Thursday, December 24, 2009

The eBook Explosion

It seems Obloggers are into their eBooks. Both Diana and Paul Hsieh have each weighed in with successive posts looking at their versions of the Amazon Kindle and Ari Armstrong weighs in at his blog as well. No one it seems is quite happy yet. Diana doesn’t like the “Heraclitean stream” of words, and the inability to make detailed annotations. Ari naively thinks that the DRM is killing the industry. And Paul, although closest to thinking his DX ideal, only uses it to read books as he’s travelling.

Given the debate I thought I’d weigh in with my experiences. Although I’ve been reading eBooks for over 2 years now, I have yet to buy into an e-reader like the Kindle. The reason is simple. I’m an techie contrarian; eBook technology and devices are yet too immature, and I prefer to buy in when winners have been determined and the technology and business model are proven. I will forgo being the first one on the block with a new technology and keep my options open until such time as it makes sense to commit to a proprietary channel. Although my family has had iPods since their inception, I am only now considering buying one. I still remember the first Shuffles, and Mini’s that were overpriced pieces of junk.

If I haven’t bought a reader, how have I been reading eBooks? I started reading them on my mobile smartphones, first a Palm Treo and most recently a Blackberry 8800 series. Great options when I was travelling on business and there was simply nothing else to read, but difficult experiences at best. Since I purchased a small MSI Wind netbook over a year ago, I’ve been reading books on that platform as well. My software of choice has been Mobipocket reader and my content has almost exclusively been open source content obtained from Project Gutenberg. Almost anything published before 1925 is available at Gutenberg (Aristotle, Locke, The Federalist, Hugo, Dumas, Twain, Fitzgerald… the list goes on), and given that I’ve been wanting to add classical literature to my repertoire, this seemed like a perfect way to experiment with the ebook experience without making an early commitment. Mobipocket has it’s own store as well, and I have purchased one book mostly as an experiment with the purchase process and to understand the DRM issues. I have recently added Kindle’s e-reader software for the PC and eagerly am looking forward to the Blackberry version which should be out soon. I want a Kindle desparately but I’m holding out until a few features are better developed.

My thought so far? Well, if you’re a very specific type of reader – if you read mostly popular literature in high volume without much study of the content - then ebooks have matured enough to satisfy you. This is the target segment that commercial eReaders like the Kindle are targeting to build their initial bases and I think that they are being quite successful in penetrating this market. That is, ebook readers have mastered the features of readability, convenience in purchase, and portability. If you’re the type who always has a book or newspaper wherever you go, reads for enjoyment, and doesn’t need to study the text, and hangs out in Barnes & Noble or Borders on weekends, then go buy an eReader. The fact is, this really is most consumers. You’re ready for it and it is ready for you. This type of reader is simply replacing the book you’d normally tote with a much more convenient eReader and that is certainly an improvement.

So let’s talk about technology for a moment. The one feature that I wish I had on my platforms is the e-ink technology. I am working entirely with backlit LCD displays. They each have pros and cons as pertains to reading environments (e-ink is great in full light and daylight – lcd’s rock in dimly lit spaces such as the bar I’m writing this from) LCD’s can be hard on the eyes and I find that I fatigue much more quickly when reading from and LDC display. I have managed to compensate for this a bit by using the Mobipocket software’s settings to change background and text color so as to make it easy on the eyes. (I use a light beige background with grey – not black – text. In low light, I darken the background, and in daylight I shift to a white background)

My netbook although slightly heavier than say a Kindle is quite easy to use. I have an app that rotates the screen with a key combination so I can hold it in my hand as if I was holding an open book. The advantage of the netbook is two-fold. First, I can make detailed annotations using the netbook’s fully functional PC keyboard, and second, the netbook itself is multifunctional so I don’t carry a separate laptop and e-reader when I travel. My netbook is my e-reader, PC, and last ditch phone and music player.

Diana’s observation that she found navigating an ebook more frustrating than a paper book is one that I share. I didn’t realize this until I studied the ways in which I use a paper book to help me navigate and recall my location in the text. When I’m returning to a paper book after weeks of not reading, I may not remember where I am. As a result I’ll hold my place and flip back a few pages, scanning paragraphs as I go until I can get enough of a gist of where I am in the story to return to my spot and continue forward. This is eminently easier with a paper book than with an ebook, as the pages and visual patterns of the pages are an aid to fast navigation. I find myself grasping for page numbers. Without those visual cues, re-familiarizing myself my location is much more difficult. This leads to the feel of a Heraclitean stream that Diana reports.

As for the use of a phone like the iPhone or Blackberry to read, this in my mind is a last ditch option and will always remain so. The “Heraclitean” problem is compounded because not much more than a paragraph or two can be displayed on these devices. I have used them either when travelling, or commuting, but I have found that the best thing to read here are short stories, where one is not trying to integrate a story over more than a few sittings. As such the experience of page-size readers like the Kindle will be critical to the broad proliferation of the technology until such time as a leadership position is established.

Returning to business models, Amazon and the Kindle are the clear leaders, but the technology is still young and this could easily change. However, Amazon is 2 generations ahead in it’s reader technology, has a growing installed base, and is quickly taking the correct and savvy next steps to advance its position. I think that the development of this technology will ultimately follow the iPod model where the storefront and installed based will determine the dominate leader. The reader hardware may or may not play a critical role although successive generations need to improve the experience. However, DRM is critical to hold the installed based until a leadership position is established.

As an aside, Mobipocket is owned by Amazon, and the proprietary .mob format is identical to the Kindle’s .azw format, save for a digital switch that requires a check of the Kindle hardware’s id in order to read it. Gutenberg is now publishing in the .mob format and so that makes these open source files immediately readable on the Kindle platform. I think this is a brilliant move as it allows Amazon to experiment with the experience of different consumer segments without blurring the two until such time as they think they understand each consumer’s needs independently at which point they can remove this switch and allow instant cross platform compatibility of e-book libraries. Genius!

My recommendation? If you’re type of high volume reader I mentioned above, jump in with both feet. If you need more from your experience such as detailed annotation or clear cross-platform access then experiment with the experience. See what you like. See what you need.


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