Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Breaking News in the Ebook Industry

SF Signal just linked to an article in the New York Times about two upcoming eBook developments.
  1. Amazon will be releasing Kindle, an eBook reader for $400 ~ $500. What makes this different from all the other eBooks? It connects wirelessly to Amazon's site. (Oh, and it gets some free reference material too.)
  2. Google's Book Search will enable you to purchase the book in addition to giving you excerpts.
Here's my thoughts on the matter:

First off, let's tackle Amazon. The device I think is a step in the right direction. However, what kills it is the price tag. Even the most avid bibliophile will be reticent to spend that much cash for an eBook reader... unless it does something else too. Like the iPhone. But as Cory Doctorow said it, the problem with many hybrid eBook readers is how much time is actually spent using them as a device for reading? Doesn't an mp3 player/eBook reader defeats its purpose (from a eBook reader perspective) if 80% of the time it's used as an mp3 player? Isn't it better to label such a device a mp3 player first and the eBook reader a quirky but non-essential feature? Back to being a full-fledged eBook reader, Sony released such a product recently but its price point is preventing it from garnering more sales. Give me a bare-bones eBook reader, one selling for under $50.00, and let's talk.

As an aside, I don't think eBooks are dying. I think one of the first eBooks to thrive have been the encyclopedias. Not many want to part with the huge investment needed to purchase a physical encyclopedia set but many are more willing to access such material digitally as long as it's a smaller fee. I think that's why Microsoft's Encarta has been successful, as well as Britannica. They're not necessarily eBooks per se because of the latter's online component but they are digital media in which you need a computer to use, as opposed to being a physical reference book.

On the topic of mp3 players vs eBook readers, I'm also curious: what is selling more, audio books or eBooks? Of courses it's not always comparing apples and oranges. The business book market in my opinion is more likely to purchase audio books rather than eBooks for example. But considering how many mainstream titles like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code are available in both formats, it's interesting to see how the two compare. Do people "find more time" to listen to books or are they willing to settle for the reading experience via an electronic screen?

Google, on the other hand, is more prone to success. I think the Internet has made instant gratification more possible. Want the software right now? Pay for it and download it. Isn't that how iTunes is operating? Or online RPG book vendors like RPGNow and DriveThruRPG. What Google is doing certainly isn't revolutionary but it does make it more convenient for the consumer (and perhaps more importantly, more tempting). Browsing through the table of contents or reading an excerpt? Owning the book is one click away.

Perhaps the bigger implication on my part is how Google's method will eventually lead to the proliferation of eBooks. Maybe the format right now needs to change. Maybe instead of .txt files or PDFs, the future of eBooks will be online (much like what Britannica is right now). Thanks to devices like the iPhone where you can theoretically surf the Internet anywhere, surfing just became a lot more accessible. And if we can imagine reading webpages from the screen of an iPhone, why not books? Why not use Google to look for a book, read a portion of it, then decide to get the whole thing? All in the span of a few clicks. There's no need to format your eBook to the appropriate format, no need to upload it to your preferred device, it's all instant accessing. And in many ways, online access is perhaps the best security (as far as online security goes... if somebody wants to hack into your account, few things can really stop a dedicated hacker). Google can remember your profile and gives you access to that eBook if you bought it before. Since the data is stored on Google's server, you can theoretically access it anywhere and always have it "in storage" (at least until somebody blows up Google's hard drives). Users don't have to deal with the problem of DRM yet have the convenience of actually having back-ups.

But yes, either the iPhone or the iPod Touch is still too expensive for me for an eBook reader. But the thing with either devices is that it's more than just an eBook reader and a web browser. What I value about a product like the iPhone and the iPod Touch is that despite their hefty price tag, it gives bibliophiles the opportunity to either listen to their books (audio books) or read them (eBooks). And at the rate that news is being syndicated in web sites, it also doubles as your broadsheet.


Maybe eBook developers shouldn't be designing an eBook reader but a cheap, portable online browser. Even in the worst-case scenarios where publishers keep churning our DRM PDFs, it's not like web browsers can't have plug-ins to accommodate PDFs or even Flash-based/Java-based ebooks (those that want to "simulate" the turning of a page).

Of course right now, Google's possible success story is linked to an already existing device, the iPhone and the iPod Touch, but I can still imagine it to be a profitable venture even with laptops and desktop machines. I mean that's how iTunes is working now isn't it? People browsing and suddenly have the urge to watch this movie or to listen to this song. They're doing what 24-hour convenience stores are doing. Only faster (minus the downloading time). Why browse for the book in Amazon when you can own it in the same amount of time?

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