What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

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.

Evolution or revolution?

Covering the Sydney Writers’ Festival for this blog exposed me to many of the buzzwords that publishers and ebook proselytisers use to talk about the digitisation of the publishing industry. Among their favourites is the ‘digital revolution’. At last Thursday’s ‘Are Australian Publishers E-Ready?‘ panel, Sara Lloyd, Pan Macmillan UK’s digital maven, said that this ‘revolution’ was more of an ‘evolution’. Another buzzword? Or is there some sense to this rhetorical wrangling?

I’ve always found that the word ‘revolution’ verges on the hysterical when applied to digitisation. A revolution implies that a statistically small group of people are pushing the market towards digitisation before it is ready. In this picture, the only entity I can think of that would fulfil this role is Amazon. But I don’t think I can honestly say that Amazon alone revolutionised the digitisation of books. Amazon, Google and Apple, respectively, are going to be heavily involved in the future of ebooks, but none of them have exactly been on the raggedy edge of ebook adoption. I know people who were reading ebooks on their Palm Pilots in 1996.

Realistically, the digitisation of books has been going on for decades. Publishers faced a massive shift more than ten years ago when they turned the whole publishing process – which had been painfully manual – into a digital one. They didn’t do it because they were trying to revolutionise anything – they did it because it was cheaper, easier, more efficient and less prone to errors. Amazon, it could be argued, is helping to usher in the retail digital book age for the same reasons.

This scrutiny on the words used by the industry might seem pointless. But it isn’t. By talking about a ‘revolution’, pundits would have us believe that some maverick company or person is heroically changing the world around them. But they’re not. ‘Revolutionary’ isn’t a synonym for ‘new’. We already have a word for ‘new’ – it’s ‘new’. Revolutions are bloody scary things, and when we talk about ‘revolutionising books’, you’re bound to get a whole bunch of grumpy old people and anachronistic indie kids flailing their moleskines at us and harping on about the smell of books. An evolution, on the other hand, implies a gradual change that responds organically to the environment. It’s messy, and it tends to create eyeballs in weird places. That seems far closer to what we’re dealing with when it comes to ebooks. Except for the eyeballs thing.

An evolution also takes into account the years of preparation the industry has been going through to get to this point. Some bloggers and pundits are railing at the trade, publishers in particular, due to how slow they are perceived to be responding to this ‘revolution’. But the fact of the matter is, publishers have been preparing for years. And ebooks still only account for about one per cent of the industry in Australia – forecast to reach only 10-20% in the next ten years. So let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. The revolution isn’t coming. Don’t let rabid early adopters convince you that the sky is falling in.