May 19th, 2014

Digital Plateau article and excellent comments thread at Dear Author

h/t to Nate at The Digital Reader

http://dearauthor.com/ebooks/first-digital-plateau/

The article is an excellent survey of the current landscape and makes really good points (growth is less impressive on a larger base; power buyers have mostly converted already) and a really odd assertion:

"There will be no transformative device again like the Kindle that spurs mass adoption."

I don't believe this. The iPod was a transformative device (boy and howdy), even tho it was introduced into what a lot of people at the time thought was a mature and plateaued market for digital music/mp3 players. The iPhone was a transformative device that was wildly under-predicted. I think a lot about how to predict the future, and I am a _huge_ believer in expecting More of the Same, but I can think of several technological developments which we can plausibly anticipate in the next 10-15 years that, should they come to pass, would add up to a transformative reading device leading to much greater adoption.

(1) A color experience that was as easy on the eyes as e-ink. The color experience on active screens continues to be wearing in a way that e-ink is not. You may feel free to quote studies at me about how they "really aren't". I'll roll my eyes and remind myself that I am a too smart a fish to bite at that bait. [ETA: There is individual variation. Not everyone feels the way I do.]

(2) A folding larger format device. Existing large format e-readers are awkward to carry around, but if you could fold one in half without breaking the screen, they'd be fantastic. The two screen monstrosities that have failed are Too Early Attempts at this; when we finally see it work, it'll be widely predicted to fail because all the other ones did already.

(3) Ubiquitous wi-fi. I keep running into smart, fit, socially active people who I think of as mid- to early boomers who have been running a computer at home and work forever, but are having trouble getting wi-fi set up in their house. Often, it is sufficiently troublesome to get it up and running that they have to hire someone to come in and Make It Work, and scheduling that requires simultaneously "giving up" on being able to DIY (with attendant shame), thinking to hire someone and then being able to identify a person to hire. Many of these people rely upon adult children and grandchildren to help out and those people get frustrated because wifi networks are frustrating, especially in large, multi-level houses where you need to have at least two networks up for coverage. If we could Fix Wi-Fi in houses, we'd sell a lot more devices that rely upon over the air data.

(4) A large chunk of the academic market for e-books is reluctant to switch over. If you could simultaneously allow re-size while retaining pagination (for citation purposes) (and deal with the problematic consequences of re-flow), AND you could solve the finger-in-the-end-notes problem (reading an academic work is best done with a finger where you are currently reading in the text AND a finger in the end notes to match and advancing both as you work through the book. Current bookmarks schema do not support this particular style preferentially; the general purpose bookmark is nice, but we need this kind, too), you could get academics to switch. I'm not sure if it is easier to switch kids and let them percolate up in age and bring their devices with them or to switch the academy and force it down. We'll probably do both.

Anyway. Returning to the Dear Author article (which is excellent), the comments thread has a lot of great anecdata: people who have switched, but whose heavy reading family is still book huffing/contemptuous of ebooks/book groping; people whose remaining pbooks are gifts because people don't feel like an ebook is a real gift (I really want this attitude to change! I love getting gift e-books). There's an odd remark about people being less likely to share ebooks than pbooks -- by a person sharing an ebook account. I've done that with a couple people now (m-in-law and sis; m-in-law decided she'd rather have her own acccount; sis is sharing and I hope she always will, because this sharing thing is _awesome_). Some readers feel like they don't own the book. People have trouble remembering to charge their device (this one! this one! WTF! Just stick 'em all on the charger as part of your bedtime routine. Do you people forget to brush your teeth, too? I'm sure they have a solid reason for this problem but I don't get it. My current theory is that they are falling asleep with the device on top of them.). More observations about aging eyes and kindles going together Very Well.

Many thanks to Jane Litte and all her readers/community for sharing such a thoughtful conversation with us, and thanks to Nate for pointing to it.