the future of the e-reader [Little Springs Design]

I have been been working on an ereader project lately,* and thinking about it a lot therefore. This has been soaking for a week now, it isn’t coming together with a common theme as I like all my posts to do so; so I give up and am just gonna push it as a list of semi-random rants.

For a narrowly focused by very spot-on analysis of formats for eBooks (and how html is going to be the way forward) read Joe Clark’s article Web Standards for E-books at ALA.

And I’ll start by quoting, because he says it better than I could:

The internet did not replace television, which did not replace cinema, which did not replace books. E-books aren’t going to replace books either. E-books are books, merely with a different form.

I’ll also say that eReaders have essentially no penetration compared to anything else. any pronouncements are gonna look like Cliff Stoll’s oft derided article on the lack of future of the internet. Much like the Information Superhighway and other early internet-related pronouncements, we don’t know what will happen, but I suspect Joe is right, and eBooks are going to be yet another form of media, and paper mills are safe for a while.

My first list of random thoughts is things I keep hearing, and which I think are dumb. Having worked on an eBook directly for six months now, I’ve seen this all along about the Kindle and almost every new device, but “iPad will save the world” hype has increased it exponentially.
“This changes everything.” See all the points above. It might change something, but seriously? Even those who get no paper publications now still read a lot of traditionally print media, and watch TV. Broadcast from a small group to a large group.
“The page-by-page reading paradigm is old and will be pushed aside.” Then why is it generally true on that published content I mentioned on the web? And why did we move from scrolls way back when? Actually, scrolls mostly have page breaks in the same way current interactive products do, as convenient blocks on content, then you move to the next (look it up… history is useful). This is therefore serious as can be; pages work for some fundamental reason, and sizes of books are driven by reader preference and innate usability (market driven, not explicit tests, and over centuries, but it’s still true) not industrial design and manufacturing so much. Why haven’t ebook designers noticed this?
“It can all be delightfully interactive, with photo spreads and blah, blah…” Again, why is this not true on the web, with /much/ more horsepower, screen space, and well-understood tools? I am regularly disappointed in what my web news experience is like; each page has the same thumbnail photo? I know the print edition has several, so show me. And slideshows, and movies? Really? Multimedia does not mean video or animation or any one thing, but the interplay between different types of display content. Please make /true/ multi-media experiences on the web, and I’ll start believing that eBooks can do something more than formatted text and click-to-view-the-photo.
The n magazine app has sold 140mm copies in the first week.” I do not care about trends today. So an app for a magazine (which has other issues) sells well on iPhone? So? Maybe it’s because there is no common magazine reader? And how well compared to even their dwindling print sales? And how sticky? The magazines I subscribe to I have been getting for decades. When trying to save traditional media, forget ongoing costs; if every publisher now has to figure CPGA and churn as non-trivial values every quarter, they need a whole new way to run their business. That might happen, but it doesn’t make “just publish your magazine on an eReader” a likely model. A method is needed with paper-subscription-like customer loyalty, and comparable price. Wishing for people to pay at newsstand rates will not make it so. (There’s more to say about payment schemes.

And now, a different but equally un-ordered list of random thoughts. These are more like design objectives, and business objectives for making a useful eReader:

    Books are not designed for annotation, bookmarking, etc. These are behaviors people created because they innately wanted them, and books support the methods. You have to support the /root need/ in your new device. How? I say starting with copying the existing methods, but new ones seem possible as well. Maybe someday I’ll show examples of what I think.
    How much would you read if every book was laid out differently? Some are right spine, some left, some fold up like a roadmap, etc.? Apps, with custom interfaces, for each publication are a clear non-starter. Not to mention issues with cross-referencing, or searching for bookmarks and notes, and social synching, and… all the other issues that trip up any number of services. Interoperability will be key.
    Battery life better START at days, not hours. If I had my way, the wall-plug would be hidden because you never use it; these need to be solar-charged, or similar. Minimal power consumption (ePaper types of technology, with NO consumption when static) seem required at least for now. There are color screens like this right beyond the next door. So we might be almost there.
    Cheap, cheap, cheap. Who wants to carry their ONE eBook around with them, and the people I know with one mostly carry it only sometimes. Why do waiting rooms have magazines? Because you have enough to do without carrying your own. Even in mobile-ubiquity days, a LOT of folks read those waiting room magazines. Need cheap enough everyone has several, and eventually they are given away.
    Rugged, approaching indestructable. A ruggedized device can be life chaging but this will only really happen when they are small enough to carry around we well. Alternatively, if the reader is dirt cheap, this makes up for some. But it’s not just disposal; how annoyed are you if you bring one reader with you on a trip and ruin it? It’s hard to ruin paper so completely you cannot read it later on. Who has not dried out an accidentally-soaked magazine to finish an article?

    My wife has a rugged phone, and it’s been very helpful to be able to carry gardening, talk when cooking, have it by the tub, etc. But it’s sort of an awful, featureless phone. We need small, rugged and full-featured to compete with paper seriously.
    Portable content. I don’t even want to talk about how the DRM works, but the end state has to be that I, as a person, can /always/ see my content on any device. E.g., I smash it and buy another, content is there seamlessly. If we want to get to a social scene, you better add a way to share that doesn’t involve me handing the device over. I had my phone off all the time, and it seems to make people nervous; it’s hard to get a phone out of most folk’s hands. When photos are shared, half the time it’s held up for others to see, not passed around. How will a reader get past this personal-device bias?
    Make it social and connected. Once you get past the table stakes of making it not uncomfortably un-book-like, work on where digital devices can be better, and that’s not the BS about carry a library in your pocket, it’s that it’s connected to the world. Better make a social media tie in, and better not be a unique one. Clearly, we’re not there in both vision and for business reasons; These silos of protected competitive space need to go away… but that’s a whole other blog entry I am working on.
    And be sure that data is handled in an information-processing-device sort of manner. Don’t be single session just because it’s easy; allow switching between books rapidly. Be sure search is easy to find and use, and is comprehensive. Display in multiple formats, and visualizations, and allow processing of content. I start thinking, why can’t the functions in math books be able to have actual values plugged in, and work?
    Be accessible, and not just for legal or regulatory reasons, not just for the stereotype blind user, but because if we’re going to use this everywhere, for all users we need it to work in all lighting, when you are tired, when you are driving and cannot read at all, and so on. Build true multi-media experience from the ground up. Again, no need to dream this up; there are rather good systems that exist, and just need to be implemented robustly, and universally.

    Much of this discussion reminds me of every other technology that has come about while I have been a conscious, technically aware human. BD-Live just for one example, is wildly disappointing compared to the promise of interactivity . Since grade school I have been waiting for an experience half as clever and innovative as the Aspen Movie Map.

    Despite all my griping, notice that I don’t say eBooks are a dead end. Or even that they must not be innovative. I say they have to be /usefully/ innovative, and to misquote what we say about mobile here “be a good book first.” It’s worth going back to first principles when a new technology comes about, and I think eBooks will be silly and niche until they are really, really designed to some useful principles.

    * It’s not a secret project, so is a publicized devices, but my involvement is secret, so that’s all I can say about it.

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