Browsers as Servers: Is Change Coming to Bookselling?
By Michael Stillman
Opera, the somewhat obscure Norwegian internet browser and software designer, recently announced the development of a browser that also lets your computer function as a server. Yes, this article is related to books. Stay tuned. We will not get technical! A browser is the software on your computer that lets you access the internet and view all of those countless sites and web pages out there. A server is the place where those web sites and pages are hosted. So, the browser looks at what is on the server, and displays it on your computer screen.
Now a server is really just a computer. It may be larger than your personal computer if it has a whole lot of stuff on it, but your computer can function as a server. It just needs to be configured to do this. My son has done it, though I wouldn't have a clue how. Anyway, what Opera is doing is using its browser to make your computer function as a server too.
What does this mean? It means you can make your material available to others on the internet from your own computer (since it is now a server). Right now, you may already have things available for others to see on the internet. Perhaps you have a My Space Page, or something on Facebook. Your information is available online, but you don't control it. That's because it is being hosted on My Space or Facebook's server, not yours. This is why they can stick an advertisement on "your" page and you cannot do a thing about it. Well, with Opera's new product (called "Unite"), now you can host it on your own server, meaning you can choose the format, and choose the advertisers (or have none). You are in control and can post whatever you like because you don't need to use someone else's server.
Now it's getting to be time to tie all this to books. If you are a bookseller, you probably have your books posted on someone else's server right now. It belongs to Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, or even the Americana Exchange's Books For Sale. Maybe you aren't entirely pleased with your server provider. Perhaps you think they charge too much. You can see where this is going. The listing sites provide servers where you can place your book listings and other people can find them. But, Opera is saying that as long as you have a computer and their browser (free), you can host your books online without any need for Amazon, Abe, Alibris or us. Hm...
Of course it's not quite as easy as this implies. There are issues such as your computer would have to be on 24 hours a day, a serious crash could bring your business to a halt, the risk of hackers or viruses infecting your computer/server has barely been addressed, and you probably have no more idea how to set this up than I do. This is in its infancy. However, there is an even bigger issue this does not address. The listing sites provide something else besides hosting your listings. They provide the ability for buyers to find them. Each provides a search of their listings. Some of you may already have your own personal website, placed on someone else's server. You know how hard it is to be seen in the jungle that is the internet. The listing sites provide a place where buyers can go to search many sellers' listings at the same time, so book buyers congregate there.
So, does this mean all of this irrelevant to booksellers? Not so fast. As we noted, the listing sites exist on the basis of providing two major services: web hosting and search capability. The previous existence of relatively inexpensive web hosting for your own site, now augmented by Opera's effectively free web hosting, is rapidly making this first function unimportant. What is not yet provided outside of the listing sites is an effective book search mechanism. However, it is certainly possible for someone to design a targeted book search engine that looks at listings on your personal websites and computer/servers and aggregates these in one place. Should some big search engine company do this, well... there goes the second major service of the listing sites. You just might conclude that you no longer had any need for the Three A's or our Books For Sale. You might be able to have your listings easily found by the public for little or no cost.
How far down the road is free or inexpensive listing and searching for books online? The complications previously mentioned may make it sound distant, but these days technology moves at lightening speed. The internet that gave birth to book listing sites a dozen years ago has evolved exponentially, yet book listings have barely changed at all. Change is inevitable, and overdue. It will be coming to our neighborhood soon, even if we cannot yet fully envisage its form. The Opera ain't over until the fat lady sings.