Aug 31 2008
Amazon is banking on the idea that dedicated eBook readers are what will drive paper book readers to the digital format. A recent article in September’s Searcher magazine argues that it is not. Nancy K. Herther, an anthropology and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, took a look at the history of ebooks, ebook readers and the current market devices and determined that for so many reasons, even the most perfect dedicated eBook reader won’t move the market forward. (Thank you so much, Jody, for bringing this article to my attention).
For anyone interested in ebook reading, this article is a must read. Herther has a two page, historical timeline of ebooks. The article is chock full of statistics, quotes by leaders in the industry, and most importantly, some great insights into the ebook market.
Herther isn’t saying anything an ebook reader herself hasn’t said. Essentially, there are so many issues that plague the publishing industry as it relates to ebooks that perfecting the hardware side will not solve the impediments to ebook reading for many individuals.
On one side of the ebook equation, we have the hardware or ebook reading device itself. We’ve reviewed/previewed many of the devices in the past three weeks. In summary, a consumer has the following choices:
The consumer has to choose whether she wants a dedicated ereading device or a multi function device. Because I am a big consumer of internet based information and communication (via blogs, online websites, online chat, or emails), I prefer the multi function device. Some, though, do not like the size of the PDA/Smartphones and the Mini Computers aren’t really designed to be eBook readers (ie., what do you do with that keyboard?). The dedicated eReader, while suited for those individuals as Herther identifies as reading cover to cover, lacks universiality. The Sony Reader is moving toward being more inclusive as it is now able to read both the Adobe DRM’ed books and the Sony BBeB books but the Kindle has only one proprietary format that it can read, AZM.
Herther posits that the future of eBook reading is in a multi function device, particularly with the upcoming wave of teen readers who are never far from their cell phones. So the first step for industry folks that want to market digital books is to solve the problem of hardware function. Do individuals want to read ebooks on a multi function device or a single function device.
The challenges with a multi function device is that rarely do those devices do one thing well in an attempt to do many things. That is why the saying is “Jack of All Trades, Master of None.” It’s not even Master of One. The problem with the single function device is that you spend a lot of money for a device to do one thing and even if it does it well, is it worth the cost.
E Ink technology, but it’s very nature is crippled as a multi function device. It cannot be backlit because of the way in which the technology works. Additionally, the technology is at such a stage that the refresh rate is very slow and the color aspect is also weak, making video a near impossibility on an eink device. Even typing on an eink device is hampered due to the slow refresh rate.
For many people, an iPhone or PDA screen is simply too small. Further, all these backlit devices have LCD screens and many people complain of computer eyestrain already. There are many who do not want to be looking at the computer monitor during their leisure. I find that to be true in looking at the statistics at Dear Author. Our highest rate of traffic is during the work hours and the work week. During people’s leisure time such as evenings and weekends, traffic drops thus reinforcing the maxim that readers would prefer to NOT be on the computer during their leisure times.
Fictionwise, I think, is putting a lot of money into the idea that readers would prefer a multi-function device. It has ported the eReading application to iPhones and since the iPhone 2.0 was released this summer, Fictionwise has been advertising its iPhone/iTouch compatibility heavily. Further, just last week, Fictionwise made eReader.com mobile friendly, meaning if you load up those two sites on your iPhone/iTouch or other handheld mobile device, you’ll get a much faster loading and slimmed down view of the stores. I prefer to shop at Fictionwise so hopefully that site will be made mobile ready SOON. (Also, I have some issues with the new mobile eReader site, but it’s a step in the right direction).
I think that there is a technological gap between what readers would like in the perfect ereader and what can actually be done. If you don’t like LCD screens, then you are limited by refresh rates and the inability of eink technology to actually perform some multi function device programs. If you don’t like to be limited by refresh rates, want a backlight, and ability to play video, browse the web, and even do a lot of typing (or editing of manuscripts), then eInk devices aren’t for you.
For me, the perfect device would be a slightly larger (6-8″ screen size) iPhone. I don’t mind the LCD. I like the touchscreen, the beautiful video abilities, and the expanded software options. I would like to be able to attach a separate keyboard for heavy blogging and have an integrated cellular service for internet access and telephone calls. I want the battery to last at least all day and for the device itself not to weigh over 2 lbs. I want it to be backlight and have a super customizable brightness setting (even at the lowest setting, I find my iPhone to be too bright on occassion). I want it to have instant on capabilities (which means solid state harddrive). An integrated webcamera would also be delightful.
What about you readers? What would you want in terms of hardware for a perfect eReading device?
Next week: The Software Solutions.