The eBook Dilemma

Posted by Garth on Friday, September 7, 2007

The other day I had a conversation with a friend about eBooks and why they haven’t yet taken off. Ok, so really my “friend” was taking the stance that they never will take off because paper is sooo much better. Well just now I read an article on Techdirt about ebooks and their continued demise. As always, Techdirt provides an interesting viewpoint. The latest fiasco being that for $500, Amazon is selling an ebook reader that will wirelessly connect to an ebook store, bypassing the PC.

Who freaking cares?!

If this is the competition to paper, it’s no wonder the industry hasn’t taken off. Why is it that every content publisher insists on hosing consumers when it comes to digital formats? First off, here’s why I think ebooks are so great (admittedly, some of these features are restricted depending on the device you’re using, but that’s a fundamental, protectionist flaw which caters to the content developers, and is by no means a restriction of the technology):

I can search an ebook. Just like a Word document or a webpage. Printed text is obviously lacking in this area.

I can bookmark an ebook. I can bookmark multiple pages of an ebook. I can add notes to each bookmark. Hell, I can add notes anywhere I want, and it doesn’t deteriorate the book (as highlighting or other notes do with printed versions). I would like to point out here that I cannot bookmark PDFs. Which means that PDFs, for this purpose, are useless. If I can’t add an electronic bookmark to an electronic book, what’s the point?

Word Lookups
I can select a word in an ebook and click “Look Up Word”, and have the linked-in dictionary provide me with the definition. Two clicks. That’s it. How much effort would that be with a regular book, especially if you don’t also carry a dictionary with you at all times.

If there’s some phrase or passage that I want to save for later, I can do that. No problem. And I don’t have to keep a notebook nearby. My PDA/reader will do it all.

And here’s what I (and the readers of Techdirt) think it’s going to take to make ebooks successful:

Reader Cost
Dedicated ebook readers need to come down in price. Considerably. Like below the $100 price point. Even $100 is pricey for a dedicated device, especially if all it does is act as an ebook reader. Having said that, there are a ton of devices on the market that can double as readers. PDAs are the obvious choice, or PDA/phone combo devices such as the TyTN II, iPhone, etc. Admittedly these are relatively expensive devices, but reading ebooks on these is just a bonus. They do all kinds of other things as well, and thus consolidate phone, music, video and books onto a single device. Personally I’ve used my iPaq 5450 for years as a reader, and it works great. The only downside to this is when pictures are involved, as they tend to be scaled down fit the screen.

Dedicated readers have cutting edge e-ink technology. This tech is apparently phenomenal and allows the text to appear on the page even if the device has been turned off. If on, the battery draw is minimal. The backlight is low to none so there is no eye strain involved, and it is totally readable in daylight. This is the ideal tech to read on, but obviously this type of screen isn’t great for other applications. And personally, I don’t want to carry a dedicated reader if I already have a phone which I can use for this purpose. The perfect device would have a reading mode that could be switched to when reading and which automatically switched back to the regular display for other purposes. But I speculate that this could present serious technological hurdles, otherwise you’d end up with a DS-like device with 2 screens – one for reading and one for everything else.

Book Cost
Just as content owners in the music and movie world have yet to learn, electronic content must be cheaper than physical content. There’s no distribution or printing costs, so why should the consumer pay as much for the content? The savings should flow through to the consumer. Period.

sigh... what more is there to say about DRM really? Drop it. Get rid of it. Eliminate it. If an ebook that I buy is tied to a particular device or DRM scheme it is inferior to the printed copy. I can sell, trade or give away the printed copy. I can lend it to a friend no matter what type of computing device they use. Implementing DRM on books is, quite simply, retarded. It actually seems like publishers don’t want ebooks to take off and so are implementing DRM to achieve their goals. After all, if no one’s buying the ebook then they have a case to say that ebooks are flawed, when really it’s the DRM and other factors which are flawed, not the tech.

What it all comes down to is that if you can do it on a webpage, you should be able to do it on an ebook. As long as manufacturers keep restricting the functionality of end users, ebooks will continue to fail.

Reader of choice – Microsoft Reader. I honestly haven’t used that many on my iPaq, but MS Reader does the job, and does it nicely. Admittedly it sometimes requires converting docs or other file formats to LIT, but I’m ok with that. A few minutes of conversion to enjoy hours of reading is well worth it IMHO.


geneg said...

IMO, the screen tech doesn't matter, multi-bookmarking, searching, annotations are all nice-to-haves. The big thing is that I can have books on my PHONE. Without having to carry big, chunky BOOKS. Why is everyone trying to sell me a big chunky DEVICE? When I can have books on my PHONE? Duh.

Garth said...

I concur. However in the argument which spawned this article the small screen size was shot down out of hand. Cuz, you know, a paperback has a massive screen :P

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