As eBook versions of books become the rule and paper versions the exception, difficulties in product identification will continue to manifest themselves and, while we are years away from eBook dominance, product identification issues are already straining the capability of the ISBN system. The solution may lie in the humble URL.
Recently, Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of Spotify (a music subscription service), commented in a Telegraph interview “We need to understand that this is not about MP3 files anymore; the MP3 file has become the URL and through that unique identifier I can send you something and you’ll be able to know what it is and listen to it.” Ek may be exaggerating the current state of affairs in the music supply chain, but he was comparing the physical chain (CD) with the electronic and he is probably correct about the advancing importance of the url in music. Unwittingly, Ek may be predicting how eBooks are to be identified in the coming years.
In an “internet of things” world where my TV speaks to my fridge and everything we own can have its own URL, is it possible that all books - both physical and electronic - will carry their own identifier? Would this be useful? What would this mean for the ISBN and the current methods for identifying publishing products? Most importantly, would the publishing industry be able to control (perhaps ‘manage’ is a better word) this eventuality so that the industry ensures it will harvest the benefits that the ISBN has engendered for 40 years?
There were two critical aspects to the success of the ISBN standard and, obviously, adoption within the publishing industry was one of these. Equally important was the integration with other standards and standards groups.
ISBN has long participated in the global standards community overseen by the International Standards Organization (ISO), and the results of these important relationships go largely unseen by the general publishing community. One relationship in particular is the relationship with EAN/UCC which resulted in the allocation of a block of EAN prefixes to the ISBN standard and ensured compatibility between ISBN and EAN/UCC. As a result of this relationship, ISBN is an equal beneficiary in a global supply chain dependent on the EAN/UCC standards. The ISBN prefixes (978/979) are colloquially referred to as “Bookland EAN” partially because all other EAN prefixes are geographically allocated. The global adoption by ISBN of the 13-digit syntax now represents full inter-operability between ISBN and EAN/UCC. (EAN/UCC is now named GS1).
This ‘lesson’ in working with other standards groups is one which may presage our approach to evolving the ISBN as more content becomes referable via URL, as Ek opines is the case in music.
The Internet is on the verge of a migration of its own to Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), which will enable more IP addresses than most people could ever imagine. As this happens over the coming years (beginning next year), the number of addressable items is likely to explode as the ‘internet of things’ evolves. Publishing and the ISBN community should consider how best to participate and manage this migration to their advantage by working with the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) to define an approach that mimics the relationship ISBN forged with GS1. If the ISBN community were able to define an equivalent IP ‘range’ – a Dot.Book if you will – the publishing industry may be able to successfully migrate the ISBN standard and maintain the advantages of the ISBN to which we have all become accustomed. If they move fast, the ISBN community maybe able to get there sooner than the pace at which the industry is migrating to eBooks and eContent. A solution could be ready and waiting –and it’s better we do it than wait for someone else to come along and do it for us.