Like most gadget lovers I dream of the perfect digital reading device. In my dreams this device is pretty much identical to the interactive book in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Unfortunately, the technology behind Stephenson’s nano-tech powered ereader is still decades away. In the meantime, we’re stuck with a motley assortment of devices that attack the challenge of reading digital content from a variety of different angles. From dedicated eInk readers like the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle, to PDA’s, and multi-purpose mobile computing devices like the iPhone. None are anywhere close to perfect, but they’re all we have for the time being.
Knowing full well that I’m not about to find the “ultimate” ebook reader anytime soon, I spent a bit of time this summer evaluating the merits of two very different devices: the iPhone and the Kindle.
While comparing the reading experience on both of these devices was an interesting exercise, I found that the relative strengths and weaknesses of each product lead me to consider bigger questions about the future of ebooks and digital content.
Reading Shouldn’t Give You Writer’s Cramp
Most reviews of ebook readers tend to focus on how suitable the device is for reading long form fiction. That makes perfect sense because avid readers have been the earliest adopters of ereader technology. The promise of trading a towering stack of books on the nightstand for a single slim ebook reader is a fantasy for many book lovers.
In order to evaluate the long form fiction reading experience on both the Kindle and iPhone, I concocted something I call the “Pynchon Test”. Thomas Pynchon’s novels tend to be rather long, and so this seemed to be as good a test as any.
The iPhone Fails the Pynchon Test: I should point out that the Pynchon test is completely hypothetical because there’s currently no (legal) way for me to load a Thomas Pynchon novel onto an iPhone. Regardless, I’m absolutely certain that I would never read Against the Day or Gravity’s Rainbow on an iPhone. The iPhone simply wasn’t made for reading long form fiction. Without question the ergonomics of the iPhone would prevent me from becoming immersed in the story long enough to get very far. The iPhone’s screen is still just a bit too small, and the current generation of iPhone reading software is quirky.
I am well aware that there are people who are perfectly happy reading novels on phones and PDA’s. I’m just not one of them.
But I’m not ruling the iPhone out as a viable ebook reader. With the right software it could be quite a good reader for short fiction and other types of books. In other words, the iPhone fails the Pynchon test, but it just might pass the George Saunders test.
The Kindle Fails the Pynchon Test: Unfortunately, the Pynchon Test is also hypothetical on the Kindle. At the time of this writing there are no Thomas Pynchon novels available in the Kindle store.
One of the Kindle’s more devious features is an EVDO wireless connection that allows users to buy a book from anywhere in the United States (sorry Canada, you’re out of luck). I consider this a devious feature because it’s entirely too easy to spend a small fortune on Kindle ebooks. Readers with poor impulse control will likely come to see the Kindle as something of a reverse ATM machine.
Amazon currently offers 170,000 titles in the Kindle store. While that may sound like a lot, it’s a small fraction of the number of print books available through Amazon. If you’re seriously thinking about buying a Kindle you might want to spend some time in the Kindle store to determine whether or not the available titles meet your reading needs. In fairness to Amazon, publishers seem to be getting on board with Kindle, so I would expect to see far more titles in the coming year or so.
Having said all this, I have to note that the Kindle is perfectly adequate for reading long form fiction — as it should be since that’s what it was designed for. The eInk display is comfortable on the eyes, the battery life is more than adequate, and the size of the device seems to strike the right balance between portability and legibility.
When Thomas Pynchon finally arrives in the Kindle store, I’ll happily read Pynchon on the Kindle.
I Love the Smell of Ebooks
Any discussion of ebooks and ebook readers will inevitably be derailed by book lovers who insists that they could never use an ebook reader because they “love the smell of books”.
What these book lovers really mean is that they love the smell of some books. That is to say, they love the smell of the Platonic ideal of the perfect novel. Trust me, these people do not love the smell of Principles of Microeconomics.
I raise this point because the vast majority of books printed and sold each year are non-fiction. In many ways, non-fiction books are ideal for ereading. No one really cares how they smell.
What surprises me is that even ebook proponents tend to assume that the perfect ereader will be used primarily to read novels, and, as a result, tend to judge ereaders with that criteria in mind.
While it’s natural that avid readers would be the first group of consumers attracted to ebook readers, it’s unfortunate that the discussion of the future of ebooks is often dominated by this one perspective.
While some doubt that ebooks will ever become mainstream, it’s fairly easy to see how a device like the iPhone might one day eliminate whole categories of print books.
Like travel guides, to name just one example.
The recently released Frommer iPhone travel guides provides a hint of what is possible when publishers intelligently migrate content from a traditional book format to a location-aware Internet connected device. The app seamlessly weaves travel content with Google maps and other Internet content. All the while the GPS capabilities of the phone allow travelers to see where they are at, and any points of interest that might be near.
With analysts predicting that there could over 50 million iPhones in use by the end of next year it’s not much of a stretch to predict that the days of printed travel guides are numbered.
By comparison, the current crop of Kindle travel guides are simply digital editions of print books. While that may be a convenience for travelers with limited luggage space, old-school ebooks simply can’t compete with guides like the Frommer iPhone app.
I can imagine plenty of other categories of books that would benefit from interactivity, mobile internet access, and an iPhone app-like treatment. Publishers who continue think of ebooks as a simple analog to digital conversion process are in for a big surprise.
The Evolution of Ebooks
“As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations.”
– Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid
For better or worse, most of us are doing less of the conventional reading the Kindle was designed for, and more of the online reading the iPhone was designed for. As we turn more to the web for the sort of content we used to get from books, our expectations for that content will change. Those changing expectations will undoubtedly have an impact on the development of future ereaders, not to mention future ebooks.
While it seems likely that ebooks as we know them (straight analog to digital conversion of print editions) will make up a segment of the future digital publishing market, they will likely be only one small part of that market. Expect new forms of digital publishing to emerge to take full advantage of the features of mobile internet devices like the iPhone.
From this perspective any attempt to compare the iPhone and the Kindle is pointless. Each device serves an entirely different reading need. The future of ereading is some combination of the two, and then some. In the next few years we can expect scores of new reading devices to hit the market, each serving a slightly different niche. Like this nifty e-Newspaper which looks like it has the potential to be a better news reader than either the iPhone or the Kindle.
At some point something close to the fantasy ereader from The Diamond Age may eventually come along. By the time that happens ebooks as we know them will likely be a thing of the past.