2007-12-16

eBook readers, trust and technology

The last time I was in the US we stopped by a Sony store to have a look at the gadgets that were on sale there. While browsing the various gadgets on sale it occurred to me that while some of the gadgets looked tempting, I didn't particularly want to buy any of them. The reason is mainly that Sony has such a lousy track record when it comes to how they treat their consumers.

First there was the silliness of their music players. It took a long time before Sony actually understood that the market didn't want to buy DRM-infested players that wouldn't play regular mp3s. While I seem to remember Sony apologizing for their insistence on making DRM-limited players that nobody really wanted, I haven't done the proper research on what limitations these devices still have, so when faced with one, I can't say I am tempted to buy one. Simply because I don't know if it'll work for me.

Then, of course, there was the debacle of Sony infecting their users with rootkits and then not owning up to it until public outcry forced them to admit they had messed up. Again.

These things lead to consumer distrust, which brings us back to their eBook reader. I like the device. The form factor is nice, the screen is very crisp and clear and I don't really mind that it is only suitable for reading text or b/w illustrations. This thing represents what I've been looking for in terms of physical characteristics.

The problem is that it was made by Sony. I have no reason to trust sony.

Standing there in the shop, looking at the gadget, there was no way I was going to buy the gadget simply because I had no way of knowing if it would be of any use to me. Would I be able to read arbitrary books I'd purchased on it? How about the PDF books I have from various publishers? How about my own documents in text or PDF? Would it be simple to move content to it, or would I have to fiddle about, jump through hoops and perhaps have to pay for moving MY content onto it?

I decided I would have to research it before even considering buying one. Perhaps borrow one and try it out for a week or so.

So Sony, the problem isn't the technology of your gadgets. The problem is that I, the consumer, have no reason to trust you. My impression of you is that you're a company that just doesn't get it. You need to get to know your users more intimately. You need to develop a better understanding of what it takes to earn the trust of your users, because the old fossils hanging around your boardroom or the marketroids that are far removed from the user, simply have no idea what it takes.

My colleague pointed out to me that there is a reader on the market that runs Linux and is far more open. It costs a great deal more, but even at a significantly higher price, this device sounded more like something worth spending money on. Just because the chance of it being usable, and not limited arbitrarily by user-hostile mechanisms put in place by clueless designers. That should give you pause: the fact that I'd be willing to pay almost double the price for essentially the same gadget for the added bonus of it not being crippled by "features" that remove flexibility and usability.

Update: turns out all eBook readers I've read about so far run Linux, which should mean that it might be doable to replace the software on them for something more flexible. I'll try to keep an eye on eBook readers in the future to see what pops up from the enthusiasts.

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