eBooks – why they got it all wrong

The idea of eBooks is an appealing one – being able to access any information immediately, electronically, just by typing a word or two into a search bar on a hand-held device. Flipping through reference books with a couple of key strokes, or as I used eBooks, being able to download the next book in a series in a heartbeat, seems ideal. That is, until you add in reality.

What file format are you going to read them on? Despite efforts to standardize eBook formats, most sites offer at least three, if not more, formats. Do you have the appropriate reader for the format you downloaded? Does your reader work? Or are you going to run into problems like Kassia Krozser talks about on Book Square, where companies are so intent on making their books invulnerable to pirates that they make them impossible to access?

Makers of the Kindle should have at least read reviews on Sony’s device before creating their own. If they did look at them, they only considered the positive ones telling them to jump feet first into the market – without making sure there was a market for them to land in.

One of the nicer critics mentions only these bad points:

– PDF viewing is a waste of time. I understand this is not Sony’s fault since most PDFs are not created to be ‘reflowed’ for a smaller screen. But I do blame Sony for implying it has any use in their marketing material.
– Word documents work OK, except I have tried quite a few that could not be viewed since the text wouldn’t get big enough.
– speaking of which, there isn’t enough control over text size. Just S,M,L. And a few Word docs I imported mysteriously didn’t offer the large option.
– The Connect store is OK to use your $50 gift certificate in, but selection is very limited. If Sony wants to make this th iPod of ebooks, it will have to address this quickly.
– The newsfeed feature is useless. One is limited to the dozen or so preconfigured in the Connect store, the user cannot add their own. And even the preconfigured ones are a waste of time since one has to hit the page button a dozen times just to get to the text (it looks like a crude import of the web pages, except links cannot be followed). And then hit page button a dozen more times to get to the next text block.
– If you want/need to switch pages with your right hand, you are out of luck. All the page advance controls are on the left hand side.

(reproduced from reviews.cnet.com by jbmartin6)

But I have also seen reviews discussing Sony’s lack of attempt at any visual appeal. Not to mention the very valid argument that its simply cheaper to buy a paperback then an ebook reader – and then the ebook.

Kindle is, although I didn’t think it possible, uglier then the Sony device, and its biggest improvement is the internet capabilities via Sprint.

Narsil, on http://gizmodo.com, just about sums up the problems with the Sony device when he posts:

1)Why is it better than paper?
2)Why buy a digital book that is copy protected when you can buy the paper version for hep and have it forever?
3)Why use a product that has none of the ruggedness of paper? (Books can be put under heavier books. Books survive falls and moisture. Books need not be charged up. Let’s see your product do that.)

It doesn’t seem to me that the Kindle addressed any of them. Before ebook readers are going to succeed – and I do believe they will succeed – makers are going to have to look at what reader’s want. They are going to have to find ways to make their readers better then a paperback book.

Some ideas? Well, first I would add lighting. A small light, allowing you to read in the dark seems to make sense to me, since e-ink isn’t back lit. You can’t read paperbacks in the dark. Allow one free book a month, or ebook reader book clubs that allow certain genre discounts.

Create a ‘tab’ feature, like mozilla firefox uses, so a reader can have open both a book, referencing a definition or doing research, while also having open a commentary their favorite blog has done on the book. Create something that is waterproof (wouldn’t that be better then paper?) or fire proof or both (no one said I had to be practical). Or, in the opposite direction GIVE it the ruggedness of paper, the feel of a book. Cover it like a hardcover novel; does it really need to feel like plastic? Use both sides of the device, so that a reader ‘opens’ it the way they do a book.

Sell a way to charge multiple batteries and switch between them if you need to (though I think that the number of page turns per charge is pretty impressive). Make extremely hard to damage; allow ‘post-its’ to be inserted into text, perhaps with a toggle to turn your comments on or off (so if you need to you can still see the un-commented on work).

Finally DONT LIMIT SHARING. It doesn’t stop those determined to do it anyway, and unlike music the ebook is not a product with a decisive following already. It is not just another step of technology. If it is going to sell and catch on, it needs to become better then the book; if ebook readers are going to catch they need to become better then reading on a laptop or PDA. Market to college or even high school kids. The device is lighter then carrying textbooks. I would probably also make it slightly larger, but still smaller then a laptop. Perhaps half the size of one. Allow infinite zooms on anything that goes on the device. Small text is tough to read even if it isn’t back lit and is portable, no one will want to read it.

Most important, ask average readers what they think. If you want a device that will be limited to top level professionals, make a device for that purpose. It probably wouldn’t take much work, most positive comments were from those who plan to use it professionally, but if you want a mass market universal device, design it with that market in mind.

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