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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

e-readers and the future of books

I sparked off something of a discussion on one of the forums I frequent when I wrote about Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, my post was this:

Amazon Kindle is kicking ass in sales figures

I still think it’s a pretty shoddy v1 though. It’s far too ‘book’ and far too little ‘computer’. They need a re-think with regard to the UI, it’s far too literal.

Give it a full colour touch screen with iPhone like zoom/page flick instead of physical buttons, allow text search (this is a biggie), add improved bookmarking of pages/passages (with an auto-updated bookmark table per-book - a user generated appendix of sorts), slim that fatty down, and this will look a lot more compelling. In short, leverage the fact that this is digital instead of messing about pretending it’s paper.

One of the objection points was that it will be hard to get people to adopt e-books instead of paper books because of getting over the issue of the emotional attachment with, and experience of, reading a paper book.

As I see it, it’s just like Henry Ford said “If I asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse”. Same with e-books. People think they want portable books that act like books, because they’re used to books. But they don’t actually want that. Likewise people think they don’t want e-readers because they will be like reading on your PC. It won’t be.

Vendors that pander to the ‘book-like’ myopia will fail in the long run, overtaken by companies that produce e-books tailored for people who are used to on-line, hyper-linked, reading. The ’stubbornness’ of segments of the market who shun e-readers will fail as those ‘oldies’ effectively die out. A 40yr old today is unlikely to want one. A 40yr old in a decade will be far more used to the idea. A 40yr old in two decades will think paper books to be a quaint idea, but not very practical. I believe that fifty years from now, e-readers will dominate and books will be relics.

Kindle’s approach of ‘mimicking paper’ is one I think can be successful only as a short-term strategy. Long term it has to change to cater for a more tolerant and demanding audience, who will see an e-reader not as the child of a book, but as the child of a PC, and wonder why the hell it doesn’t do half of the stuff they expect it to do.

It is about perspective and the audience. My view is that large portions of Amazon’s customer base is already capable of understanding the sort of web-like consumption and delivery of book material (they do after all use the web to order things off Amazon, so there’s a pre-requisite of ‘getting’ hyper-linked content and so forth). And that in the very near future not only will they be capable of understanding, but they will be expecting that sort of functionality, and if an e-reader doesn’t deliver that functionality, then it won’t sell well.

Put it this way - I love the idea of carrying my library of books all the time. But I’m not going to buy an e-reader until it offers a good bookmark system, arbitrary note-taking (a digital equivalent of scribbling in the margins), hyperlinking, colour screen, and a much faster slicker UI than what Kindel offers today.

The initial shift in trend will be at universities and schools, who can have the student buy one reader and then download their books into the device. New edition out? Just download the update (for a small charge, of course). From the universities it’ll expand outward, students will be used to consuming text in this fashion and will buy non-reference material for it, perfectly content. Rich media will become embedded into books, video of reference material etc (e.g., see the experiment, as well as read about it). Books will go ‘Cloud’, with the reader acting as a cache system. It’ll effectively become nothing more than another variation on the internet. In the long run, e-readers are just a way of monetizing the literary parts of the internet.

So, assuming Amazon develop the Kindel into the iPod of e-readers what’ll happen is this: After a few generations the hardware plateu’s at a ‘perfect’ level, much like the iPod touch has (realistically it only has capacity left to keep progressing on); we’ll get an extremely high resolution screen, the whole thing is touch screen UI, it’s as fast as you like, it’s full colour, it’s lightweight, it’s rugged, the battery lasts ages. The hardware sells at near-cost. e-books start evolving from the literal translations and start including moving media, audio clips, etc.

But your e-reader is crippled with a 512Mb storage solution.

You pay for your e-book, and you pay a yearly subscription for a Cloud service. All your books are backed up online and you download them on-demand from the Cloud. Your crippled e-reader can only cache X number of books, making the Cloud necessary for any serious reader. You pay discounted rates for second editions and errata ‘updates’ (which become more numerous because there’s no longer such a large a cost implication in providing them). Sample chapters of new books ‘recommended for you’ are pushed to the e-reader along with a shiny ‘buy now’ button at the end. The whole thing becomes like a glorified iTunes and Amazon Recommends hybrid.

The print industry will start bitching about a lack of income in a complete mirroring of the music industry today. Eventually they ‘get it’ and realise that supplying digitally saves them a load of money in production and shipping costs, and eventually printed books become a quaint oddity as they are no longer financially viable en-mass.

There’s an argument that low cost laptop’s or Tablet PCs will do the e-reader concept in, but for me that can’t happen in the short term. Tablet PCs after all pack in a whole lot of additional ’stuff’ that raises the cost: high power CPUs, large amounts of RAM, big HDDs, a full OS, having to use the e-reader as a sub-program, etc. It can ‘do’ the e-reader thing, but it’s not tailored for it, in much the same way that a laptop can ‘do’ the iPod thing, but it’s not tailored for it.

I think there’s a market for both right up until costs come down so much that Apple are able to sell a tablet PC capable of running OSX etc for the same price as a Kindle or equivalent e-reader. At that point it’ll come down to who has the better distribution infrastructure and market. If Amazon have turned Kindle into an iPod, and the software into an iTunes, then Apple will likely lose that fight.

In any case, I can see a bright future for e-reader like technology, whether it’s an e-reader or a tablet PC. Books on the other hand, I see a limited future for.


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  1. ipad 2 keyboard posted 3 years, 364 days, 14hrs after the entry and said:

    Yes, that is true, but Amazon sales goes down after Apple acquired the name Kindle for their popular iPhone and iPad.

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