Wednesday, January 27, 2010
There’s a lot of buzz about eBook readers these days. From Sony’s offerings, Amazon’s Kindle and B&N’s new Nook, it seems almost inevitable that they will be the future of books. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, says that the Kindle will be the ’ipod for books‘, and so it seems a great majority of the technology press do to. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and thought I’d try examine it in a bit more depth.
I’m an Interaction Designer. Robert Fabricant of Frog Design says that for Interaction Designes, “behaviour is our medium”, we’re trained to look at the behaviours people exhibit and the motivations behind them. I thought it would be interesting to do a critical analysis of the Kindle (and eBook readers as a whole), to see how they differ from the iPod and how people’s behavious of books differs from their usage of music. From there, we can attempt to evaluate the potential for eBook readers and find out if they truly are the iPod for books.
Let’s take a look at the experience of listening to music. Particularly how you listen to music on the go. People listen to music while travelling and commuting. From buses, trains and planes, it’s one of the most common scenarios people use their iPods and MP3 players. Now, let’s compare the experience of listening to an iPod, to that of a portable CD player. While the iPod offers a different interface to accessing your music and getting it to play, once you’ve starting playing an album, the end experience is the same. You sit back, relax and enjoy the music.
The experience of reading an eBook however, is different. Through the entire time you’re reading the book you’re having a considerably different experience. The text is different, the page turning is different, the natural affordances are different. You buy a book differently, but you’re also reading a book differently. Heck, the Kindle has a keyboard on it for god’s sake.
Listening to a record/cd : Listening to digital music = different interfaces, same listening experience
Reading an analog book : Reading a eBook = different interface and different reading experience.
There’s another fundamental difference in how much we consume music and books that seemed to be ignored by eBook promoters. Let’s just ask a simple question.
How many times have you read your favourite book?
How many times have you listened to your favourite album?
Even being generous, you’re talking about 10 times, for the book, but it could easily into three figures for an album. People consumer vastly more music that books.
eBooks readers and mp3 players are expensive, costing a few hundred euro. It’s not a small investment for someone to make. With an mp3 player, the offering is for you to have your entire music collection with you at all times. That’s an amazing thing to offer someone and something many people will pay for. It’s a proven model.
What’s an eBook reader’s offering? To have your entire library with you at any time? It’s not hard to see a problem there. Most people take a few days or weeks to read a book, whereas you could listen to 10s or 100s of albums over the same duration. Additionally, people don’t re-read books much compared to music. Finally, a book has a very low value, only about €10, so reading it on a beach, throwing it in a bag, leaving it around are all very natural. Worrying that you’ll get sand into an expensive Kindle is an added hassle with very little benefit.
What’s the payoff with eBook readers? With an iPod, it’s having your entire music collection with you at all times, and you can consume media on the go as if you were beside your entire music collection.
With the kindle, sure you get the space saving, but since you don’t have any desire to carry 100s of books with you I’m not sure why it’s useful except for a niche of people.
With the iPod, you can also import your entire music collection, and if you so wish, you can still buy CDs and import them, having both digital and physical versions.
With the Kindle, you’re paying for the privilege of only being able to buy digital books and you’re starting from scratch. The Kindle US price is $269 for the basic model. If you bought a normal book at an average price of $12, then you could one a month for almost 2 years before even covering the basic cost of the Kindle device itself. That’s a terrible payoff.
The future for eReaders
So, I do think there is a future for eReaders, but as they stand now they’re really just a novelty gadget and niche market. They’re not hitting enough of people’s core reading needs in order to jump to the mass market like MP3 players or digital cameras. People simply don’t consume books in the same way. That’s an underlying assumption that is not being questioned. eReaders are a around because people are trying to copy the technical aspects of the iPod and ignoring people’s real behaviours. You can’t think of a product just as a device, but how it’s a platform for content that fits into people’s lives.
It’s not about books, it’s about reading
So, there’s no point ending and article without a prediction. What do I think the future for eReaders is? I think the future is not about books, it’s actually about reading. This is going to prove a difficult issue for both the Kindle and the Nook, because Amazon and Barnes & Noble are in the book business, not the reading business.
Let’s ask a simple question: What media do we consume with the same hunger as music?
The answer: newspapers, magazines and blogs.
An iPod for books is missing the point, we simply don’t read enough books. But these days, we’re reading more than ever. TV viewing is going down for the first time in hostory as people spend more time reading online.
The future is in newspapers, magazines, and also blogs. Reading them on a laptop screen is tolerable, but it’s not ideal. It doesn’t compare well with starting a sunday morning with breakfast and a newspaper. It’s not really the same if you’re read the news on your laptop, it’s ugly, it’s not ergonomic, and it’s anti-social. We do it because it’s such a great distribution channel. Some eReaders have made some token efforts in this regard, but the experience is very poor. If eReaders are to really take off they need to shift the focus completely away from books as a primary source of content and look at things like newspapers and magazines and offer a really great experience of it.
My litmus test
My litmus test, for the mass success of a device like this is the Sunday morning. If you can sit at a table on a Sunday morning with a juice or a coffee, relaxing reading the news while your kids run around you, then you’ll have a platform for reading digital content. If you can then pass that device to your partner or children for them to read their content, then you’ll see an iPod for reading, and that will have some real potential.
What are your thoughts?