Launching back in October 2010 Bluefire was the second – and arguably best – iPad app to allow users to read their Adobe DRM encrypted ebooks on Apple’s tablet.
Since the app launched Bluefire CEO Micah Bowers has been a familiar presence on ebook forums and social media sites listening to what end users want and implementing many of their suggestions.
That very open and public style of engagement has seen the app win an army of loyal users.
I caught up Bowers at last month’s London Book Fare where he said that although many book lovers use the Bluefire app, the company sees its main customers as “publishers who want to sell direct to the consumer who really value that direct relationship, or retailers.”
The company offers branded reader apps to those partners allowing them to compete with the big ebook retailers. This means Bluefire’s competitors are txtr and Mobcast, not retailers such as Apple or Amazon.
“Retailers really don’t have a choice,” Bowers said when explaining why his partners need a white label app.
“There’s nothing they can do in the Kindle ecosystem, there’s nothing they can do in the iBooks ecosystem and publishers can provide books to them but they become just a supplier versus having that direct relationship.”
Most of the big vendor apps allow side-loading of non-DRM’d books, a feature which could become actually of use if, as suspected, the days of ebook DRM are drawing to an end.
But if books are suddenly sold unencrypted and users can finally place all their books in a single app where does this leave the likes of Bluefire and their clients?
On the issue of DRM Bowers says Bluefire is “all about enabling the retailers to have a great platform for delivering content so if they or the publishers want DRM we make that work for them, we make it as seamless as possible. If they don’t want DRM the solution works great.”
He also dismisses suggestions that dropping DRM would see a shift away from smaller apps.
“Those of us in the industry tend to shop here, shop there, try this, try that but consumers just want simplicity, they want to find that great retail ecosystem that they buy into. For them I don’t think there’s a big issue about moving things here and there.”
“A lot of it has to do with the relationship between the customer and the retailer – customer support, pricing, do they help find content that they like, do they provide sync services?
“If you’re a customer of Books-A-Million and you shop there all the time and you get their apps, as long as you have a good reading experience there’s really no reason to move your books anywhere else.”
But where does Bluefire go when every book retailer who wants an app has one?
Cliff Guren, Bluefire’s Vice President of Business Development, tells me the company has its eyes on markets outside consumer ereading including “business to business communications, business to consumer outside the traditional ebook retailing and Government publications.”
“We had a meeting with one of the UK Government institutions who said ‘we’re really want to use something like your product because we have a mandate to reduce paper’ so there’s lots of opportunities as we build out the platform.”
Guren and Bowers agree when I suggest Bluefire’s current consumer retail services could become “a very small part” of their future business.
Bowers says they want to partner with “any company or Government institution who creates a large amount of content, be it manuals, policy documents or training materials” who want to “have that content distributed to [their] audience in a managed, branded way.”
He also cites an example of a partnership with a US educational establishment to provide course materials, telling me “the students log in and they get a list of content that they can access that’s part of their course programme.”
Guren adds: “Our apps contain an embedded web view [which is] a very powerful tool for establishing and maintaining persistent relationships. So it’s not just that [partners] can reduce costs by distributing electronically, it’s that if they build out the embedded services they can also maintain relationships in a way they simply can’t in print.”
Such a move to digital has the potential to deliver significant cost savings by reducing the amount of printed material students or sales teams have to carry around.
But Bowers says digitising has benefits beyond costs, such as analytics which allow sellers and trainers to understand how customers and employees are using content.
At this point Guren is keen to stress that any use of such analytics would be “subject to the appropriate privacy laws” and insists Bluefire is “super, super concerned about that issue and trying to make sure that what ever we deploy complies with local laws.”
“From a business perspective we just want to make sure that what we’re doing takes privacy into consideration and so that we architect the system to allow us to have the right privacy settings.”
“The last thing we want is for consumers to think that we’re inappropriately gathering or using data.”
It’s clear that Bluefire has big plans for the future but Bowers says for now “our bookseller customers are really our focus. But yes, there are places where it can go and there’s lots of opportunity and there’s a lot of interesting things we can do.”