Has the focus on reading – and reading anything you want – been swept aside in order to make it easier to buy content? Until very recently, relatively speaking, e-reading was all about what digital text you could get your hands on. Most of it was free, out-of-copyright stuff from the web. Some of it came via longform journalism (also on the web). And some of it, yes, came from piracy. Although nowadays content can be purchased easily from multiple sources, I would argue the e-reading experience as a whole has not improved as much as Apple, Amazon, Google and their ilk would have us believe.
I first started reading ebooks and other digital content on a Palm Zire in 2003. It had a tiny screen, no wireless capabilities, and the only two stores you could buy content from were Mobipocket and eReader (both of which have since been bought out and absorbed by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively). At the time there were virtually no books available on these stores that I actually wanted to read, so my reading was heavily supplemented by free material from elsewhere. To add my own reading material, I had to convert the files manually, plug the device into my computer and transfer them across. Although wireless and screen technology are light years ahead of my old Palm Zire, the process of reading non-standard material has not really changed dramatically since then.
At the time I owned the Zire, I also had a first generation iPod, which seemed to me to be the most amazing piece of technology ever. Just plug it in and fill it up with music. Conversion and transfer was all handled through iTunes, which could also organise your music library and play your music for you when you were at your computer. People have had their share of complaints about iTunes, and I certainly have issues with it in its current incarnation, but to begin with it was an incredibly freeing experience. The iPod was portable digital music. To your iPod, the music you got from a CD (or free off the web) was no different to the stuff you could buy (much later) from iTunes itself.
So where was the iPod moment for e-reading? It has never come. Although the Kindle ecosystem has come the closest to recreating the ease of use of the iPod it’s still not there yet, and may never be. Primarily it is a device intended to be used with purchased content – and that content has to come from the Kindle store. Can you imagine if you were only able to load songs onto your iPod if you’d bought it from Apple first? The iPod would never have achieved such a dominant position with such a narrow focus.
Where is the device out there that puts the act of reading at the centre of the experience? Where is the device that doesn’t care where your text comes from, but just wants you to read? My list of demands is not unachievable. Completely wireless loading and conversion of any piece of text I’d like to read; a built-in dictionary; highlighting and annotation (and wireless export of these annotations); Bookmark syncing between devices; and, of course, the sharing of passages and annotations through social networks. Most of these features are available to readers if you buy your books through Amazon or Apple and only read on a Kindle or an iPad – but what about other content? Reading has never been just about blindly buying what’s served up to you in a store – it’s an organic, social experience. And none of the major reading platforms cater to that.
My ideal reading platform has not been created yet. All the major players are far more interested in locking you into the device they make and the content they provide than wanting you to have an ideal reading experience. But I suspect that when that platform comes along, there will be another iPod moment. And the way things are going I very much doubt it’s going to be Apple or Amazon.
What do you think? What do you want from your e-reader? Are you happy with what’s already out there? Or do you think I’m just being a giant early-adopting whiner? Sound off in the comments.