VitalSource Technologies, Inc. - Download VitalSource Bookshelf:

Buy your books like you buy music

VitalSource launches digital bookstore | MacMinute News:

"The Store offers more than 1,000 titles in the VitalBook digital format, starting from US$0.99 to 60 percent off list price of hardcopy versions. The growing inventory of VitalBooks includes classics such as Shakespeare, reference materials, and textbooks in subjects ranging from law to philosophy to medicine."

By the way, the last time I checked there was about 64 books available for purchase from the bookshelf. So maybe those 1 000 titles are distributed internally at educational institutions.

I think that VitalSource has a bright idea here. By making the books available in electronic format, they are able to bring the prices down. Also, it gives educators an easy channel to distribute their teaching and learning material--though I am still uncertain how easy it is to convert materials to the VitalSource format. Anyway, I am extremely glad that they did not promote their technology as pushing for the digital revolution. For a more thorough discussion of the mythical paperless society, please read Malcolm Gladwell's excellent article published in the New Yorker.

However, VitalSource seems to be distributing their books in some in-house proprietary format. This might or might not have been avoidable given how easy it is to pirate e-books. So, VitalSource's decision is justified.

Nonetheless, using their own format instead of something more commonplace such as PDF severely limits what the readers can do with the book. So far, most of the books available only have lots and lots of text in them (no pictures) so this might not matter much. Nevertheless, I like to be able to annotate my e-books. And sometimes I do not wish to be limited to highlighting, even if it is with different colors. I need to be able to include links to pages, maybe even pictures. And I would like to share my annotations with other people. Vitalsource Bookshelf does not seem to allow me to do those things. There might be good reasons for this since younger children are actually using the program, so there is no need to make things too complicated.

Also, other operating systems are not supported. I know that almost 90% of the computer users use Windows or Mac OS X. But most computer science geeks use Linux. And they do not fancy having to read their books in some beautiful GUI window. At most, they would settle for postscript or pdf but not some funky new format. This really hinders VitalSource from being adopted in most universities. Well, maybe VitalSource never intended for this service to be used everywhere. Anyway, VitalSource definitely does not appeal to everyone. Since they are giving the VitalSource Bookshelf application free, their sole revenue depends on the sales of books. So, either they have a large consumer market, or they are maybe going to roll out a more powerful version of their application that would enable readers to do more with their e-books.

Here are some comments on their tagline: "Buy your books like you buy your music". Buying books and listening to music are too different things. When I listen to music, I do not need to take annotations! When I read books which I deem important, annotations are a must. And I can bring my music with me, be it in a CD or iPod. With VitalSource, I need to have the VitalSource Bookshelf program. And unlike, PDF or Word documents, I cannot even put it into my Palm or cell phone. Furthermore, there is still some solace in being able to curl up with a good book in bed. Sometimes, bringing my laptop to bed does not seems like such a good idea. So you would never buy books like you do music.

Also, by tying the book to one account, I think VitalSource limits you from sharing the book with your families. While I studied in my home country, I usually pass my books to my younger brother or cousins. Since textbooks really do not change that much, we managed to save a decent amount each year. Also, my brother would benefit from the notes that I took.

Installation of VitalSource Bookshelf was via a .mpkg file. As advised by rixstep there is seriously no need to distribute applications in this manner. Anyway, the installation created a bunch of folders at places that I really would not like to have them. For instance, it created the Books folder in /Users/Shared. I can understand the rational behind this since you need to be able to share books with different users, each user having a separate account on VitalSource, I assume (or maybe a main account for the entire class). It also created a Books folder in my home directory where it stores the notes that I have made. So maybe there is indeed a way to share notes with people. Bottom line, uninstalling this program is not going to be as simple as dragging the application to the trash. Maybe there is an uninstaller for the Windows version.

Even though the VitalSource Bookshelf for Mac OS X looks polished, its functionality is still too handicapped for most people. For the time being, all you can do with an e-book is to highlight the text in it, add notes to it, or search through it. Of course, you get to use the back and forward buttons to navigate too. You can drag and copy the images that are inside the e-book into another application. On Mac OS X, dragging the picture to the desktop identifies it as a Picture Clipping. Each book appears in a separate window. One good thing is that you can backup the notes that you have made. Backups are saved as .db files which in the sqlite2.1 format.

While this might not prevent piracy, what VitalSource can do is adopt what the Pragmatic Programmers LLC does with its e-book: personalized it with your name. My PickAxe and Rails book both have the line: Prepared Exclusively for..."your name here" as the footer.

By the way, the only reason I took interest in VitalSource was not because of their catchy tagline: "Buy your books like you buy your music" but because James Duncan Davidson helped develop the web backend for it using Ruby on Rails. And he did an impressive job on the website. Still, I think that VitalSource is indeed a good idea. And the fact the VitalSource has gotten Apple and IBM to participate does give it some realistic backing. It's just that I doubt that many publishers would want to use VitalSource to deliver their contents. I cannot imagine O'Reilly doing it.

Now, on to uninstalling it!

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