Tag Archive for iPad

E-Reading on a Schwinn

I just wrapped up an interview about Late Age, where my interlocutor asked me about my scholarly relationship to e-books.  It was such an intriguing question, because it forced me to admit to, and to begin working through, a contradiction with which I’ve wrestled privately for quite some time now: the amount I write about e-books is incommensurate with my consumption of them.  Or, to put it more straightforwardly, I haven’t read many e-books, despite the fact that I write about them all the time.

There you have it, then.  The cat’s out of the bag.  Truth be told, I’ve read exactly two e-books “cover to cover” (although we cannot exactly say that about them, can we?) since I began writing about the technology back in 2001: Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.  Currently I’m halfway through the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs.  That brings the tally up to two-and-a-half, and it may be as high as three, four, or five once you’ve factored in all the sample chapters I’ve downloaded and read.

The question is, why have I kept my distance?  I’m not lazy — of that much I can assure you.  I’ve spent countless hours studying the designs, interfaces, capabilities, terms of use, and any number of other aspects of most major commercially available e-readers.  And I’m not one of those fly-by-night academics who picks up on some trend but has no personal investment in it.  I don’t read a lot of e-books because I can’t read a lot of e-books.  The technology as it currently exists is ill-equipped to handle my particular needs as a scholarly reader.

I’ll show you what I mean.  Below are three photos of a book — Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness — that my graduate students and I discussed two weeks ago in seminar.

 

The first shows the inner flyleaf, where I’ve created an index based on key ideas and themes from the text.  The second is the title page, where I’ve jotted down a brainstorm about the text in general.  The third shows another small index consisting of passages, themes, and so forth that I wanted to address specifically in class.

I know what you’re thinking: Kindle, Nook, and iBooks all allow you to take notes on a text, mark passages, and more.  You’re absolutely right.  The difference for me, though, is the way the form of a physical book allows you to organize this information, both spatially and temporally.  You’ll see, for instance, the double lines appearing in my index in the image at left.  That’s a “generational” marker for me, cuing me to notes I took upon rereading (and rereading and rereading…) the text.  This also then signals ideas and themes that were most recently on my mind, ones that I ought to be returning to in my current research.  Ditto the brainstorm page, which allows me to take notes on the text independent of any specific passage.  (Sometimes these pages of notes become quite elaborate for me, in fact.)

It’s an archival issue, I suppose, and as a scholar I have unusually specific archival needs when it comes to reading books.  And with this I realize that however much the Kindle, Nook, and iPad may be devices for readers (that’s the tagline of a marketing campaign for the e-ink Kindle), they’re actually designed for general or nonspecialist readers.

This isn’t really surprising, since to grow market share you want to capture as broad an audience as possible.  But beyond that, most people don’t need to read books like scholars.  In fact, that’s a reason why portable, paperback books became so popular in the late 19th century and again in the mid-to-late 20th century: books can actually be cheap and even disposable things to which readers might not ever return. Very few people want or need to treat them as sacred objects.

So why am I not a prolific e-reader?  I’ll put it this way: would you rather ride the Tour de France on a clunky, off-the-shelf Schwinn or a custom Italian racing bike?

I’m not drawing this analogy to be snooty.  As I’ve said, most people don’t need the expensive Italian racing bike.  It would be a complete waste of money, especially when most of the time you’re just out for a casual ride.  Instead, I’m trying to underscore how the mark of a good technology is that it seems to disappear for the user — something I discovered, incidentally, from reading the Kindle edition of the Steve Jobs biography.  The present generation of e-readers forces me to get caught up in and become frustrated with the technology — this in contrast to the technology of the physical book, which has more of a capacity to disappear for me, or at least work with me.

Maybe I’ll come around in the end, or maybe Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple will continue adding features to their devices so that they become more agreeable to specialist readers like me.  Until then, though, I’m sticking to atoms for serious reading and bits for fun.


P.S.  Please don’t forget to like the Late Age of Print Facebook page that I just launched!

Share

How Publishers Misunderstand Kindle

Last week, in a post entitled “The Book Industry’s Moneyball,” I blogged about the origins of my interest in algorithmic culture — the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects, and ideas.  There I discussed a study published in 1932, the so-called “Cheney Report,” which imagined a highly networked book industry whose decisions were driven exclusively by “facts,” or in contemporary terms, “information.”

It occurred to me, in thinking through the matter more this week, that the Cheney Report wasn’t the only way in which I stumbled on to the topic of algorithmic culture.  Something else led me there was well — something more present-day.  I’m talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I wrote about in a scholarly essay published in the journal Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (CCCS) back in 2010.  The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  (You can read a precis of the piece here.)

The CCCS essay focused on privacy issues related to devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad, which quietly relay information about what and how you’ve been reading back to their respective corporate custodians.  Since it appeared that’s become a fairly widespread concern, and I’d like to think my piece had something to do with nudging the conversation in that direction.

Anyway, in prepping to write the essay, a good friend of mine, M—-, suggested I read Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006).   It’s an astonishingly good book, one I would recommend highly to anyone who writes about digital technologies.

Greenfield - Everyware

I didn’t really know much about algorithms or information when I first read Everyware.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from quoting Greenfield in “The Abuses of Literacy,” where I made a passing reference to what he calls “ambient informatics.”  This refers to the idea that almost every aspect our world is giving off some type of information.  People interested in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, want to figure out ways to detect, process, and in some cases exploit that information.  With any number of mobile technologies, from smart phones to Kindle, ubicomp is fast becoming an everyday part of our reality.

The phrase “ambient informatics” has stuck with me ever since I first quoted it, and on Wednesday of last week it hit me again like a lightning bolt.  A friend and I were talking about Google Voice, which, he reminded me, may look like a telephone service from the perspective of its users, but it’s so much more from the perspective of Google.  Voice gives Google access to hours upon hours of spoken conversation that it can then use to train its natural language processing systems — systems that are essential to improving speech-to-text recognition, voiced-based searching, and any number of other vox-based services.  Its a weird kind of switcheroo, one that most of us don’t even realize is happening.

So what would it mean, I wondered, to think about Kindle not from the vantage point of its users but instead from that of Amazon.com?  As soon as you ask this question, it soon becomes apparent that Kindle is only nominally an e-reader.  It is, like Google Voice, a means to some other, data-driven end: specifically, the end of apprehending the “ambient informatics” of reading.  In this scenario Kindle books become a hook whose purpose is to get us to tell Amazon.com more about who we are, where we go, and what we do.

Imagine what Amazon must know about people’s reading habits — and who knows what else?!  And imagine how valuable that information could be!

What’s interesting to me, beyond the privacy concerns I’ve addressed elsewhere, is how, with Kindle, book publishers now seem to be confusing means with ends.  It’s understandable, really.  As literary people they’re disposed to think about books as ends in themselves — as items people acquire for purposes of reading.  Indeed, this has long been the “being” of books, especially physical ones. With Kindle, however, books are in the process of getting an existential makeover.  Today they’re becoming prompts for all sorts of personal and ambient information, much of which then goes on to become proprietary to Amazon.com.

I would venture to speculate that, despite the success of the Nook, Barnes & Noble has yet to fully wake up to this fact as well.  For more than a century the company has fancied itself a bookseller — this in contrast to Amazon, which CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “a technology company at its core” (Advertising Age, June 1, 2005).  The one sells books, the other bandies in information (which is to say nothing of all the physical stuff Amazon sells).  The difference is fundamental.

Where does all this leave us, then?  First and foremost, publishers need to begin recognizing the dual existence of their Kindle books: that is, as both means and ends.  I suppose they should also press Amazon for some type of “cut” — informational, financial, or otherwise — since Amazon is in a manner of speaking free-riding on the publishers’ products.

This last point I raise with some trepidation, though; the humanist in me feels a compulsion to pull back.  Indeed it’s here that I begin to glimpse the realization of O. H. Cheney’s world, where matters of the heart are anathema and reason, guided by information, dictates virtually all publishing decisions.  I say this in the thick of the Kindle edition of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where I’ve learned that intuition, even unbridled emotion, guided much of Jobs’ decision making.

Information may be the order of the day, but that’s no reason to overlook what Jobs so successfully grasped.  Technology alone isn’t enough.  It’s best when “married” to the liberal arts and humanities.

Share

The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

Share

A Second Age of Incunabula

What a difference a few years can make.  I’m talking about the proliferation of e-reading devices among my Indiana University undergraduates — devices that were virtually non-existent in their lives not so very long ago.  Let me explain.

In 2006, I piloted a course based loosely on The Late Age of Print called “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”  We ended, predictably, with a unit on the future of books in an age of digital media.  We read (among other things) a chapter or two from Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, in addition to Kevin Kelly’s provocative essay from The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“  The materials provoked some intriguing thoughts and conversation, but it seemed to me as if something was missing; it was as though the future of books and reading wasn’t palpable yet, and so most everything we talked about seemed, well, a little ungrounded.  Remember — this was about a year before the first Kindle landed, three years before the Barnes & Noble Nook, and a full four years before the release of the iPad.  We’re talking ancient history in today’s technological terms.

When I taught the course two years later, things had changed — somewhat.  There was genuine curiosity about e-reading, so much so that a group of students asked me to bring in my Kindle, hoping to take it for a test drive.  I did, but didn’t realize that the battery had died.  The demonstration ended up being a bust, and worse still, it was the last day of class.  In other words, no do-overs.  Still, that didn’t stop some of the students from writing papers about the possibilities e-readers held for them and their peers.  While I appreciated the argument — and indeed, the earnestness — I ended up being a little disappointed by those papers.  On the whole they were flatly celebratory.  The lack of critical perspective was, I believe, a function of their having had little to no actual interaction with e-reading devices.

Now it’s 2011, and I’m teaching the course once again.  Boy, have things changed!  On day one I asked the group of 35 if any of them owned an e-reader.  I expected to see maybe a few hands, since I’m aware of the reports stating that these devices have had more uptake among older users.  Much to my surprise, around half the class raised their hands.  We’re talking mostly 20 year-olds here.  I had to know more.  Some told me they owned a Kindle, others a Nook, and still others said they were iPad people who read using apps.  In a couple of instances they owned more than one of these devices.  They especially liked the convenience of not having to lug around a bag full of heavy books, not to mention the many public domain texts they could download at little or no cost.

There I was, standing in front of a group of students who also happened to be seasoned e-book readers.  Because they’d self-selected into my class, I knew I needed to be mindful about the extent to which their interest in electronic reading could be considered representative of people their age.  Even so, it was clear on day one that our conversations would be very different compared to those I’d had with previous cohorts in “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”

At the end of class a student approached me to ask about which version of Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, one of the required texts, he should buy.  Old analog me assumed he was referring to cloth or paper, since I’d brought in my hardback copy but told the group I’d ordered paperbacks through the bookstore.  My assumption was wrong.  He told me that he wanted to purchase the Kindle edition but had some hesitations about doing so.  How would he cite it, he asked?  I said he should go ahead and acquire whichever version most suited him; the citations we could figure out.

A very different conversation indeed — one that I expect will become much more the norm by the time I teach “The Cultures of Books and Reading” the next time around.  For now, though, here go the 36 of us, slouching our way into a moment in which analog and digital books commingle with one another.  It reminds me a little of the first 100 years of printing in the West — the so-called “age of incunabula,” when manuscripts, printed editions, and hybrid forms all co-existed, albeit not so peaceably.  I wonder if, at some point in the future, historians will begin referring to our time as the second age of incunabula.

Share

The Right to Read

A couple of weeks ago I blogged here about a short essay I’d written, “E-books: No Friends of Free Expression,” and about a longer academic journal article on which it was based called, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Well, since then I’ve had a bunch of people writing in asking for copies of the article, and even more asking me about the “right to read.”

Here’s what I know about the latter.

To the best of my knowledge, the idea first appeared in a 1994 law review article by Jessica Litman called “The Exclusive Right to Read.”  It was picked up, extended, and given significant legal grounding by Julie E. Cohen in her 1996 (master)piece, “The Right to Read Anonymously.”  Then, in 1997, free software guru Richard Stallman dramatized the idea in a pithy little parable called — you guessed it — “The Right to Read.

The American Library Association proposed something like a “right to read” back in 1953, when it issued its first “Freedom to Read Statement.”  (The statement has since been updated, most recently in 2004, although it remains relatively quiet on the subject of 3G- and wifi-enabled e-readers.)  Meanwhile, the Reading Rights Coalition, an advocacy organization, was formed in 2009 after the Author’s Guild claimed the Kindle 2′s text-to-speech function violated its members’ audiobook rights — a claim that understandably didn’t sit well with the 30 million Americans with “print disabilities.”  Finally, librarian Alycia Sellie and technologist Matthew Goins developed a “Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books,” which concludes with the important provision that reader information ought to remain private.

I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed and would welcome any further information you may have about the right to read.  For now, I hope you’re enjoying National Freedom of Speech Week, and don’t forget that reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression.

Share

E-Books: No Friends of Free Expression

I’ve just published a short essay called “E-books — No Friends of Free Expression” in the National Communication Association’s online magazine, Communication Currents. It was commissioned in anticipation of National Freedom of Speech Week, which will be recognized in the United States from October 18th to 24th, 2010. Here’s a short excerpt from the piece, in case you’re interested:

It may seem odd to suggest that reading has something to do with freedom of expression. It’s one thing to read a book, after all, but a different matter to write one. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that reading is an expressive activity in its own right, resulting in notes, dog-eared pages, highlights, and other forms of communicative fallout. Even more to the point, as Georgetown Law Professor Julie E. Cohen observes, “Freedom of speech is an empty guarantee unless one has something—anything—to say…[T]he content of one’s speech is shaped by one’s response to all prior speech, both oral and written, to which one has been exposed.” Reading is an integral part of the circuitry of free expression, because it forms a basis upon which our future communications are built. Anything that impinges upon our ability to read freely is liable to short-circuit this connection.

I then go on to explore the surveillance activities that are quite common among commercially available e-readers; I also question how the erosion of private reading may affect not only what we choose to read but also what we may then choose to say.

The Comm Currents piece is actually a precis of a much longer essay of mine just out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(3) (September 2010), pp. 297 – 317, as part of a special issue on rights. The title is “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.” Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the Amazon Kindle e-reader’s two-way communications capabilities on the one hand and on its parent company’s recent forays into data services on the other. I argue that however convenient a means Kindle may be for acquiring e-books and other types of digital content, the device nevertheless disposes reading to serve a host of inconvenient—indeed, illiberal—ends. Consequently, the technology underscores the growing importance of a new and fundamental right to counterbalance the illiberal tendencies that it embodies—a “right to read,” which would complement the existing right to free expression.

Keywords: Kindle; Amazon.com; Digital Rights; Reading; Privacy

Feel free to email me if you’d like a copy of “The Abuses of Literacy.” I’d be happy to share one with you.

The title of the journal article, incidentally, pays homage to Richard Hoggart’s famous book The Uses of Literacy, which is widely recognized as one of the founding texts of the field of cultural studies. It’s less well known that he also published a follow-up piece many years later called “The Abuses of Literacy,” which, as it turns out, he’d intended to be the title of Uses before the publisher insisted on a change.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the work. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

Share

Cheap E-Reads

This week, the big news in the world of e-readers is supposed to be Amazon.com’s announcement about Kindle book sales, which, the company reports, now outpace sales of hardcover books on its website. I won’t get into that claim — at least, not now — but I will direct you to an insightful piece from The Big Money that’s asking all the right questions.

For me, the real news in e-reading is at once more humble and potentially more significant: the launch of the Humane Reader project, which is spearheaded by an organization called Humane Informatics (HI). Its website is unfortunately sparse on information, but here’s what I can tell you. The goal is to improve literacy in developing countries by distributing e-book devices to folks living there. The centerpiece is a cute little nugget of hardware called the Humane Reader. According to HI, it should cost around US$20 in bulk.

That’s right — a e-reader for 20 bucks. I didn’t leave off the last zero.

HI is able to keep the price so low not only by building the Humane Reader out of inexpensive parts but by leaving off what’s traditionally one of the most costly aspects of any digital device, namely, the screen. The organization notes on its website that televisions are prevalent in developing countries, and so it’s designed its e-reader to connect directly with them. What’s more, the Humane Reader can store as many as 5,000 e-books using a tiny SD card. Oh — and did I mention that it’s built significantly around open source technology that can be freely licensed?

This is a brilliant project in so many ways. For months here on The Late Age of Print I’ve been prattling on about commercial e-readers and privacy rights. What I’ve inadvertently downplayed in doing so is the high cost of these devices. Even after the latest price war the cheapest Kindle will cost you $189, while a Nook will set you back between $149 and $199 depending on the model. Don’t even get me started on the price of an iPad. The point is, there are significant economic barriers to entry when it comes to e-books, which, if book reading does indeed go digital, threaten to freeze large swaths of the world’s population out of one of the most important vehicles for literacy. The Humane Reader attempts to address that threat proactively, even preemptively.

The Humane Reader project follows in the wake of initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which has attempted to bring ultra-low-cost portable computers to kids in need all over the planet. It’s also open to criticisms similar to those levied against OLPC, including the fact that technology alone cannot bring about social transformation, much less secure justice or equality on a truly global scale. Nevertheless, I see the Humane Reader as an important piece in a much larger puzzle, and I’m happy to see HI looking to partner with individuals and groups who might help the project fit into a broader, more multifaceted campaign.

Humane indeed — and an especially intriguing development in light of what Julie Cohen, Richard Stallman, and I have been calling the “right to read.”

Share

Going Mobile

Great news!  A good Samaritan, whose handle is “creiercret,” recently uploaded the free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print onto the document sharing site, Scribd.  Here’s the link to the PDF if you’re interested in checking it out.  The book has already had more than 100 views on the site, I’m pleased to report.

Late Age has been accessible for free online for almost a year, so why am I so excited to see it appear now on Scribd?  Mainly because the site just added new sharing features, making it easy to send content to iPhones, Nooks, Kindles, and just about every other major e-reader you can imagine.  In other words, The Late Age of Print’s mobility-quotient just increased significantly.

I may have some more exciting, mobility-related news about the book, which hopefully I’ll be able to share with you in the next week or so.  I’ll keep you posted.  Until then, be sure to check out The Late Age of Print on Scribd, and why don’t you go ahead shoot a copy off to your favorite e-reader while you’re at it!?

Share

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.

Share