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How the Kindle Prevents eContent from Evolving

Thumbsdown Perhaps I shouldn't single out the Kindle on this one.  What I'm about to say is true for the entire current generation of dedicated e-reader devices, not just the Kindle.  But the Kindle leads the way, so it gets the headline.

The problem with these devices is that they encourage quick print-to-e content conversion and nothing more.  In fact, they even discourage some of the simplest ways of enhancing print-to-e conversions.  Embedded links are a great example.  If you're a Kindle owner how often do you click on those links?  More specifically, how often do you groan as you click on those links, knowing that the browsing experience ahead is painful at best?  The irony is that although the Kindle was the first to include wireless functionality, that feature is really only good for one thing: buying content from Amazon.  Every other time I've used the "experimental" browser I've been disappointed.  That's because, at its heart, the Kindle is a reader and it doesn't encourage any other use.

If you love your Kindle you'd probably say, "so what?...it does what I need it to do."  My point is that as long as we're willing to accept this extremely limited functionality, and not ask for more, there's no incentive for Amazon to enhance it and there's no incentive for publishers to build richer content.

Are you really thrilled with the content that's available on today's dedicated e-readers?  I'm not.  And it's not just color and video that I crave.  I want to see a major leap forward, like when entertainment went from radio to TV, for example.

Transportation is another great analogy.  Years ago, trains were not only a great way to travel, they often represented the only way to get from point A to point B.  Then cars came along and totally changed the transportation industry.  It didn't happen overnight, but think about how much you take for granted now that you're not limited by train schedules, tracks that only go certain places, etc.

Trains still exist today, of course, and they serve an important need.  One-trick dedicated e-readers will probably exist for a long time too, but we desperately need the flexibility of something more than dedicated devices.  Smart phones and netbooks are nice too, but the form factors aren't perfect and battery life is often an issue.

The consumer experience could be greatly improved by a multi-function device with rich content options.  If you're a publisher and you're worried about the race to lower prices for quick print-to-e conversions you too should want more powerful devices since they'll allow you to charge more for the additional functionality of your content.

Comments

Luca Fabbri

You are dead-on. E-reader devices are an incremental improvement on print books, not a new book paradigm.

I am not sure that the problem is in the device, though. The vast majority of non-device e-books are nothing else than PDF versions of the printed book, despite the fact that they do not suffer from device constraints. You are right that the average consumer is not asking for dramatically more advanced Kindle functionality - but I bet that the average telegraph user wasn't clamoring for the telephone either.

The reason is that paradigm shifts do not emerge from engineers deeply focused on incremental innovations or from consumers' demand, but from imaginative, creative and entrepreneurial innovators. And nobody has so far come forward with a vision of the "book of the future" that is more than a smattering of hyperlinks.

Tim L.

"Are you really thrilled with the content that's available on today's dedicated e-readers? I'm not. And it's not just color and video that I crave. I want to see a major leap forward, like when entertainment went from radio to TV, for example."

How about great writing, great ideas? Which is exactly the thing that's so hard to find in brand-new printed magazines and books.

Decades ago you couldn't pick up a magazine without finding short stories in them. Now you'd have to hunt for one that has one, and the only stories they run are vulgar and lowest-common-denominator dumb. Major publishers are putting out dumb DaVinci Codes and vampire fiction and zombie books by the truckload; where's the deep lyrical prose and mountain-high ideas? They don't want to touch such things.

Maybe some publishers (and even some writers) are trying to use the new digital devices to get around the dumbed-down mainstream media. What we need now are more great writers -- because we're not finding that in the mainstream media. We need some (paying) outlet for short and long fiction and poetry, great literature and ideas, that people can access and read. Isn't that much greater than interactive cartoon movies or hypeertext gimmickry?

Ron L

While you do make a good point on is the E-reader helping. I see it as a good starting point. Just like in music, you went from vinyl to 8-track (I remember them) to cassette to CD to digital. The same type of progression will need to be made in the e-reader as time goes on.

I can see where an e-reader could really benefit books. The ability to add link or a video would greatly add to a book. Because of the limitations of written communications, the video or audio could greatly add to the book.

We are still early in the life of e-readers and what it will become is still to be determined. But think about cell phones back in the day of the bag phone and then compare it to your Iphone or Blackberry. It should be very exciting to see where this journey goes.

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Joe, you make a great point, and I think that future e-reading devices are likely to give users a much richer experience, and more power, and enable them to access a wider variety of content types, in an array of forms.

But I wonder if the device market won't be fragmented, with more powerful devices capturing the lion's share, and Kindle-style simple, single-purpose devices secure in a niche. The first type, after all, will be more appealing to the bulk of consumers, who like to read, but also want to be able to use the device to watch videos and so forth. The second will appeal to people for whom text reading - of novels, and serious non-fiction, etc. - is a serious hobby, and who value the "freedom from all distractions" feature of the Kindle, i.e. that it doesn't make it easy to do things like browse the Web, doesn't let you send emails or watch videos, etc..

Cherisa B

I like having my Kindle for reading. If I want to surf, and jump from link to link to link, I can do that elsewhere. When I am engrossed in a good read, I want my attention focused there. Having to look up a word I don't know when I'm reading is about the only 'distraction' I'm willing to give into during a good read, and the Kindle makes it easy - that's a hyperlink I'll make, and it doesn't need the browser and slow network.

I appreciate the single use-ness of the device. Yes, books can be used for other things - pressing flowers, stacking for a toddler booster seat - but essentially they're a one-trick device, and I don't mind that attribute in the digital version either.

Chris Smith

I'd like one that does less. USB connection, put your documents, books, etc. on it, sit on the couch, the deck, or the bed and read without having to stare at your computer screen into the wee hours.

If I want to buy a book online I'll just do it from my computer and transfer it later if I want to read it on the e-reader. I don't want to pay the premium for having net access, browsing, etc. Just want a way to inexpensively have the convenience of a book to read documents/e-books/pdf's etc.

Current e-readers don't give you enough, they give me too much at too high a cost.

Mike Weston

Smart analysis. Several years ago, when I started reading ebook on my Palm, the ability to move back and forth between footnotes seemed liked an obvious way to harness a very simple way to improve the printed form of a book that clearly written just for the printed format.

My dismay, as an avid ebook reader, is that the medium is stepping backward, not forward. Slavishly following the doomed DRM path that was an obstacle to successfully climbing the adoption curve in music and video is one example. More ridiculous is the clamour for a 'single purpose device'. Why??? Surely integrating with the improving screen technologies on devices that do other, useful things is the smart strategy... and helps to show the innovative paths that might be open to showing content on a digital screen. Like, oh, I don't know, interactivity with the content? Expansion of ideas that arise from the content...

The future remains locked away... I'm looking forward to seeing who has a set of skeleton keys.

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As a former English teacher and now tech support at a school, I would love to offer all our students the opportunity to buy a $25 ebook instead of a $95 textbook that they never get through in the first place. Kids have no issue with reading on devices (like some older folks) and I see that as the key to adoption. No one cares about the technology; they only care if it works for a purpose.

When publishers come onboard, we will have tons of ereader choices.

David Lipscomb

Thanks for this very smart post. You're spot on, as far as everything that's limiting about these initial e-readers ... and your conclusion is obviously right: "The consumer experience could be greatly improved by a multi-function device with rich content options."

I just don't get the causal argument in your headline and second paragraph: that these first e-readers are somehow preventing the evolution of better options. You seem to be saying that the kindle and its ilk encourage a kind of consumer complacency. Really? A technology that halts evolution because it's limited and somehow lulls users into being OK with that? Hmmm. Maybe in the short term, but only in the very short term. I love my kindle app for the iphone (prefer it to the kindle, really) -- and I've no doubt that soon I'll be able to use an e-reader on my iphone that will open up my reading experience: very soon, they'll be an app for that.

William Hayes

I found during a recent non-fiction book chapter project I was doing that my writing is now intricately connected to the Web. Trying to write without easy access to the additional resources linkable from the web is now very hard to do. Static content as seen in most of the e-book content just seems like a dead concept.

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My assumption is that we are going to get EXACTLY this, and more, when Apple comes out with its tablet, probably by January.

Joel "Jaykul" Bennett

Naw, you're looking at it wrong. Multimedia, hyper-linking and all of that is fine, but keep it out of my books, thanks. It's preposterous to say that eBook readers are holding anything back: they're merely the first use of a technology that's still in it's infancy, and they're evolving faster than any similar technology ever has. In fact, I read that Barnes and Noble's device from Plastic Logic is has a color touch screen below the eInk screen. I wonder if anyone will take advantage of that to embed videos or photos in their eBooks...

The fact is that single-function eBook readers exist BECAUSE users don't want to READ BOOKS on the "multi-function device with rich content options" that they already have (computers, laptops, netbooks, smart phones, hypothetical Apple tablets). Reading on a connected multimedia device results in distractions (like fancy spirograph icons) which provide little or no value ... and in their current technological state, such devices are hard on the eyes, too heavy to curl up with, and chew up batteries.

Sure, there's room for improvement. Will there be full color eBooks with touch screens you can stare at all day and multi-touch navigation in the future? Probably. Will we therefore want hyperlinks in our novels? Probably not.

Roger Waynick

Joe:

Really enjoy your blog. I retweet it often. I am the publisher at Cool Springs Press, a significant gardening publisher. I see very little significant future in E Books without dynamc video/Links.

Check out the Beta of our new 'Vook' at http://tinyurl.com/yg86gl4 Think about applications and uses.... And let me know!

Bob Dunn

The amazing thing to me is the length of time it's taking to get something out in the market people would find useful. If I'm remembering correctly, the Rocket ebook device showed potential back in the late '90s, along with a competitor whose name escapes me. But the Japanese company Gemstar/TV Guide bought both devices up, then promptly stopped all development of them.

I would love to know the back story on that brilliant move.

Jacob Peters

Joe:

I really enjoy your blog, and also retweet them alot, it's good advice that authors need to read. I am an editor at Schiel & Denver Book Publishers in Houston.

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