Profile – VitalSource

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VitalSource Every once in a while I am surprised by some of the new web-application ideas people come up with. Some are bad – in fact, it’s disappointing to see so many applications launched just for the sake of launching -, but sometimes (just sometimes) you can actually feel when a project is set to solve a problem, even if for a small group of people.

VitalSource was announced yesterday, and I must admit I’ve been thinking about what its impact might be. Since you’re probably wondering by now, VitalSource is a web-application with the iTunes-twist. It consists of a client-side application (currently available for your Mac or Windows machine) that allows you to “buy books as you buy your music”.

A quote from their press release explains it best:

Now students can buy their books like they buy their music – by downloading them off the Internet. The Store offers more than 1,000 titles in the VitalBook(TM) digital format, starting from as low as $.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.

On formats and openness:

VitalSource sure sounds promising. This wouldn’t be an article by me if it didn’t have an ammount of constructive criticism and question asking, though. There’s a few issues that come to my mind about this application:

1) If they are targetting students, why not support an operating system that students seem to be using more and more? You know, Linux. I can imagine some people climbing up their chairs screaming “market share! market share!”, but this is a matter of accomodating a lot of people from one of the major target markets – students (and very importantly I imagine, IT students).

2) I’m always sceptical when I see a new proprietary format for any kind of information, particularly now that the web is all about reusing content and taking advantage of open formats. Naturally, VitalBook is proprietary because (and I’m assuming here, people) of piracy issues, and in order to provide DRM. But that raises some questions about the use of a Book bought in VS outside of VS itself. Will it have a use? Will it be possible to read? People are starting to read on their computers, I agree, but is the market share worth it?

Wrapping up:

Despite these two questions – that are no more than eye-openers – I believe VitalSource does solve a problem for some people, particularly people who either can’t afford hardcopy books, or won’t need to keep a book all the time for reference. The idea of buying books at the kind of prices they’re announcing is, undoubtedly, exciting. There’s huge competition in this field, though (Amazon and O’Reillys Safari Bookshelf), and it sure will be interesting to see how the market accomodates this new solution.

More information about VitalSource is available on their page.

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