The year was 2006. The first ever electronic ink reader had just been released by Sony, and Kovid Goyal, a PhD student in quantum computing at the California Institute of Technology, wanted to read on it. Only, he realized that he could not use it with the operating system he used, Linux.
To get around this, Goyal created basic software that could convert books from one format to another. Two years later, he added functionalities that made the software easier to use and named the project “Calibre" at the suggestion of his wife.
Today, Calibre boasts of 3.3 million “active installs", where the software was used at least once in the last two months.
The problem that it solves for e-book users is simple, but fundamental. The most popular e-reader in the world is Amazon’s Kindle. The most popular e-book format, however, is e-pub, which the Kindle does not support. So, e-reader owners don’t just have to deal with condescending stares from print purists, but with the hassle of multiple e-book formats, and the question of how to read books they’ve bought legitimately on devices of their choice.
For digital music, which also deals with multiple format issues and large libraries, there are programmes like iTunes. For e-books, the equivalent is Calibre, a comprehensive free and open-source tool that you can use to manage your e-library, convert books to multiple formats, and news feeds to books.
“It’s the first thing I downloaded when I bought a Kindle," said Arun Kandikonda, a sales professional based in Mysuru. “I know around five of my friends who’ve bought a Kindle, including my mother, and they’ve all gotten used to Calibre."
While the highest paying computing jobs these days involve helping companies figure out how to gain maximum dollars from advertising, selling things online or building social networking sites, Goyal’s aim is unusual. He is interested in encouraging and enabling people to read and chose to return to Mumbai, his home town, in 2011 after completing his PhD.
“I have often said that reading is too important an activity to be left entirely in the hands of profit-needing corporations. A big part of my motivation in dedicating the last decade of my life to Calibre has been to ensure that it remains possible for book lovers to read, collect, create and manage e-books on their own terms," said Goyal, in an e-mail.
Calibre has had contributions from over a hundred people but Goyal is the only full-time developer, who funds the development through donations and ads on the website, and this is his primary income source.
“These sources have been stable enough to allow me to work full time on Calibre for seven years and counting," said Goyal.
Developing for three operating systems (Windows, Linux, and OS X) is not an easy task, but Goyal said he relies on automation.
“For instance, making a new release of Calibre for all its supported platforms, just involves me typing a single command into my development machine, and then waiting a couple of hours while it does all the work," he said.
Goyal, who answers dozens of user queries on forums every day, said that the most important factor in Calibre’s success has been the community built around it.
He said that he was fairly disappointed at the state of open source in India, but hoped that there would be some momentum around it in the future. “There does not seem to be a very vibrant open source community here, which is a shame, as open source is a great fit for Indians. It is a way to gain exposure to good code and experience working with people without needing formal qualifications." he said.
For a project like Calibre, Goyal said that the biggest challenge is the changing ecosystem and re-writing large parts of the software to keep up with the changing circumstances.
“The most rewarding thing has been getting feedback from Calibre’s users about how it has made their reading lives a little bit easier and more pleasant. I am thrilled that something I do, in whatever small way, helps spread reading," said Goyal.