Books: analog to digital

by Robin Harris on Wednesday, 25 March, 2009

The Wall Street Journal (subscription probably required) reports that e-books appear to be taking off:

Barnes & Noble Inc. has launched a free electronic-reader application for Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry as general book sales flag and the e-book market heats up. . . .

Consumers spent about $100 million on e-books in 2008, according to one estimate. German media concern Bertelsmann AG noted in its annual results Tuesday that its e-book sales “increased tremendously” in 2008 and that its Random House publishing arm will have 15,000 e-book titles in the U.S. by year-end. . . .

Sony Corp., which also sells a dedicated e-book reader, recently struck a partnership with Google Inc. that provides users of the Sony Reader with free access to more than 500,000 public-domain titles that Google has digitized.

A practical lesson in consumer technology diffusion
For 20 years E-books have been a so-obvious-it-hurts application:

  • Books are heavy and expensive to ship and store – and returns kill profits
  • Many books are words only: easy to convert to ASCII
  • Shop at home convenience
  • Instant download gratification

But despite all the Obvious Goodness ebooks haven’t left the building – until now.

A confluence of factors is behind the take-off:

  • A growing supply of ebooks
  • Wider adoption of readable large screen handheld devices
  • Simplified purchase and wireless download – thanks to improved infrastructure
  • Popular awareness of ebook advantages

Ebooks could have taken off on notebook computers – but they didn’t. The unseen need for a paperback-sized reader, along with much simpler access, has catalyzed a market.

The StorageMojo take
Emerging and evolving technologies are StorageMojo’s stock-in-trade. Comments back sometimes betray the notion that because it hasn’t happened yet, it will never happen. Which is always true – until it isn’t.

Apple’s Newton was a great idea hampered by technology limitations. The less-ambitious Palm Pilot got the form factor and consumer pricing right, and the handheld device market took off. But not the Palm ebook market.

Fast forward 10 years and iPhone has more power than the Palm Pilot ever dreamed of and it’s an acceptable – though not ideal – ebook reader. As well as a gaming platform, browser, PIM and more.

In prospect technology change always takes longer than we think it should. In retrospect it is amazing how quickly the technology evolves.

Courteous comments welcome, of course.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan Brill March 26, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Hi Robin,

I’m very curious about the ebook trend. It seems that there will be a big nice market for ~9″ multitouch slates…when they get down to ~$250. This is about the price point for “disposable technology”. While the Kindle is a nice first attempt, it still lacks what Bill Joy calls the “It Works Feature”. It only shows text, and not great text.

Ebooks never took off on Notebook Computers for three reasons.
1. Resolution and Dynamic Range.
For extended reading, we want a really good black and crisp text.

Traditional displays simply don’t provide this experience unless the white point is searingly bright, causing the iris to constrict. The physiological impact of this is similar to shining a flashlight in your eye…the surrounding environment gets darker.

2. Tangible Reference.
We want to be able to hold and tilt a book as we adjust our bodies while reading for an extended period of time. This makes our bodies more comfortable and allow the eye to focus at its preferred “resting point” (somwhere between 30-35″ depending on the person).

Notebook computers it is difficult to achieve any of these things with a notebook computer.

3. Battery Power
The Kindle is pretty incredible…it can stay on for weeks at a time.

Try doing that with a backlit LCD. The next major step forward for e-ink like technologies will be moving images…this is when things will start to get Star Trek…but moving images require processing power and material state changes…these suck energy.

The net net: Ebooks may do well in specialized niches like education and business travel, but I’ll wait to toss my bookshelf thank you very much. When I get video with my morning epaper, maybe. Until then, ebooks will merely mimic an incumbent technology. It’s unclear who wants to pay to fund that format war.

Tony March 27, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Another issue with laptops: boot time.

If I’m going to use a device as an e-book reader, it needs to be instant on — after all, I don’t have to wait for my books to boot.

Proprietary standards and DRM could end up really limiting the ebook market.

Chuck McManis April 6, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Its interesting what going out of business can do for someone’s opinion of what is possible. I’m thinking something strategic will come out of a nearly dead newspaper here at some point.

So there have always been several things in the “way” of wide e-book adoption, and some are still there.

The first was reading experience, not surprisingly at 72 – 100 dpi (the range of most LCD displays and CRT monitors) there is significant eye strain that you don’t notice because you eye corrects your view, but ask someone who prints out source code to read it and you’ll find a person who consciously, or unconsciously, is being bothered by eyestrain. IBM in the 90’s showed that once a display got beyond 150DPI eyestrain dropped off a cliff, but they also noted that the electronics needed to drive a display with > 150 DPI at any reasonable size was “impractical” given the bandwidth and the need for a 50+hz refresh rate. Electrophoretic displays side step that problem because they are ‘static’ in that you set the pixels and you can turn off the power and the screen will still show what you wrote there.

This makes them poor for rapid updates however, and part of the push back for eReaders has been “Why would I read it on that if I can read it on my laptop/phone/crackberry?” and the answer is because it is comfortable reading something on a electrophoretic display/. The same can’t be said of an LCD, and worse there are things the LCD can do (color, animation) that means you need both. You might ask why do you have more than one kind of chair in your house. And because you need both the market position available for eReaders is “secondary device.”

That leads to the second problem, price. The opportunity cost for a second device which is a more comfortable read can only support modest a acquistion cost. So if you have an eReader for $700 (which the large format ones are) vs a laptop, and you have less than $1000 to spend, you get the laptop. If your budget for this stuff is $1500 you probably get a nicer laptop and that leaves you something less than $500 for the other features. So in all fairness a reader that was $75 would be selling like hotcakes today (there is plenty of value in carrying around stuff in one package to justify that) at $200 its a bit iffier since not only do you want to justify that expense vs a nicer phone or may be a digicam, against value, and against loss. And that brings us to the third, and perhaps stickliest problem, rights.

The state of copyright is completely messed up at the moment, in a large part because the infrastructure between the producer (writer/musician/etc) and the consumer has lost its value thanks to the Internet (any artist can distribute a million copies of their hit single for less than a weeks wages at In-n-Out Burger using an ISP hosting service, and they don’t need a ‘label’ to publicize it either) but since the money in “the business” has traditionally collected in the middle, the middle isn’t going without a fight and they have a dwindling pile of money to keep them afloat.

So a company like Random House or any other publisher has a hard time justifying to the writer why they are keeping 80-90% of the money paid for an ‘e’ edition when they aren’t spending a whole lot to print and distribute it.

The killer app for now is newspapers who are, in fact, dying. Over 50% of the ‘costs’ in a newspaper according to folks at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is ‘production/distribution’ costs, all the printers, the inks, the paper, the delivery truck drivers, and the unions of the people who run all those things. So there is an opportunity for something like the Boston Globe (nearly defunct) to give every one of their subscribers an eReader and distribute their paper over the airwaves. Not only does it cut their costs in half, and lower their carbon footprint (not only are their no delivery vans on the road there are more CO2 trees still standing), if they collect some modest demographics of the people they give the readers too they are in a position to provide much more targeted advertising. Coupons? Did you know you can scan a bar code off an electrophoretic display at a standard checkout counter? It completely overturns the business model of existing papers but its either that or die and of the two most people prefer to stay in business.

At this point, eReaders will happen, the question is who is going to win the lottery of being the defacto standard.


Mike April 7, 2009 at 7:07 pm

How about an app for the iPhone that interpret and read the books to you?

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