s lifetime (for my purposes) can be estimated at between 20 and 40 years. A rabidly successful format, like LPs, which enjoy international penetration from the very youngest customer to the oldest, from the most passing fad in music, to the most enduring classics, might make it 40 years for my purposes (remember: the metric is will a library take it to sell to raise money at a friends book sale). A less successful format, like Betamax, Laserdisc or 8 track, will be over and done in 20 years.

eBooks will never be accepted at a FotL Sale (aside from some interactive dictionaries and encyclopedias on CDs) but ereaders will be accepted (if they aren’t already). How long do you think that will last?

We’re still in the peak ereader years, so that question is going to be hard to quantify. But I can take a stab at it.

Sidenote: I remain unconvinced by the production estimates that suggest ereader manufacturing peaked in 2011. That estimate is not supported by the many reports that say that ereader adoption is still increasing in some countries, and the latest survey data suggests that adoption has not yet peaked in the US.

My current guess is that ereaders will continue to be accepted at FotL Sales for at least another 6 years. To put it another way, I am expecting new models to be released next year, and I expect ereaders will still be accepted for at least 5 years after the last of the major brand name ereaders are no longer being made (unknown date plus 5 years, basically).

If you count from the release of the first Sony Data Discman in 1990, we’re now 23 years into the ereader era. Add on another 6 years and and we’ve almost hit 30 years, which is a better than average run.

Sidenote:Why count a Data Discman? Because they’re still being pulled out of attics and sold on Ebay to this day, so there’s a chance that someone might drop one off at a library and tell the librarian it’s a ereader.

eReaders could end up having a 29 plus year run. How long do you think ebook formats will last?

That’s actually a trick question. If you interpret it the same way as the way the question was phrased in the post then we would be asking how long until ebook files were replaced by something else. That is too meta for the scope of this post,so instead I would like to consider how long specific ebook formats will last.

My current guess is that ebook formats will stick around until something better comes along. (What, did you really think I’d give a more definitive answer? It would have meant nothing, anyway.)

If we look at what has happened over the past few years we can see that "until something better comes along" has already happened to at least a couple ebook formats.

MSReader and eReader are the 2 best-known of the recently deceased ebook formats, and they lasted 12 years and 13 years, respectively. Their deaths were caused not just by the DRM servers being turned off but also because there is little reason for anyone to support a technologically outdated ebook format – not when there were equally functional alternatives.

That last point is probably the most important, because that is the reason why PDFs are still around. On the other hand it’s also why Amazon still supports most of the Mobipocket ebook format.

The PDF format was released in 1993 (or so I was told), and there are 4 reasons why it is still around today. The tools to make a PDF are freely available, the tools to read a PDF are freely available (got a web browser?), and the DRM servers are still running (this last promotes institutional adoption).

Mobipocket dates to 2000, and it was snatched up by Amazon in 2005 so it could be Frankensteined into the Kindle format.

In spite of the fact that the original DRM servers have been turned off, the Mobipocket format is still hanging around because the tools still work and because Amazon cyborgified Mobipocket inside the Kindle format. And since it’s still supported by Amazon, that means there’s technically a DRM server still running.

There is also a 4th reason why Mobipocket/Kindle and PDFs are still around; nothing has come up to replace them (the equally functional alternatives mentioned above).

Sure, Amazon has added on to the Mobipocket format by creating KF8, but that was merely an addition; it wasn’t a replacement and the original Mobipocket files still work. And while Epub is a better alternative to Kindle format, that ebook format won’t replace Kindle so long as Amazon dominates the market while declining to support Epub.

And don’t even try to tell me that Epub has already replaced Kindle; Amazon still has at least 50% of the ebook market.¬† Right now the best way to describe the Epub/Kindle conflict would be to compare it to the past struggles between HD-DVD/Blu-Ray or BetaMax/VHS. Both sides have partisans but it’s still not clear which will win.

And as for PDFs, fixed-layout Epubs might one day replace PDFs, but that hasn’t happened yet and it won’t happen until there’s a readily available way to make and read an FXL Epub.

So in conclusion, I’m going to go against my source and predict an indefinite lifespan for current ebook formats (barring some unpredictable random occurrence).

To put it simply, PDF and Mobipocket/Kindle are each supported by a seriously capable tech company that has a financial interest in their respective formats, while the possible replacement ebook formats are supported by committees (which, coincidentally, both Amazon and Adobe are members of).

P.S. This is one of those times where it is safe to bet on proprietary over open formats.

image by draggin

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Rebecca Allen August 13, 2013 um 7:45 pm

Indeed. Friends are _definitely_ accepting e-readers.

I had not contemplated this prospect when I wrote the post. I will now bury myself in google for a while to try to understand the parameters of loaning out devices to consume formats. I know libraries in the past would loan out movie projectors and films, and that seemed to mostly go away with the arrival of VHS. (And then libraries would sometimes loan out VCRs.) I left that all out because it seemed out of the scope, but if we’re getting into ereaders, it seems very in scope.

Nate Hoffelder August 13, 2013 um 7:57 pm

Ooh, I forgot to factor in the library deciding to keep the donated ereaders. That changes things.

Nate Hoffelder August 13, 2013 um 8:05 pm

Actually, ereaders should be considered as a media format themselves and not media players. eReaders are unlike (for example) DVD players because ereaders can be loaned out without any other media.

Rebecca Allen August 13, 2013 um 9:19 pm

I’m not sure ereaders have a really great historic parallel. I wasn’t really thinking of them when I was writing the post, because I was writing in the context of the iTunes Match project. Speaking of which, retail driven lockers offer a way around file format evolution, in that you sort of have a license on the work, rather than the work itself. If they want to change the format, you don’t really care, as long as you get the new format for the old stuff you bought before.

Nate Hoffelder August 13, 2013 um 10:49 pm

I’m not convinced digital lockers (and the matching services) are going to replace the file formats. We’d need ubiquitous connectivity first and that hasn’t happened yet.

Jon Jermey August 14, 2013 um 12:39 am

Dedicated ereader sales may well have peaked. Sales of portable devices on which ebooks can be read certainly have not, particularly when you take into account the huge sales of generic tablets over channels such as eBay.

Puzzled August 14, 2013 um 6:21 am

The main differentiator which you didn’t bring up is the physical format.

CDs will be around a lot longer than 'usual' because DVD and BluRay players will play them. For the amount of data involved, BR is still has a better bandwidth than streaming. And whatever replaces BR (4K) will need even more capacity, probably still delivered on a 5 in disc. And the players for this replacement format will handle CD/DVD/BR also.

VHS tapes died because the player’s became rare. Same with cassettes, vinyl and 8 tracks.

Epubs, etc are software formats, so they will stick around for a long, long time beyond any expected death date.

After all, the printed book has survived for over 570 years. Despite many format changes.

Paul August 14, 2013 um 8:57 am

The files we deposit to Portico are expected to be useable for over 100 years. That’s because they are stored on magnetic tape in a salt mine and are converted to the latest XML standard every few years or so.

Sadly, a lot of the files NASA stored its data on from the 1960s were not so lucky (which is why they got a lot better with the Hubble Space telescope).

asotir August 14, 2013 um 12:29 pm

One reason the PDF format is so widely accepted is that one of its variants is an open ISO standard.

But if you think that an iBooks version of EPUB, or an Amazon kf8 file will be readable after plain text files – or plain HTML – will be unreadable, well, what kind of a dystopian worldview do you have?

Nate Hoffelder August 14, 2013 um 12:39 pm

There are several different txt files schemas, aren’t there? I’m not sure that’s a good example.

And I’m not sure that html is a good example either, given that it has gone through multiple generations in the past 20 years and is used as a component for a number of different types of content.

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