Proprietary formats and lock-in. When it comes to discussions of digital content, these are terms you really can’t escape.

A lot of that has to do with the evolution of digital content, which
arguably hasn’t gone much smoother than human evolution. On one side,
we’ve seen many content owners fight the ‘digitization‘ of their
content, contributing to rampant piracy and consumer dissatisfaction.
On one side, we’ve seen hardware and software vendors take advantage of
the chaos to push proprietary formats that lock consumers into their
hardware and software offerings.

In the still-immature but fast-growing market for e-books, the future is up for grabs. Will stakeholders get it right this time or will consumers suffer as they make the same mistakes again? appears to have a head start in the e-book market and cynics probably weren’t surprised when the -commerce giant chose the ‘proprietary‘ path. E-books purchased on can only be read on its Kindle device or iPhone software. Although isn’t yet to e-books what, say, Apple is to digital music, consumers have already been reminded what this path can bring.

But Sony, which is a player in the e-book game through its Reader devices, has decided to take the load less traveled. According to the New York Times, it is set to announce that by year-end, it will only sell e-books in the EPUB format.

The EPUB format is an open standard promulgated by the International Digital Publishing Forum, whose members include major publishers like McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins and Random House, news organizations like the AP and software vendors like Adobe. Ironically, is also a member.

With the EPUB format, consumers may not be free from DRM but they can take the e-books they purchase from device-to-device. That’s far more important.

Steve Haber, chief of the Sony digital reading division, recognizes that and told the New York Times that “There is going to be a proliferation of different reading devices, with different features and capabilities and prices for a different set of consumer requirements“. He went on to note that consumers “are going to want to shop at all the [e-book] stores“.

Of course, Sony’s decision to embrace an open standard probably isn’t entirely altruistic. has a big lead over competitors like Sony and had the roles been reversed, the storied electronics manufacturer probably would have been less kind for obvious reasons.

But the fact that major stakeholders in the market have coalesced around an open standard before the market really takes off is good sign for consumers because it should provide more choice and greater competition.

If provides a better service, a better price or a better total package, it could potentially win with a proprietary format and lock-in. That’d be fair. But the existence of an open standard with lots of backing already appears to be encouraging a different approach. The New York Times notes that CEO Jeff Bezos has stated a desire to “make Kindle books available on as many hardware devices as possible“.

That’s the market at work. In the early days of other digital content markets, players didn’t have to worry about competing with open standards. They seized the opportunity to acquire market share despite their use of proprietary formats. Consumers were largely forced to avoid inconvenient issues like lock-in; convenience and selection was largely only available in the presence of lock-in.

Even if the EPUB format fails to really catch on, if it can give pause and encourage a more competitive marketplace, consumers may be rewarded with a new digital content market that’s a lot friendlier than what they’re used to.

Photo credit: oskay via Flickr.