Melbourne indie ebookstore shows the future of eReading

This week saw the launch of an ebookstore from respected Aussie indie bookseller Readings in Melbourne. What is especially interesting about the Readings launch is that it’s a pure cloud-based service, ie you never download your ebooks, they stay permanently on the internet.

Readings’ owner Mark Rubbo has been instrumental in getting this system up and running using technology from fellow Melbourne company Inventive Labs. At this stage, they’ve focused on getting a selection of Australian titles, mostly from indie publishers, but are also talking to the major international publishers about supporting the service.

I’ve been keeping an eye on Inventive’s Monocle ebook reader since it launched about a year ago.  Developer Joseph Pearson open sourced the code and has also used it as the basis of an ebook service called Booki.sh that powers Readings’ ebookstore. Once the Readings ebookstore is bedded in, Pearson plans to offer the service to other booksellers.

Its cloud-based eReading approach has several advantages over today’s ebooks which work primarily with downloaded files. First, the only thing you need to read these ebooks is a web browser. This covers every device from PCs to smartphones to tablets, even the Kindle which has an in-built browser.  The Booki.sh reading experience is surprisingly good (try it on an iPad or smartphone). Secondly, because you can’t download these ebooks, you won’t need DRM. That should be a benefit for a lot of consumers and publishers.

Contrary to what you’d expect, you don’t actually need to be permanently online to read them. Modern browsers support an increasing range of HTML 5 features, including “offline caching”, a temporary way to store files on a local device such as a PC or smartphone so they can be accessed securely when you’re offline. This feature isn’t quite ubiquitous yet but there are plenty of browsers that already support it, including Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome, and Firefox. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer will also provide support for it.

Google’s new ebook service uses a similar approach but in Google’s case they also allow conventional download of ebook files.

The idea of cloud-based reading takes a bit of getting used to. People have just started to get used to their physical books being just a digital file and they’re now facing the loss of even that file. For many, this is a step too far.  But I think it’s an inevitable step and the question is really when, not if, most ebooks will move to the cloud.  Of course, we’re already halfway there in that all the major players keep your ebook purchases in your personal online ebook library.

I personally think the Booki.sh system would be ideally suited to an ebook rental model which would provide a point of differrence and might also address some of the concerns about buying an ebook that you can’t download — if you’re only renting it for a week or a month, you’ll pay less and you won’t be so concerned that you don’t have a local copy to keep. For libraries, too, it would address a lot of their concerns about ebooks, especially their fear of becoming a tech support network for all the complexities of the current ebook world.

Rubbo and Pearson are taking a can-do and practical view of things. They seem to be flexible and willing to push a few boundaries so it will be interesting to see where this platform heads.