The Cloud Has Failed: Ebooks and the End of the Nook

"Whoops!" message written in the cloud form on the sky

Recently on my tech podcast, Sovryn Tech, I was asked whether or not I thought “physical media” (Blu-Ray’s, DVD’s, paper books, etc.) was dead, or very slowly dying. It may shock you, but my answer was…no. And my answer has nothing to do with some kind of nostalgia, it comes from a very practical stance. I’ll grant you, I didn’t always feel this way. Not long ago, I would have said that everything could be put into the “Cloud” (you know, I’m still not sure whether that word should be capitalized or not, but I think I’ll capitalize from now on), especially since companies like Amazon and Microsoft were finally offering literal unlimited storage in the Cloud for anything you wanted to put there. I thought it was a new day for individuals and a major event since this was (in some senses of the controversial term) an actual “post-scarcity” moment.

But then, in late 2015, Microsoft completely backpedalled on their offering of unlimited storage, and in the process fucked up the Cloud’s potential, in my opinion. Ever since that moment, I’ve become incredibly skittish about the Cloud as an idea in general, and as I said on Sovryn Tech this past week, I think there is going to be a serious backlash against the Cloud in the future. And more cracks are beginning to show in the “all things digital” and “all things online” push that companies are going for…cloud2

According to The Register, Barnes & Noble is shutting down their Nook ebook and e-reader business in the UK. Again, they’re not just stopping selling Nook e-readers, they’re also shutting down the entire server system for their ebooks, and their ebook store there (with the USA likely to follow suit, soon). So what do people do that have invested–heavily or not–into the Nook ebook ecosystem? Let’s see what B&N has to say (emphasis mine)…

Effective from March 15, 2016, NOOK will no longer sell digital content in the United Kingdom. The NOOK Store on NOOK devices sold in the UK, on the UK NOOK Reading App for Android, and at will cease operation.

To meet your digital reading needs going forward, NOOK has partnered with award-winning Sainsbury’s Entertainment on Demand to ensure that you have continued access to the vast majority of your purchased NOOK Books at no new cost to you.
Further instructions on how to transfer your NOOK Books to a new or existing Sainsbury’s Entertainment on Demand account will be sent to you by email over the coming weeks. Please ensure that you look out for these emails as they will contain important information on what to do next.

Your action is required.

So B&N has effectively said that you need to go through what is likely not an easy process to transfer your ebook purchases over to a new service. But wait…there’s more. You also may not get all of your books on the new service. Some of your purchased books may be lost to you forever. Doesn’t matter how hard you worked to gather the money to buy them, doesn’t matter if you jump through all the hoops to transfer over to a new system that you didn’t choose…you’re likely screwed.

SIDE NOTE: E-readers like the Nook and the Kindle are often marketed as devices that even the technologically inept can use. Their simplicity is part of their draw. I’d wager some Zcash that the book transfer process B&N is going to have people go through does not fit within that “easy-to-use” basis of the e-reader platform. They triple-fucked consumers here.

Now let’s be clear here, this isn’t necessarily a Cloud problem. Yes, with B&N shutting down servers, it proves that Cloud-stored content (you can’t fit all of your books on a Nook, obviously) is at the mercy of the company offering you the service (as to where paper books are only at the mercy of where you can put them down, they don’t just disappear), and that service can disappear in an instant, no matter how much money you may have personally put into it. But this is really more a problem with Digital Rights Management (DRM). The thing that supposedly stops piracy (it doesn’t) is the thing that also stops you from keeping the digital content that you purchase with your earnings, like ebooks. If B&N made their books DRM-free (which they can’t due to contractual/copyright obligations with publishers, I’m sure), there would be a real solution to keeping all of your ebooks with the announcement of UK Nook services shutting down. But no…because, according to these kinds of companies, there are people out there that would take advantage of this situation and release these books for free! We must have DRM!

SIDE NOTE: I didn’t even bring up the classic case where, due to copyright and DRM, Amazon Kindle users had George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” books automatically deleted/ripped away from their devices and apps without their knowledge or choice!

It’s ridiculous thinking. The truth is, people that don’t pay for content…aren’t going to pay for the content whether they have access to it or not. These companies need to stop worrying about people that will never pay for things, and instead concentrate on pleasing the people that will pay vast sums for content. And B&N could have pleased them by making their books DRM-free and allowing them to keep them forever since the money has been made.

That’s not going to happen, though. And I think this is just one more case that is going to bring on an anti-digital and anti-Cloud backlash. I’m not so much on the “anti-digital” side of things. I love ebooks. I even love having entire games, TV shows, comic books, movies, photos, and albums, all in a very convenient and accessible fashion that digital content allows for. But I also like having control of that content. I strip the DRM from all of that content (or in the case of video games, I make my own games DRM-free). And I’m not necessarily “anti-cloud”, either. More accurately, I am “anti-server”, because that’s the real problem. All of my digital content is kept on a 4TB hard drive. That’s not too much different from digitally storing things away from my computer, but in this case I have actual control of it, and I can just make copies of the hard drive and have resiliency.

SIDE NOTE: I also didn’t bring up the constant annoyance with Netflix, where every month they create a genuinely false scarcity by (due to copyright) removing various shows and movies, and then bringing in new ones, then bringing the other ones back again, then removing them again…on and on…how do you know what you can even watch on that goddamned service?

There are technologies coming that allow for that server-less storage of content (MaidSafe, ZeroNet, Alexandria, some of BitTorrent’s technologies, etc.), and that would allow for an evolved Cloud that perhaps I would trust more. But much of this is still in the works.

In the meantime, I’m not going to trust Amazon, B&N, Microsoft, Apple, or Alphabet/Google, or whoever with my digital content. I’m going to go through the work of stripping the DRM, and keep it stored locally. It’s the only way I know I can access it, and know that it’s mine. You may find that Cloud-based services work for you. You may love Netflix. You may love Google Docs. That’s fine, I’m not here to judge. I’m just here to say it doesn’t work for me, and in the near future it may not work for a whole lot more people.

Carpe lucem!