Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sony strikes out again

A while back, I mentioned that Sony was putting out a gadget they hoped would be the iPod for books - the original device was called the Librie. That version sucked and was overpriced, and so Sony has responded by releasing a new version which is less-egregiously overpriced, but has the added feature of sucking more!
The Reader works well for plain-old, front-to-back reading. As long as you don't do a lot of flipping back and forth, the device won't let you down. But it doesn't have a search function, nor will your book's index or table of contents be hyperlinked to the pages they reference. So, ironically, it's significantly easier to find information in a paper book than in its digital equivalent. Sony's e-content is also read-only: You can bookmark a page, but you can't add marginalia. In this way, at least, the Reader is a step backward—its Japanese predecessor, the LibriĆ©, did allow annotations.
Way to go, Sony. Douchebags, all of you.

The Slate article makes it clear that what Sony is trying to do is not actually serve a consumer market, but try and build a vertically-integrated book industry to exceed Apple's vertically-integrated music industry. (As with all things, Sony will be worse: Sony not only wants to operate the book-equivalent of iTunes and sell the equivalent of iPods, but Sony also owns publishing houses in Japan and around the world. Apple does not own music labels, yet.)

What every business history of the iPod seems to miss is quite simple: The MP3 predated the iPod by almost a decade. I was downloading MP3s before I had broadband, which is basically in the mists of prehistory at this point. (Seriously, try to download a 5meg MP3 at 1-2k/s these days. It's excruciating.) People had been ripping and downloading MP3s for some time, were familiar with the format, and (crucially) had huge libraries of music on their computers. The iPod was not the first Mp3 player on the market (far from it.) Nor have iPods ever been the best from a technical standpoint. Rather, Apple built the iPod industry on two pillars. The first was incredibly slick marketing. The second was the intrinsic appeal for music nerds of carrying your entire music collection around in something smaller than a conventional CD player.

But portability was (chronologically) the last reason people adopted the MP3 as a useful music format. Rather, people adopted the MP3 first because it was the format of piracy and thus presented a free "alternative" to overpriced CDs. (The dramatic decline in CD prices since 2000 can be traced to the growth of file-sharing and anti-trust lawsuits against major music labels.) Pirates adopted the MP3 format first because it was "free as in beer" - the people who'd invented the format weren't charging for it yet. As the market became familiar with the usefulness of the format, you could use the CD burner most PCs had by 2000 (and all new Macs by 2001-2002) to "Rip, Mix, and Burn" the MP3s you had in to new CDs. It was only after a lot of people had huge libraries of music on their PCs that there was any reason at all to even consider buying an iPod.

Nobody (or almost nobody) has huge stocks of e-books on their computer. Furthermore, while the Internet has plenty of open formats to deal with text, Sony seems intent on locking up the software like they do with all things. So competitors immediately have at least one reason not to play along with Sony's game. Immediately, there's two fundamental differences between Sony's attempts here and the history of the iPod. The Slate reviewer gets this exactly right:
The conventional wisdom holds that other e-book platforms have failed for two reasons: Their display and battery technology weren't good enough, and there wasn't enough content available. E Ink is supposed to be the solution to the first problem, and an iTunes-like store—such as Connect—is supposed to solve the latter. But this view is too narrow. Sony is stopping at books, when it should be making a device that allows people to curl up with all of the written content that's currently stuck in their computer, as well. The Web has proved that dictionaries are more useful as searchable databases, and Wikipedia shows that "books" can be dynamic and editable. Hypertext online novels are a reality. Google is in the process of digitizing and indexing millions of books. Soon, reading a chapter of a book will no more depend on owning it than reading an individual article requires you to trek to the newsstand.
Some things I would suggest for future e-book manufacturers. First off - get the publishing industry to agree to an industry-wide standard (free or not-free, it doesn't matter, we just don't need more standard wars.) Secondly, get an agreement with them to ship every new dead-tree book with a CD of the digital version. This would add maybe 50 cents to the cost of every book, and the publishers could afford to eat it if necessary. But this would also get rid of the chicken-and-egg problem. People still buy CDs because they like to own the discs, but listen to the MP3s for the convenience. Offer book buyers the same convenience.

(As a matter of law, this should count as selling two books, not one. Customers who only want the paper version should be able to give away the disc without sanction. Similarly, buyers and users of the digital versions should be able to read their digital books with exactly the same license agreements they agree to with paper books: none at all.)

Incidentally, this would also give book buyers a reason not to wait for the paperback. (You can tuck a CD inside a hardcover unobtrusively. Not so with small paperbacks.) If publishers wanted to get really creative, they could start packing the discs with bonus features like DVDs do now. Suddenly, the booklovers among us have a real incentive to put down the $45 the publishers want from us.

One killer problem is still how people with huge libraries get their existing books on to the reader. The only answer I have is severe discounts for older books - if I can get a 2000-era movie for $5-10, it doesn't seem unreasonable for a publishing house to sell a digital-only version of a pre-2000 book for $1. An additional service would be to let people custom-order a CD or DVD full of books on the web and send it to them in the mail.

Baen, an excellent science-fiction publisher, already sells some hardcovers packed not just with the book you buy, but with a CD filled with extras too. If you bought the latest Honor Harrington book by David Weber when it came out, you could get the entire rest of the series (and much more) in RTF, DOC, or HTML - all industry-wide standards. Baen obviously sees this as a successful business strategy, even though none of the books come with copyright protection. I expect that the rest of the publishing industry will not decide to go Baen's route, which is a shame. There's no (as in zero, none, zilch, nada) evidence the various DRM schemes used by Apple and other vendors actually work in controlling piracy, and plenty of reason to not use them because of that.

A lot of people assume that books will never be ported over to digital media, for a variety of reasons I would describe as "atmospheric". That is, people like the feel of a bound volume, or people like the look of text on a page, as opposed to a screen. Some of these will be answered by technology, but many never will. I don't believe that we'll ever have 100% adoption of digital text over paper for that reason. But I do think - eventually - someone will design an iPod for text that people will want to buy. Either that, or the OLPC project will find a new market in the west. (That kills me, btw: Sony wants to charge 3.5x for a less-functional device than MIT's $100 laptop.)

What people won't do is trade the quality, convenience, and ease-of-use of the modern printed book for something that offers less quality, less convenience, and less ease-of-use all at a much higher price. Therefore, I conclude Sony will never make the device that surpasses books, ever.

1 comment:

North of 49 said...

Yep. I had a look at in online, and just from the picture alone it isn't purchase-worthy. Too fat width-wise, and looks awkward to hold compared to a paperback.

Worst thing, though, (wait, two worst things), are the controls on the rim and the smallish single-page size of the reading screen.

Sony, who holds a paperback so they can only read it one page at a time? And why not use touchscreen technology to turn the pages, so it's more like a real book?

Seems to me that the design that captures this market will start by observing how people actually hold and read paperbacks, and implement accordingly. Why not a paper-back sized (that'd be about 6.9" by 4.1", Sony, not 4.9") unit with a leather or cloth outer cover that butterflies open into a two-page display? Most people are used to reading two pages at a time, since that's how a book opens normally.

Thickness isn't a huge issue since you'll only be holding half the thickness of the "book" when it's open, whether you use one hand or two, so there's no need to strive for ultra-thinness. Even an inch-thick (when closed) model could work.

Add touch-screen capability to turn the pages, at the very least. (Touch the top-right corner, page turns, just as if it's a real book. Touch top left, page turns back.) If the maker wants to get cool, they could incorporate some kind of "riffle" control along the edge.

Searchable text is essential. Links from the ToC to the chapters is essential -- and ought to be touch-screen. Highlighting... touch-screen highlighting, just drag your finger, gotta have it if you ever hope to sell textbooks. Ditto annotation. Voice-recognition would be nice for that.

A lifetime of reading science fiction can be a curse. Every new gadget that comes out? Too often I say "What took you so long?" and "Is that the best you can do?" (After taking so freaking long.) Come back when you've got it to the point Buck Rogers wouldn't sneer at it.

This looks like another one.