January 23, 2010

Ebook readers and markets

At the beginning of the month, one of The Big Things at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the proliferation of electronic readers (or ebook readers), and as someone who bought a Sony ebook reader a few years ago for work purposes, I have a few thoughts that are different from the standard speculation you can find online.

I bought the Sony (a PRS-505 for the geeks) because I needed a device to hold article MSS for Education Policy Analysis Archives so I could squirrel myself and it away somewhere without distraction. Then I started carting student papers around in it, and then tried downloading articles onto it, as well as a few books for pleasure reading. It certainly served its main purpose for me, with a small but important exception.

The major weakness of the Sony for my purpose was displays of tables and figures, which tend to be important in professional research papers. Since the Sony's size mimics the mass-market paperback size, it cannot display a regular 8.5x11 (or similarly-sized A4) page without reformatting it. Reflowable text is beautiful, but reflowed tables are gibberish. The Sony's handling of PDF allows a sideways-display of half a page, but that still produces fairly tiny text and is disastrous if the midpoint of a page is not the logical breaking point for a display. Even with text-only PDFs, the reformatting to text-only is awkward, and often does not work for two-column pieces. For professionals who have similar needs, the larger-format devices are mandatory for most work purposes.

The other issue that would determine future purchases is annotation. I would like to be able to comment on student papers using a device. With my current device, I can read papers but cannot comment on them. For a variety of reasons, doing so on a computer is workable but awkward (at least for me). And moreso, the point is not annotation but creating annotations that I can share with students when I return papers. I don't know whether the annotation systems available on some devices attach notes to the documents in ways that can be shared, but an annotation system that is private, just for me, is a deal-breaker. I contacted the Entourage Edge folks, and they say that the scribbled notes on PDF documents would be added to the documents (and thus can be given back to students), but not typed notes. That'll do as a minimum.  I haven't heard whether the other large-format ereaders have (or will have) similar capacity. And of course there are the two major question marks in the near-term future, the Apple tablet and the Notion Ink Adam. I mention those two because an Apple tablet that's modeled on the iPhone will have multitouch zooming (extraordinarily helpful for reading figures) and the Adam looks like it will be the first tablet with a PixelQi screen. I've heard that the Edge may have a very good shot at education markets in Asia, but an Apple or a PixelQi tablet with sharable annotation would be very appealing to me. On the other hand, if a tablet has no documentation annotation I can share, it's not practical for me.

I am not typical of e-book reader users in general, but I am typical of some. The discussion I've read thus far too often ignores the likely fragmentation of the potential market for ebook readers and tablets and the way that people might think about and use the devices. Manufacturers and software developers are obviously making bets about which devices and software will capture enough segments to be profitable (and sustainable). Maybe we should think about these market segments as potentially "thick" in some commercial sense (likely to sustain either a type of device or a type of product) or "thin" (not likely to sustain a commercial enterprise).  (Okay, I'm using the "long tail" metaphor here.) Amazon clearly went for profiting on the device rather than a printer-and-cartridge system, and that was evidently a correct judge of the market (especially customers who had become used to heavily-discounted books from Amazon). Jeff Bezos benefited from Sony going first; in technology, sometimes being the second mover is the big advantage. Who knows if the creators of the Skiff reader or various hardware or software alternatives will hit a thick-enough segment? 

Some clearly amateur thoughts on this:

  • Someone aiming for customers who read primarily fiction and nonfiction in the "bestseller" categories need a smoothly-functioning catalog of books but not necessarily a huge title list or a large part of that segment. If you doubt me, guess what proportion of books is sold in airport shops and other non-bookstore retail outlets and then find documentation of whether you were correct. 
  • A multipurpose device (such as what Apple's tablet is likely to be) needs to be easy to use in its central apps. It does not need to have an enormous feature set to be commercially successful, and an open SDK will help the apps develop. This gives Apple a substantial advantage in tablets, though someone working with Android might catch up in terms of a singularly beautiful design.
  • Something that is more aimed at a niche, such as the Entourage Edge or the Skiff reader, needs to be head and shoulders above competition in doing its job well or the niche needs to be larger than expected.
  • Alternative for niche devices: be incredibly inexpensive and incredibly consumer-friendly.

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Posted in Reading on January 23, 2010 10:30 PM |