Failure to Launch

On Wednesday of last week, Apple made the long-anticipated announcement about its new tablet computer, the iPad. Ever since then the media sphere has been abuzz with debate about the virtues and vices of the device.

As an avid iPod Touch user, I’ll admit to being rather intrigued by the iPad, despite the concerns many already have expressed about the latter’s lack of tinker-ability. I don’t want to dwell on that here, however. Instead, I want to focus on what Apple’s full-blown foray into the world of ebooks, via the iPad’s integration with the company’s new iBooks store, might portend for the future of books and reading.

Back in 2003 I published a piece in a fabulous online cultural studies journal called Culture Machine. (It’s edited by Professor Gary Hall of Coventry University, about whose Digitize This Book! [University of MN Press, 2008] I cannot say enough positive things.) The essay was called “Book 2.0,” and it was a revised excerpt from the first chapter of my doctoral dissertation. In my book The Late Age of Print, I explore how ebooks have emerged in response to concerns about the ease with which printed books can circulate. “Book 2.0″ complements the narrative from Late Age. It explores how a persistent frustration with the material weightiness of printed books helped lead to the development of a variety of alternative book — eventually ebook — technologies over the course of several centuries.

When I was composing “Book 2.0,” there was, much like today, extraordinary optimism about the immediate prospects for ebooks. It was the heady days of the late 1990s/early 2000s, right before the dotcom bubble burst.  At the time many people were claiming that we were in the midst of an ebook revolution. They pointed to a host of new devices — Rocket eBooks, SoftBooks, Everybooks, and more — as evidence of the upheaval. This was it: the moment when ebooks — finally, really — would stick.

Where are all of those “revolutionary” e-readers today? They’re nowhere to be found, except maybe in the odd collector’s corner over on eBay. Surely there are many reasons for their failure to launch, among them the economic downturn of the early 2000s.  They were also pretty rudimentary, technologically speaking.  But another reason for the lack of uptake, I’d contend, was the rampant proliferation of devices that happened to occur within a short period of time. Why would consumers want to trust making the leap into e-reading when they could not be sure of which reader or proprietary format would win out?

What the ebook mania of the early 2000s teaches us is that consumers get skittish when companies refuse to cooperate on interoperability and to engineer their devices accordingly.  Rather than buying an e-reader and possibly getting burned down the road, book lovers want to see which one will win out in the end. Only the end never comes. Too many e-readers results a situation in which, rather than one or two rising to the top, they all just end up cannibalizing one another.

Life was relatively simple back in late 2007/early 2008, when the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader were pretty much the only kids on the ebook block. But today, again, we see a bunch of new ebook devices emerging on the scene — from the Barnes & Noble Nook to the Apple iPad, Alauratek Libre, Plastic Logic Que, Cybook Opus, and more.  Now, I’m all for healthy competition in the ebook market.  (Apple’s venture, for example, has pushed Amazon to improve its Kindle royalty structure.)  Then again, if recent history teaches us anything, then it teaches us that these and other ebook developers need to figure out how to work together if indeed they really want e-reading to make it in the long term.

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6 comments

  1. Darrel says:

    Can’t wait to see you write more about this, Ted. Here’s a question for you: Kindle’s ebook format is proprietary, right? Nook uses an open standard though, right? Apple does, too, from what I understand. How many of these ebook readers use the same open (or partially open) standard and would be interoperable in terms of purchased book content?

    There’s an analogy to the high definition video market here, no? I mean, back a couple of years ago, there were two competing formats (HD and BluRay) and it was unclear which would win. BR won and now sales are steadily increasing. Same thing with the VHS/Beta — perhaps one of the root causes of the fear over which format will last, no?

    I’m just kind of thinking aloud, here. And I guess I asked more than one question. Anyway, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this. :)

    • Ted Striphas says:

      Hi Darrel. Thanks for the comment. Indeed you are right: the iPad will be using the “open” ePub format. I put the word “open” in quotes, though, because I’m not really convinced that it’s an open format per se. My understanding is that content downloaded to the iPad will, for example, be unable to migrate to another ebook device that supports ePub. So what we’re talking about is interoperability in name only — as though you bought your BlueRay disk specifically for use on a Sony device, but not for use on your Samsung in the other room. That’s the hardware/format future that worries me: where there’s a scramble to lock readers into a particular platform from which they have no incentive to escape.

  2. Darrel says:

    Fascinating … and frightening.

  3. Dustin says:

    Good stuff Ted. Thanks.

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jose Afonso Furtado, Columbia Univ Press, Ted Striphas, Garrett Kiely, mselibrary and others. mselibrary said: RT @ColumbiaUP: Late Age of Print/Ted Striphas (@striphas) on the iPad and what it might might portend for the future of reading. http://bit.ly/aYxSzi [...]

  5. Kevin says:

    This is the interesting twist about Kindle… it isn’t just a hardware platform. One can read Kindle books on iPod/iPhone with the Kindle app, thus I am assuming one will be able to on the iPad. Amazon has also released a PC Kindle reader and supposedly a Mac version is forthcoming. One Kindle account can have its resources shared among several devices. To me it sounds much like PDF: a wholly proprietary format which, until relatively recently, only had tools to read or create it offered by one company, yet has reader software on many platforms. The missing part of the Kindle format would probably be the freedom to copy that content into other formats (similar to the rights management / mp3 issues in the music world a few years back).

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