Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Essay: Why the Hype Behind January 27, 2010

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

It's Wednesday already here in the Philippines but unfortunately, Apple has yet to make its big announcement (what use is it living in the future if your news is still the same as yesterday?). Everyone thinks they know what Apple will be releasing--and I have my own suspicions as well--but guessing what actually gets released isn't the point of this essay. Rather, I want to focus on a question that some people might have overlooked: why are a lot of people excited about the iTablet/iSlate/Unicorn?

If you think about it, the answer is simple: because Amazon has done a lackluster job when it comes to the eBook industry. To readers, it could be the delivery method (i.e. the screen, the device, the format, etc.). To publishers, it might be how Amazon acts as the self-appointed police (to address the latter's concern, Amazon even recently made an announcement that it'll increase its royalty option--although that honestly benefits self-published authors more than major publishers).

Don't get me wrong. As far as its retail branch is concerned, Amazon is more than competent. That's why other online retailers, bookstores or otherwise, are having problems simply keeping up with Amazon. The only online retailer that seems unfazed by Amazon is Apple's iTunes Store.

But when it comes to eBooks, Amazon for the past few years has monopolized the market. It's not fair to say that they don't have competitors (they do, especially as other companies attempted to release their own eReaders), but let's face it, when you think of eBooks, they're the elephant in the room. And to their credit, they achieved that status because they did something right: integrating shopping for eBooks (and taking into account that they are a major source of books online, electronic or otherwise) with manufacturing the device itself.

However, whatever praise I have for them stops there. There are several reasons why we aren't in the mythical age of eBook reading. If it was simply the fact that the Kindle was ugly, some readers could have lived with that. Aesthetics is great but for some people, utility is their foremost priority. Rather, it's the accumulation of other factors. There's DRM. There's the lack of a common format for eBooks. There's Amazon's dictatorship of the price for eBooks (not that I believe in completely free markets, but it's really crippling when someone else tells you how much you can price your non-essential commodities). Amazon's accumulated bad PR for the past few years (such as pulling out 1984 from a student's device). It all adds up to a certain dissatisfaction.

What Apple promises--or rather, what people think Apple promises--is something new and different. People are in love with the potential of the alternatives. Honestly, 24 hours from now, after Apple makes its announcement, I don't think they'll solve all of the problems concerning the eBook (especially if how they handle iTunes or their iPhone is any indicator). They'll probably come up with a fantastic physical product (hardware) but the real concerns of the eBook industry is its ecosystem: how the retailer will treat and interact with its customers, authors, and publishers.

Take a deep breath and enjoy the anticipation. Until Apple comes out with something definitive, everyone's imagination has conjured their idealized reading device.

P.S. No, I don't think Apple is creating an eBook-reading device more than a multimedia device.

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