2007-12-17

Still looking for an eBook reader

These past couple of weeks I have been looking at various eBook readers and I can understand why these have not taken off. The consumer electronics industry and the publishers aren't exactly making it easy for themselves.

Devices
First off, the devices still aren't mature. The manufacturers still have some way to go in order to make the devices less fiddly. What I want is a device that just stores and displays files. I want it to be possible to install new readers to support the plethora of formats that exist. Putting the files on the thing has to be easy. Ideally, I should be able to put my content on it just by copying files over to it as an USB storage device. That's it. No monkeying about with badly written Windows-only software to get content on it.

Also, I do not need another iPod, tablet PC, or telephone. I already have gadgets that fulfil these roles. Don't get overly ambitious adding irrelevant features to it. Things like WiFi and such are neat, but if it is going to eat serious chunks of my battery life, I can live without it.

Key features I am looking for:
  • E Ink or equivalent display
  • Must be responsive (a page turn should not take more than about half a second)
  • Reasonably robust (should endure being dropped from typical table height repeatedly)
  • Battery life of about one week for some reasonable usage pattern.
  • Fat free design. No mass that doesn't need to be there.
  • Should cost $300 or less within the next 2 years. Less after that.
  • Open spec with user-installable software so third parties can write readers.

Some current readers are almost there, but not quite. The manufacturers also have to understand the main concern of all prospective customers: "will I be able to put whatever content I have on it". This is one of the reasons eBook readers do not sell: the industry is conspiring against the user to make it difficult to make content universably accessible because they want to own the marketplace. Thus you get lots of competing formats with little or no interoperability, customers intuitively sense this and they become wary of the whole category of products.


Software
In the software arena what I would really like is for Adobe to get their act together. For years now Adobe have been adding more and more bloat to Reader in the shape of features that nobody uses! Yet Reader still has close to zero usability. It still has some of the worst navigational interfaces ("hmm...what does down-arrow mean now...ops...no, not what I thought it was going to do..."), it has become more and more sluggish, it takes forever to start, it wants to update itself constantly and when allowed to update itself, spends an inordinate amount of time doing so.

Adobe, you have a good thing going here. Please pay attention to users who care about your product. What you should do is rip everything out and then start over. Make a fast, compact PDF viewing engine. Strip out everything that is not about rendering PDF. Then give it a simple but consistent navigational interface. And then stop adding stuff to it. Concentrate on making it simple, lean and portable. Any further work should be to improve the rendering, the portability, the performance and the APIs programmers will use to embed it and write plugins for it.

If possible, license the code in such a way that other people can help you in porting it. There are plenty of opportunities for making money elsewhere in the eBook food chain and by giving away a proper reader you are gaining more goodwill than money can buy. Seriously, this is very good advice.

In general, for eBook readers, you do not want to make the gadget dependent on any special purpose software for copying and managing content. As a consumer of electronic gadgets I know that such software will invariably be bad. Every gadget I have came with some terrible software -- from the unusable, rubbish photo software that came with my cameras to the clumsy software that keeps corrupting, losing and crashing when managing the maps for my GPS.

I want open gadgets. An eBook reader should be just an USB storage device onto which I can put files. I want to decide how the content gets there. I want to be able to make use of existing software to manage feeds and files and such. Let the open source community build things for managing content. Let third party companies write things. The quality of this work will be so much better than anything you can manage and it will make your device ten times as attractive because people can use it as a platform on which they can realize ideas. If you keep it closed and proprietary and fiddly, it will only go as far as you are able to take it. Which, given empirical evidence from the gadgets available on the market today, isn't very far.


Publishers
As for content providers, please make more of an effort. Getting an eBook reader is kinda like living in a world where you have compact cassettes, DCCs, Minidiscs, CDs and eight track tape and a bunch of record companies that only release on one to two of these technologies. If you want to cover everything, you need a stack of eBook readers and still, a lot of books that I would like to have aren't available. And most of those who are have flaws -- like missing footnotes etc.

Why? I thought you were in the book-selling business? If you aren't making your books available, someone will. Or your books will go unread. Or are you afraid that eBooks is going to make you obsolete? They may, and if you aren't going to evolve, perhaps this isn't such a bad thing. I have to admit that this part of the industry puzzles me. Someone in the publishing industry will have to enlighten me.

Indeed there are many formats and technologies available now. There's bound to be companies you can turn to in order to make your books more widely available. Better yet, try to work with companies like Adobe -- ask them to make a sensible PDF reader.

Think long and hard about DRM. It hasn't worked for music, it hasn't worked for video and by now I think we can conclude that it probably isn't going to work for books. Since there are virtually no duplication and shipping costs, why not make it cheaper and more convenient to buy the books than it would be to pirate them? A paperback costs what, somewhere between $10 and $30 today? How about you make it $5 and then try to encourage readers to buy their content by giving them extra value? For instance, I'd be willing to pay $5 per book if it meant that you keep the books I've bought available online, so that I can re-download books as I get new devices or as I run out of space and shuffle books in and out of my device. I'd gladly pay a small fee per year to have you manage storage of books I've purchased (which is going to be just about keeping some extra metadata anyway, since you will already have the books on-line for downloading).

Also, if I like a book, I'd love to have the option of buying additional licenses and adding them to my friends' accounts. You can even come up with incentive plans: give away 5 copies and get one for free. There is so much room for innovation and actually improving the way we interact with publishers and book stores here.

I think Jeff Bezos understood this. Just a pity that he got so caught up in creating a business model rather than a sensible technology platform. The Kindle is compromised by simple minded greed and I'd feel pretty stupid paying so much money for a device that is so limiting and where I have to pay money to Amazon and give them my content in order to put it on the device.

What are you trying to do Jeff? Kill the eBook reader market?

Random thoughts
There have been rumors around Apple releasing an eBook reader. I have been trying to imagine what it is going to be like. My first thought is that it will probably look good and have excellent navigation features. My second is that getting content onto the thing is going to be a nightmare. Most likely, Apple is going to leverage the iTunes application (and possibly the iTunes Store) as a management and distribution systems. I am no fan of the iTunes application and I find it annoying that Apple thinks I need a store tailored for my geographic location.

Thankfully the these problems are often mitigated somewhat by enthusiasts working around the problem. But it still begs the question: why can't manufacturers just make devices that work flexibly instead of getting in people's way all the time?

Oh, and I stumbled across an interesting wiki about eBook readers at http://wiki.mobileread.com/

4 comments:

  1. The mobileread.com blog also has pointers to potential new devices. Hopefully some manufacturers are listening. But I fear they are trying to please the publishers rather than the customers.

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  2. robothor: I think this is another instance of an industry where someone has to come from outside the industry to show them what to do. We've seen several examples of this in the past years.

    Apple is a very good example of a company that has done this. Twice. First they showed the music industry how it could be done, and then they demonstrated that mobile phones do not have to use stone age operating systems with clumsy, fiddly user interfaces.

    That being said, I think Apple are somewhat hampered by their obsession of owning the entire experience and a lot of friction is generated by their love for proprietary and closed systems. Whenever I look at an iPod or an iPhone I can't help but think: "why can't you guys just ease up a little and give me a device that I don't have to circumvent to use".

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  3. I agree with most of your points on rebook readers. I would prefer to see the price at $100. I am not going to spend $300 for a reader. I was hoping so much for the Kindle to have the rumored $50 price tag.

    I won't pay $10 for a DRM-laden book. The entire DRM issue is infuriating. I see what Baen does with their free library and at how successful they have become. Baen doesn't seem to be hindered by zero-DRM and even by giving the books freely. Providing free electronic books hasn't put them out of business. I even have a couple CDs of ebook collections that they bound into hardcover editions. I would be more than willing to pay $5 for an ebook I could move to whatever device I wish to read it on.

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  4. holy_moley: In the short term I think it is more important for the eBook reader manufacturers to understand what the product needs to do in order to capture an audience. Price is secondary, and within the span of the next 1-2 years $300 is okay for a reader -- provided it does what I want it to do.

    Which none do at the moment.

    Given the current crop of eBook readers I think $50 to $100 would be a more appropriate price. Except for the Kindle -- the Kindle is so stupidly designed and stupidly tied into a business model that I would hesitate to get one even if they gave it away for free.

    $5 for a DRM free book sounds like a good deal.

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