B&N’s double-duty e-reader

Gizmodo has photos of the new Barnes & Noble e-reader, which will be announced next week. Apparently after running a blurb on the B&N announcement, Gizmodo got the “scoop” direct from B&N PR, because they have a nice set of professional product shots to show you. The news is not news, but staged product release. Fast Company picked up the story and calls the unnamed gadget “more exciting” than most of the dedicated e-readers on the market, as it sports a touch LCD screen below the E-Ink display to facilitate greater interactivity, with color.

The B&N device is intriguing for several positives and an inadvertently negative reason. First, the positives:

The device will run Google’s Android OS, which implies it will have a variety of capabilities beyond simply displaying books. Fast Company suggests users will have “social chat” within books via the LCD screen. I think we like to concentrate when we read, so the kind of chat seen on Twitter or instant messaging would be interruptive. However, if the screen facilitates embedding of comments from friends, which could be entered on the LCD screen and conveyed to an insertion point in the text for later, non-interruptive access, that could be incredibly cool.

The LCD does offer a solution to the lack of interactivity in E-Ink-only devices, but it is much more likely to be useful for playing audio books, shopping for books (clearly a greatly enhanced experience with color and a refresh rate faster than ice melts), and non-book functionality. Here’s the negative side: It is just one of many solutions, though, and the dual-screen form factor seems to scream “this device isn’t big enough for our business model and your needs as a reader.”

The touch screen will make typing much easier than on a Kindle, but isn’t the stark similarity between the LCD portion of the B&N e-reader and an iPhone or iPod Touch underlining what an e-book reader doesn’t do? Should the device ship with Google’s Talk Voice over IP (VoIP) application and a combination of Wi-Fi and mobile data service, that would actually be revolutionary. But why, then, buy an e-reader and not a smartphone if the essential benefit of either is the LCD screen?

I’m actually eager to see this e-reader for myself. Until then, when we will know the price and its actual capabilities, we can only speculate about its ability to disrupt the market. Given the popular belief that e-readers must be cheaper than $100 to win a mass audience, it’s unlikely the B&N e-reader will do all the cool things it needs to to be really revolutionary.

Finally, let’s do remember that B&N is a retailer and discount publisher, not a hardware company. It’s entering a business it does not comprehend, because prevailing opinion says everyone needs to have their own e-reader hardware offering. Amazon’s Kindle, as I’ve written many times, is a temporary phenomenon tied to extending Amazon’s ability to retail books. Both the B&N and Amazon hardware businesses are kick-starting efforts designed to drive the providers’ e-book retailing business, and not likely to result in long-lived hardware products.

We don’t drive cars made by Chevron and Ford doesn’t build cars that burn only one brand of gas.

B&N will offer iRex device, too

Dropping in from a flu-induced respite to say: Barnes & Noble is trying too hard. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Peter Kafka, BN.com, in addition to teaming with Plastic Logic to sell ebooks, now plans to partner with iRex, maker of an upcoming iLiad device the features 3G connectivity and an 8.1-inch screen, described here. BN.com will be the e-book store for both devices.

We get the “we’re more open” argument already, even though every e-book format comes with DRM and compatibility baggage, but the challenge is not merely to sell books but to establish a platform customers can rely on. That comprehensive experience of reading goodness doesn’t come from a shallow focus across many devices, but deep focus on the reader’s experience with an e-book.

It would be a better use of Barnes & Noble’s modest marketplace goodwill to focus on making one device a stellar experience while supplementing that experience withiPhone and other smartphone e-reader applications than to try to sell and support e-books across a growing inventory of devices. Individually, any one device will require a substantial amount of BN customer support, which they are not well placed to provide, and as a group of devices that still are incompatible with half of the e-books or more sold, they increase the complexity of the customer’s choice. So, if BN.com fails to support the devices, even if it is the manufacturer’s problem, they will lose a customer. If their books don’t work with a device, it’s BN’s problem.

Now is the time for focused investment in a pleasing end-to-end shopping and reading experience. Amazon is already poised to compete with compatibility, so Barnes and Noble has nothing to win by spreading its bets. Factor in the Apple tablet-of-destiny (the Journal also reports today Steve Jobs is all over that tablet), which will run all sorts of e-reader apps at launch, and BN’s strategy looks very dangerous. It could be overwhelmed on the customer experience front, the e-book choice front and in terms of its relationships with marginally committed partners—in exchange for a largely undifferentiated (“we’re as open as anyone”) win if they execute perfectly.

A “standard” assumes the features are already set

“Ultimately, the success or failure of the eBook and eBook reader market is going to depend on establishing a standard format,” writes Tony Bradley at PCWorld. He’s right to the degree that, once a format is ready to make reading on a digital device better, it must become a standard to ensure that readers can access the file on any device and that publishing involves managing as few formats as possible. But there is an assumption in the article that there is a viable format exists on which everyone should agree. We are very far from agreeing what an e-book is, except that, as a subset of that definition, it will display words on a page.

A first-generation standard will scratch only the surface of the problem, addressing the problem of getting words on the digital page. The industry and, more importantly, readers, need more:

  • An open annotation system, but one that respects personal privacy by keeping notes meant only for the book’s reader (and, by extension, anyone with their password, their heirs) separate from public notes and conversation embedded in/around a book title.
  • A privacy regime enforced at the document level, preventing tracking of personal reading.
  • A page-independent reflowing capability, so that ridiculous ideas, such as “books for the Kindle DX,” become the fossils they deserves to be. A book should never be dedicated to a device, though there are some bizarre collectibility plays that might go that way.
  • A page-independent citation system so that kids can use an e-book citation in their homework as easily as a scholar.
  • And more…. Such as the whole question of how to integrate networking into documents.

The challenge of establishing that first standard, which lets e-books be read on any device, including PCs and smartphones, will be choosing technology that doesn’t shut the door to these additional standard requirements of a book while preserving forward-compatibility.

UPDATE: As I was arguing the other day and in the previous posting, the conform-to-compete trend in e-books is indicative of a wave of destruction. Mike Cane argues an e-book bubble is already well underway and I would not disagree with him, except to point out it is a very small bubble, though one that could unfortunately hobble the market for another half decade if it pops just now. Having published an e-book in 1993, when these things were going to be big, big, big! I have no illusions about how small a market can be. Cane, however, uses his argument to conclude that components of current technology, such as E-Ink, will inevitably fail. He argues this for all the right reasons that e-books don’t do anything spectacularly different than books and often represent less-than-a-book—he’s right that it is a race to the bottom based on price. The individual components could succeed or fail, perhaps not even within the e-book industry.

Author Matt Stewart tries syndication via Twitter

From GalleyCat, Matt Stewart is syndicating his novel, “The French Revolution,” via Twitter. You can see the postings here. One posting every 15 minutes. Interesting and, contrary to my reaction to Cory Doctorow’s 81-installment syndication plans for “Maker,” I think this is an appropriate way to do this, because readers can configure their Twitter client to assembling a growing book (using search for the #frrev hash tag or by following Stewart in a separate window.

Syndication isn’t only about segmentation of the story, it’s an experiment in building narrative. Chapter syndication was appropriate to paper publications, but it isn’t necessarily the way to use real-time publishing tools.

News Corp. exploring e-reader partnerships

Rupert Murdoch told TheStreet.com News Corp. “is exploring a wireless e-book device strategy with manufacturers for a product similar to Kindle.” It’s relatively old news, but shows that the publisher is still concerned with new distribution channels for its news. News Corp. is also contemplating pricing strategies for news. TheStreet points at iTunes as a payment model that Murdoch believes may work: “We’re still thinking our way through this, and there will be micropayments as part of it. But I’m thinking much more along the lines of subscriptions like The Wall Street Journal does.”

Cory Doctorow’s serialized e-novel

Tor Books announced it will serialize Cory Doctorow’s upcoming book, Makers, in 81 parts. That’s roughly six pages per installment. The idea’s good, the serialization length is wrong. While Tor cites Dickens, among others, whose works were often published as serialized stories in newspapers, it takes more than a few pages a day three days a week to keep a reader involved. 81 parts is too many, even when each installment comes with a one-panel illustration.

The discussion of the creative process by Tor’s Pablo Defendini is very interesting. I think he should leave others to answer the question: Is it “totally fucking awesome?” He says it is. We’ll see.

Plastic Logic debuts new site

logo_plastic_logicPlastic Logic, developer of an upcoming line of e-book reader devices that could give Kindle a run for the money, debuted a new Web site this week. The video content has been available online for a while, but the product pages are more complete and informative than before. A “content store” will launch with the device, according to the site. The site specifically mentions ePub, PDF, Zinio, and Microsoft Office document formats.

The company’s “two-phased entry into the market” starts in Fall with partnered trials, after which they “expect to accelerate the momentum of our sales in 2010.” Partnering for trials, such as offering a device with a newspaper service, is a dicey way to launch, because it requires the partner to succeed, and a device’s success lies beyond the partner’s ability to sell through its channel.

A word of advice to PL’s marketers: Don’t talk to customers like they are a military target. And don’t expect anything other than setbacks, because this wording sets the launch up as a series of barriers that, if not conquered decisively, will be reported and perceived as setbacks. Readers and most publishers don’t deal with “content,” either. They buy or sell books, magazines and news.

At this point in the pre-launch marketing, when building excitement among readers who are also considering their first Kindle, Sony or other e-reader, Plastic Logic needs to present a very different face than it is, engaging with readers and discussing their expectations. Since Plastic Logic’s device is apparently engineered with user’s workflow (again, the wrong sort of military way of talking about “reading”), it should be positioned to address those thinking about an e-book device purchase today.

A bizarre obsession with “turning pages”

One of the strangest design caveats in e-books and online publishing is the need to reproduce the experience of turning a page as one would with paper. The fixation on creating the simulacrum of a paper page has held sway since the earliest days of electronic reading. E-magazine platform Zinio, for example, made the page-turning features in its reader the hallmark of its claim to reproduce the experience of reading a paper magazine.

Now, TechCrunch reports that Google will introduce “Flipper,” a page-turning feature, for Google News as a way of improving the user experience.

It all reminds me of the 50-year period following Gutenburg when, because printers had no better idea how to make a book, they simply imitated the designs of scribal manuscripts. Aldus Manutius had to come along and shake things up to kick-start the real evolution of reading and authorship, since most of the aping of scribal books led to folio-sized, un-attributed (except for mostly dead authors, who sometimes were deemed to have earned their billing) copies of a small set of acceptable books and lots of copies of The Bible and prayer books.

We may return to the scrolling page, which most of our ancestors found more pleasing than the codex-style page until the Dark Ages. We may not, choosing varying modes of access to text, and the “page-turn” may be an essential feature people can choose to turn off in favor of scrolling or something else. But the digital turning of pages isn’t an innovation, just imitation of a physical quality of printed works, without a solid design rationale, unless breeding familiarity is really the only challenge. It isn’t.