Reading Steve Jobs: Why 45 e-reader devices don’t make a market

Thomas Jefferson hacked bookstands for partial continuous attention

Thomas Jefferson hacked bookstands for partial continuous attention

As I develop the coverage here at BooksAhead, I have decided that trying to break news stories about e-reader devices doesn’t add a lot of value for the reader, especially when there are few differentiating features or functionality. Way back in the early 90s, when a new Ethernet interface card for the Mac—I was networking editor at MacWEEK—it became clear that an occasional summary article covering all the recent releases would be more useful than many individual articles announcing yet another Ethernet card.

However, sometimes a real breakthrough would come along, and that would get an individual article. The most important change in the early networking card market was something subtle and largely unheralded: The addition to writable ROM chips to cards eliminated the need to return a card when its software was defective. Yet, for several years, Ethernet card developers hesitated to include EPROMs in their products. Once they did, new features proliferated, such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), because cards could be updated in response to changing technology rather than having to be replaced. It sounds trivial, yet it made a huge difference.

The e-reader device market is looking a lot like the Ethernet card business back then: It’s a developing commodity market. Price is becoming the only differentiator, but the functionality is still very limited compared both to books and what e-books could be. The action will soon turn squarely on format and networking of documents, just as the Web became relevant when the browser changed hyperlinks from navigating between documents to navigating within parts of many documents.  Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson designed a bookstand for reading several titles to accommodate the limitations of books (the idea is older, but Jefferson’s is one of the most elegant solutions to the problem). Readers want to use books and the knowledge and enjoyment they contain, not just consume them.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this issue since I wrote about the ePub standards maintenance process beginning a couple weeks back. There are huge business opportunities in the Continue reading

Sony Reader goes “Daily” with Kindle competitor

During its previously scheduled product launch of the Sony Reader Pocket ($199) and Touch ($299) Editions today, Sony dropped its would-be Kindle-killer on the market, a $399 AT&T 3G-enabled Reader called “Daily Edition” that will ship in time for Christmas, if an e-book reader is on your last-minute shopping list. This Christmas, it may very well be.

Does 7-inch Daily Edition, which sells for $100 more than the 6-inch Kindle 2, bring enough oomph to the market to make it a must-have for the holidays? The answer will depend entirely upon whether Sony’s move to ePub format and close embrace of Google Books, which can be downloaded free through its online bookstore, will tip the buyer’s decision in favor of Sony. While it is a 3G-enabled reader, comparable to the Kindle and its WhisperNet service provided by Sprint, the Sony Daily Edition will not allow Web browsing, which the Kindle does, according to various sources, notably Publishers Weekly.

The Sony press release suggests that there might be an upgrade path to full Web connectivity: “There are no monthly fees or transaction charges for the basic wireless connectivity and users still have the option to side load personal documents or content from other compatible sites via USB.” I have queried Sony PR about what “basic wireless connectivity” means and whether there will be options for additional service. It isn’t entirely clear that Google Books will be downloadable over the air or only via PC download—since there is no revenue to support 3G downloads, this needs to be clarified.

Unlike the Kindle, the Sony Daily Edition offers handwritten note entry (stylus included with the system) and built-in links to local libraries, which can “loan” electronic copies for up to 28 days through the Overdrive.com library collections service. A social network for discussing literary. And the devices will be available at physical retail outlets, including Best Buy and WalMart, making it easier to try than the Kindle.

Amazon is prepared to counter the perceived accessibility of Sony’s ePub strategy by both opening the Kindle readers to ePub and making its proprietary format readable on a wider range of devices. Sony may have the cheapest e-reader with the $199 Pocket Edition (sans wireless connectivity), but this still looks like a fight that is going to be waged on Amazon’s terms.

ePub format wins critical victory—will it help Sony compete?

Sony Readers will offer only ePub-formatted books through its eBook online store and devices, dumping its BBeB proprietary format, according to The New York Times. This is an important step toward compatibility between e-reader devices, one that will challenge Amazon’s dominance in e-books to date, because Kindle will soon be markedly separate from Sony, Plastic Logic and other devices that support ePub. HarperCollins and Random House have signed on to the Sony ePub initiative. HarperCollins already offers ePub books.

ePub isn’t the ultimate solution to the question of an e-book standard, but it does solve the basic problem of making books readable across multiple devices. As Gartner analyst Allen Wiener told the Times: “If you see some Adobe executive up on stage with Steve Jobs when they announce the tablet, at that point Amazon has a lot to worry about.” Adobe Systems developed ePub as an “open” alternative to other e-book formats, however it is also pushing its PDF format as a solution for presenting formatted documents—Amazon promotes PDF formatted books for the Kindle DX. There’s no absence of a relationship between the two companies. ePub can still be made into a proprietary format by developers who add, for example, a proprietary DRM (in contrast to its built-in DRM) or display extensions to the basic text display capabilities of ePub.

Amazon can solve this problem by updating its existing Kindles and adding ePub support to new units, something I believe is already on the calendar. Jeff Bezos only has to make an announcement that Kindle supports ePub, which he has foreshadowed, to prevent a user migration. Amazon can retain its lead by adding ePub versions to its store, allowing buyers to download ePub versions.

So, while it is to Sony’s credit that it is leading the way toward document portability, the initiative still lies with Amazon.

The app-ification of publishing

Publishers Weekly‘s Craig Morgan Teicher has a long feature, “The App Boom Hits Publishing,” which reads like an article from Digital Media, my old newsletter, in the early 1990s. There’s a kind of Lotus Eaters quality to it, as it requires you believe application-based e-books solve the e-publishing problem.

The article revolves around repurposing existing content, such as crosswords and foreign language phrase books, by making them interactive, which is an excellent and relatively simple strategy if you have the right kind of titles on the shelf. It goes so far as to conflate that kind of title with any title that might be digitized.

The article makes the case that any book can be turned into an application and associates the ePub format, an e-book format designed to provide open cross-platform readability, with applications that are proprietary and closed. It’s a mistake to think that applications, which rely on functional code to enclose a text, are open or that they will survive the relatively brief period of time when e-books have not been published in a standardized format that can be read in a variety of applications. It’s a bandage on a heavy wound, one that, if future e-book readers cannot access the books people buy today, will alienate readers from e-books because they will seem increasingly unreliable.

Yes, Apple’s App Store is a big deal and a lot of applications, including e-books, are selling there. But the model isn’t predicated on the application, rather it is thriving on the fact that all iPhone apps run on all iPhones. Portability from one phone to the next, so that buyers don’t find they cannot access their data after upgrading their iPhone, is the key to the app model’s success.

Texts wrapped in code become incompatible with all but the operating system and hardware that it was written to run on. Texts need to be portable, so that books remain useful. Amazon’s willingness to deliver a Kindle book over and over to new reader devices is the right way to assure readers they will be able to access a proprietary format, but it is also the cost of that proprietary format for the distributor.

If a publisher is going to publish “in an app” today and abandon the reader and customer support when they move on to the next application platform, they are risking losing each customer they are spending to win today.

Re-purposing is a stop-gap strategy.

Adding value means more than digitizing a book.

Putting your book into a proprietary format dilutes the value of the book to the reader, because it diminishes the utility of the text over the long term.

Enough said.

Borders UK introduces a £189 e-reader

Borders UK today introduced a lower-priced e-book reader, the Elonex, which it will offer alongside the £400 ($665) iRex Iliad e-book reader. The £189 ($314) Elonex, manufactured by the British PC maker of the same name for Borders UK, is a basic e-Ink screen e-reader with no wireless or other network connectivity. It supports the ePub and Adobe PDF formats and comes pre-loaded with 100 books (presumably out of copyright classics) and an SD memory slot. (A brief, not very informative review is here.)

Borders offers a catalog of 45,000 e-books, which can be displayed on the Elonex or iRex Iliad. Borders executives had previously told the Bookseller they did not consider the iRex, which includes annotation and handwriting recognition technology, “sustainable” at £400.

The dichotomy between the basic e-reader, which does little more than display pages, and a multi-purpose e-reader, like the iRex, is evolving to be the simple distinction made in this market. Amazon’s Kindle 2, however, splits the difference, doing more than a basic reader (notably with the WhisperNet delivery service, but also an increasing range of applications), at a price that, at this point, is so close to the “basic” models, it is poised to crush competitors that try to compete from the low-end. Now, if only Kindle supported ePub documents.

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.