21 September 2009

The Kindle, Books, and Record Albums

Scott, who has previously wondered why people would waste money on a Kindle DX, is now singing the praises of books rather than soulless electronics. After reading it, I recognized an argument I'd heard before.

You see, once upon a time there were these sound playback devices called "record albums." Those of you younger than 30 may never have seen one of these. They were discs with several songs scratched onto them which were played by putting a needle on the disc while it rotated. They also came with album covers which provided protection and art. Records were first challenged by 8-tracks, which allowed ease in choosing which included song listened to and were less vulnerable to damage. Then came cassette tapes, which were easier to carry, less vulnerable to damage, and allowed listeners to record their own music. Then came compact discs which offered more space for songs in a smaller format with the ability to easily choose a track and sounded almost as good as records. These killed records. In turn, they are now in the process of being killed by mp3's.

Your record collection told people who you were. People would browse through your collection and you'd even set your most impressive albums (in their covers) out for people to see. If you had the original White Album people would be jealous. If you had a cutting edge comedian like Bob Newhart you showed you were hip. Yet, despite the resistance of music companies and the howls from audiophiles, it all passed because new technologies just provided too much of an advantage to users.

Mass printed books have been around for about 550 years. They aren't about to disappear overnight. However, we've already passed the point where records were when 8-tracks came into existence. Devices such as Palm PDA's and Apple's iPhone have provided ebook reading experiences which are convenient, but neither practical or satisfying because of their size. Reading on a regular computer ties you to a desk or a slightly less inconvenient portable computer. Tablet computers seemed to be the solution, but they have never gotten light enough nor achieved sufficient battery life (I don't know about ya'll, but I can read for more than a couple hours at a sitting). Additionally, unlike ereaders, reading from a computer screen tends to tire the eyes much more than reading from paper.

Nevertheless, publishers are almost all coming around to offering ebooks. A very incomplete list would include firms such as Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Baen. They're not going there because they want to; they are providing ebooks because they've seen the future.

Ebooks are the future. As they stand now they are just short of the slot cassette tapes filled in competition with records. Their practicality and convenience isn't quite to the place that it can replace books completely, but the primary reason that they haven't made huge inroads yet is that the companies selling them are charging too much. Thus they remain an item restricted to those with large amounts of disposable income.

Mind you, I don't think that ereaders will completely drive all books from the field. For professionals and students something like a Kindle DX with an ability to write notes on and save (as though writing in the margins of a text book or taking notes in a case file) should become somewhat normative. Just imagine having all your case files in an ereader with you when the judge or another attorney or your client finds you in the courthouse and starts asking you about some case a month down the road; 10 seconds later you're looking at the file and can answer secure in the knowledge that you're not confusing the Smith case with the Smyth case. Newspapers and magazines are hopeful about this format, but I think this is something of a pipe dream because for a large ereader to be the format used for daily, weekly, or even monthly publications it would have to be cheaper than the smaller ereaders and I just don't see that happening.

On the other hand, low end, smaller ereaders will probably take the place of paperback books. To be honest, if the companies can get us all switched to ebooks rather than paperbacks they can sell the book for less and make more profit. Let's face it, they are currently selling us ebooks which they print out in order to sell them to us. If they can cut out the costs of paper, ink, and the brick&mortar's share of the sale, profit will be almost 100%.

Yet, I believe that books will remain. For one thing, people don't really buy hardback books to read. They buy hardback books because they want to save them, display them, impress others with them. The hardback books you buy and put on display are more important as signalers. They lend atmosphere and let people know who you are (at least who you want them to think you are). For another, ereaders will always be too expensive for some. My thoughts are that the small ereaders need to be under $100 and the large ones need to be somewhere under $250 if they are going to draw customers below the upper middle class. They'll probably also have to improve their graphics to the point that People magazine, etc. could be displayed in full color. Even then, there will be those who cannot afford them. For them some sort of books, newspapers, and magazines will remain. I hope.

Of course, none of this is going to happen tomorrow, or even next week. This is something which will happen in the fullness of time. I look for universities requiring their students to have ereaders to buy and load text books on, as the probable major sign that ereaders have taken the lead over mass market books and I've yet to hear of any doing this so far. I think we may see it in the next ten years.

As for me? Well, I don't own an ereader yet. If I had the money I'd probably be eyeing the Sony ereaders (particularly the PRS_900BC due in December). I want one, but the price point just isn't reasonable enough yet for me to rationalize that I'll save (in the long run) by purchasing an ereader so I can populate it with ebooks which cost less than the books I'd buy otherwise.

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