Can Electronic Book Readers Succeed?
With the release of the International Kindle from Amazon, the subject of e-book readers is heating up. This is one of those technologies I want to love, who wouldn’t? You have a low power device that gives you a much more natural, ink on paper, like reading experience than any backlit LCD screen can. Then with Amazon you have an integrated discovery and delivery method for receiving books to your reader, just like Apple did for the MP3 player with iTunes.
Then again, I’ve just compared the Kindle book store to iTunes, perhaps this is where the problems start. We all know that in its early days, iTunes was locked up with DRM to the point of madness, the only way to free your content was to burn everything to audio CD and re-rip to MP3. Of course, things are now better in the digital download music market, with DRM gone and a choice of music stores. Although, both the movie and e-book industries have yet to catch up to the current state of sanity we enjoy with music downloads. I remember many years ago when I experimented with the e-book store for my Palm Pilot. Not only were your e-books tied to your credit card number, but they were tied to your device too. If either changed there wasn’t a clear route for how to get your books back. So when I did inevitably change my device, I lost my books.
With the Kindle, things aren’t quite so restrictive, from what I’ve been able to find out, not having one myself, your books are only tied to your Amazon account. This means that you can transfer to new Kindles, and also to the iPhone application. Unfortunately, Amazon haven’t released an application for other mobile platforms yet. Still though, the Kindle isn’t the only e-book reader out there (there’s also Sony and Bebook readers), but you can’t get your Amazon e-books on any of them. Whereas, the music I buy from any music store on the web can be played on any device I like. So the Amazon e-book system still ties you to the one device, just like iTunes with the iPod, which I submit is a reason not to use iTunes. The same goes for all current e-book stores.
I think the e-book and movie industries needs to learn from history. All encompassing ecosystems like iTunes work for a while, until the market (i.e. consumers) learn enough about the restrictions that DRM puts on them. Electronic documents already have a standard, PDF, which is so ubiquitous, it would be hard to imagine any other format being used. Yes, PDF’s can be copied without restriction, just like MP3’s. Although, a recent study has shown what many people believed all along, file sharers buy the most music, and I am certain that the same will be true for books and movies when they are available DRM free. Currently, the only way to get DRM free e-books and movies is illegal. Which is a shame for those industries, because by not using DRM free formats they are denying themselves a large and enthusiastic market segment.
Finally, lets look at the devices themselves. Despite the attractive features I mentioned at the beginning of this, it is still another device to carry around and look after. E-book readers are fairly large when compared to the likes of MP3 players and mobile phones. They are also expensive, the cheapest setting you back over £200. Sure, I imagine they’d be nice to have laying around at home. Although, in our busy lives, sometimes the best time to read a few pages of a book is in those strange little pockets time during the day (as David Allen would put it). Is it really worth carrying around something the size of an e-book reader? In these days when convergence seems to be an irresistible force, I find it hard to believe that e-book readers will get a firm foothold when mobile phones can do the same job, with a PDF application providing a free or inexpensive electronic book reading function.