OK, sounds dramatic, but trust me, mark down October 19, 2009 as a day to remember.
Rarely, in my career have I been “blown away” by a demonstration. Tonight, “blown away” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I should have seen it coming, but, I didn’t. I was completely blindsided. I was blindsided by the vision of Brewster Kahle, the raw brilliance of his team, and the entire group of individuals and companies who played a role in Brewster’s “convocation”.
What I saw, was many of the dreams and visions of e-book aficionados everywhere becoming a demonstrable reality tonight. I say ‘demonstrable’, because by Brewster’s own admission, it’s not ready for prime time, but the demonstration was enough to make my head spin with the possibilities. But you don’t really want to know that, so let me do my best to just report what I saw.
Let’s start from the beginning…
Tonight, Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive Founder and Chief Librarian, introduced what he calls his “BookServer” project. BookServer is a framework of tools and activities. It is an open-architectured set of tools that allow for the discoverability, distribution, and delivery of electronic books by retailers, librarians, and aggregators, all in a way that makes for a very easy and satisfying experience for the reader, on whatever device they want.
Now that may sound fairly innocuous, but let me try to walk through what was announced, and demonstrated (Please forgive me if some names or sequences are wrong, I’m trying to do this all from memory):
- Brewster announced that the number of books scanned at libraries all over the world has increased over the past year from 1 million books to 1.6 million books.
- He then announced that all of these 1.6 million books were available in the ePub format, making them accessible via Stanza on the iPhone, on Sony Readers, and many other reading devices in a way that allows the text to re-flow if the font has been changed.
- Next he announced that not only were these files available in ePub form, but that they were available in the “Daisy” format as well. Daisy is the format used to create Braille and Text to Speech software interpretations of the work.
- There were other statistics he cited related to other mediums such as 100,000 hours of TV recordings, 400,000 music recordings, and 15 billion (yes it’s a ‘b’) web pages that have been archived.
- He then choreographed a series of demonstrations. Raj Kumar from Internet Archive demonstrated how the BookServer technology can deliver books to the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) XO laptop, wirelessly. There are 1 million of these machines in the hands of underprivileged children around the world, and today they just got access to 1.6 million new books.
- Michael Ang of IA then demonstrated how a title in the Internet Archive which was available in the MOBI format could be downloaded to a Kindle – from outside the Kindle store – and then read on the Kindle. Because many of these titles were in the Mobi format as well, Kindle readers everywhere also have access to IA’s vast database.
- Next up, Mike McCabe of IA, came up and demonstrated how files in the Daisy format could be downloaded to a PC then downloaded to a device from Humana, specifically designed for the reading impaired. The device used Text-to-speech technology to deliver the content, but what was most amazing about this device was the unprecedented ease at which a sight impaired person could navigate around a book, moving from chapter to chapter, or to specific pages in the text.
- Brewster took a break from the demonstrations to elaborate a couple of facts, the most significant of which was the fact the books in the worlds libraries fall into 3 categories. The first category is public domain, which accounts for 20% of the total titles out there – these are the titles being scanned by IA. The second category is books that are in print and still commercially viable, these account for 10% of the volumes in the world’s libraries. The last category are books that are “out of print” but still in copyright. These account for 70% of the titles, and Brewster called this massive amount of information the “dead zone” of publishing. Many of these are the orphan titles that we’ve heard so much about related to the Google Book Settlement – where no one even knows how to contact the copyright holder. (To all of my friends in publishing, if you let these statistics sink in for a minute, your head will start to spin).
- Brewster went on to talk about how for any digital ecosystem to thrive, it must support not just the free availability of information, but also the ability for a consumer to purchase, or borrow books as well.
- At this point, Michael came back out and demonstrated – using the bookserver technology – the purchase of a title from O’Reilly on the Stanza reader on the iPhone – direct from O’Reilly – not from Stanza. If you are a reader, you may think that there is nothing too staggering about that, but if you are a publisher, this is pretty amazing stuff. Stanza is supporting the bookserver technology, and supporting the purchase of products direct from publishers or any other retailer using their technology as a delivery platform. (Again, friends in publishing, give that one a minute to sink in.)
- The last demonstration was not a new one to me, but Raj came back on and he and Brewster demonstrated how using the Adobe ACS4 server technology, digital books can be borrowed, and protected from being over borrowed from libraries everywhere. First Brewster demonstrated the borrowing process, and then Raj tried to borrow the same book but found he couldn’t because it was already checked out. In a tip of the hat to Sony, Brewster then downloaded his borrowed text to his Sony Reader. This model protects the practice of libraries buying copies of books from publishers, and only loaning out what they have to loan. (Contrary to many publishers fears that it’s too easy to “loan” unlimited copies of e-Books from libraries).
- In the last piece of the night’s presentation, Brewster asked many of the people involved in this project to come up and say a few words about why they were here, and what motivated them to be part of the project. The sheer number of folks that came out were as impressive as the different constituencies they represented. By the end of this the stage was full of people, including some I know, like Liza Daly (Three Press), Mike Tamblyn (Shortcovers), and Andrew Savikas (O’Reilly). Others, I didn’t know included Hadrien Gradeur (Feedbooks), the woman who invented the original screen for the OLPC, a published author, a librarian from the University of Toronto, Cartwright Reed from Ingram, and a representative from Adobe.
After the night was over, I walked all the way back to the Marina district where I was staying. The opportunities and implications of the night just absolutely made my head spin. I am completely humbled to be asked to be here and to witness this event.
In one fell swoop, the Internet Archive expanded the availability of books to millions of people who never had access before, bringing knowledge to places that had never had it. Who knows what new markets that will create, or more importantly what new minds will contribute to our collective wisdom as a result of that access. In the same motion, Brewster demonstrated a world where free can coexist with the library borrowing model, and with the commercial marketplace. Protecting the interests of both of those important constituencies in this ecosystem. He also, in the smoothest of ways, portrayed every ‘closed system’ including our big retail friends and search engine giants, as small potatoes.
I will have to post again about the implications of all this, but people smarter than me – many of whom I was able to meet today, will be far more articulate about what just happened. I’m still too blown away. I know this, it was a ‘game changer’ day. It may take a couple of years to come to full fruition, but we will be able to pinpoint the spot in history when it was all shown to be possible. I need to thank Peter Brantley for inviting (or should I say tempting) me to be there. Wow.