Friday, November 6, 2009

When will the print book disappear?

Normally, I am one of the first guys in line (well, virtually, since I tend to shop online :) to buy the cool new electronic gadget de jour, and there's no denying the Kindle (especially the DX) fits that bill. This is especially true since I've been itching to try out an e-paper device since I first read about e-paper/e-ink in 2001.

Lately, I've heard a lot of talk about the Kindle being the harbinger of the end for print books, and wanted to toss in my two cents. I like the idea of e-paper in particular, the main selling point of the Kindle and similar third (or fourth depending on who you ask) generation e-readers over other portable devices like netbooks. However, the idea of a dedicated device for reading books just doesn't do it for me (other than a good old fashioned print book, of course – since that's a single use device too… :).

I think we're still years (possibly dozens of years) away from the tipping point of e-books versus print books (as far as market share of sales goes). I feel that there are many problems holding back the ascendancy of the e-book (especially in academic libraries/markets, for more on that keep an eye out for my upcoming article, "Why aren't E-Books Gaining More Ground in Academic Libraries"), but that the biggest problem holding back the move from print to electronic books among the general population right now is the lack of a ubiquitous device for reading electronic materials that people are generally happy with. But wait, that's just what the Kindle is, isn't it? Well, the Kindle works reasonably well for reading books (well, books that were designed for it, or at least in a format easily converted to the preferred Amazon format, PDFs are still a challenge), but what about checking email, or browsing the web, blogging, face-booking or IMing? I do all those things already, plus read e-texts, on both my laptop and netbook. Would I enjoy extended reading of static text from e-paper more (or one of the many other promising new display technologies)? Almost certainly! I often find myself tiring of craning my neck and jockeying for a good position to use my laptop or netbook to read on a plane. I envy the guy next to me who's enjoying reading a book or article on his Kindle. Reading in bed would also benefit from the use of a Kindle- I sprained my wrist trying to read the Mists of Avalon in bed in print format. An e-reader would have been great for that. However, I really don't want to lug yet another electronic device around everywhere I go. My laptop bag is already amusingly overcrowded with my laptop, its various peripherals and power supply, my PSP (and its stuff), my Ipod (and its stuff), my cell phone (ad nauseam)… I'm sure you get it by now. I like gadgets, I have a ton of them, and I have finally reached the point that I am saying "No More!" I also don't want to commit to yet another 2-3 year repurchasing cycle for a $300-$400 for a device that will really only work for reading books, when print books already suit that purpose well enough, and my other mobile devices can stand in for a dedicated e-reader in a pinch. After all, I am a librarian, and any of the books I really want to read are a short trip to my library or wait on the ILL list away, no $300-$400 membership fee required.

What we lack (we being the players in the book industry, from publishers to distributors, including libraries) is that truly magical multi-purpose ubiquitous device that will finally launch the e-book to the place of prominence we all know it will eventually achieve. I don't think that device will be a (mostly) single purpose device like a Kindle or any other dedicated e-reader. Not to say there isn't a place for dedicated e-readers. I think some insight can be gained by considering the mp3 player market. Even though the Big Boys in the industry have been seriously pushing feature creep into their MP3 devices, making them, arguably, now mini-computers (at least that's what Apple wants us to believe), there's clearly still a place for dedicated mp3 players (even Apple maintains production of the Shuffle, which is the ultimate single purpose mp3 player). What the e-book market needs is a device that comfortably meets multiple information and entertainment needs of users, at a price they are willing to pay. The major limiting factor right now on mobile devices in general is the display technology. E-paper is great for static text (and low power consumption), but (right now) terrible for general purpose use as a laptop/cell phone screen (grayscale only right now, with a ridiculously limited number of shades of grey, and absolutely atrocious screen refresh rates, compared to other display technologies). Once there's a way to do both – display static text in a way that's pleasant for extended reading (and consumes very little power) as well as to display full color dynamic content (possibly even including two display types on a single device) at a reasonable price point, I think we'll see the sudden and massive shift to e-consumption that we've all been waiting for. But even then, I think there'll be a fairly long, slow dwindling of print books, with them still representing a fairly significant chunk of publications/sales for several decades to come (at least as significant as the current <2% of sales that e-books make up of the entire book market).

FYI, here's a device I'd love to see (are you listening Amazon, Sony, Lenovo- anyone really!). My ideal netbook/e-reader is pretty simple. Take a modest netbook (at the $300 price point), make some minor hardware adjustments internally (maybe another $50/netbook) and slap a piece of e-paper on the top of the netbook lid (so when it's closed, the lid shows e-paper, but when it's open, you see a standard netbook LCD screen), maybe another $100. And then, bam, you have the netbook/e-reader hybrid I've been dreaming of for about $450. It can still do everything my netbook could, but when I just want to engage in extended reading (and not note taking or some other form of content creation, rather than consumption) I simply pull up my item (maybe even in a special app, but I'd prefer the transition to be seamless) close my lid, and the netbook switches from LCD display to e-paper. At the same time, the netbook goes in to low-power/e-reader mode. Now I get _all_ the benefits that the Kindle (or any other e-reader) currently offers, but suffer from none of the multi-tasking anemic drawbacks of a dedicated e-reader.