It started with Sony. Like most poorly thought-out format ideas from the Japanese titan, 2004's Librie ereader promised a revolutionary new way to perform an act you never realised needed an overhaul. Reading.
Books, in the paper and ink form, have been around for over a thousand years. You can bet your prized copy of Cloud Computing For Dummies that when the first book, the Diamond Sutra, was finished, those still chipping their chisels into stone, or carving papyrus downed their tools and said something along the lines of "thank the lord, reading's become even easier now!" It was a much-needed change, unlike the electronic books manufacturers like Sony and Amazon have been trying to flog.
A few ereaders existed before Sony swaggered onto the playing field, but it wasn't until 2004's DRM-riddled Librie (upon hearing of the Librie, Boing Boing's ever-militant Mark Frauenfelder exclaimed "This self-destruct feature is sickening. Who would buy a Librie with this deadly defect built in?") that they came into prominence, much like a curried egg sandwich on a humid day. In a rainforest. In Indonesia. With a placard saying ‘SMELL ME' and a marketing budget backing it up the size of, well, Sony's.
A handful of people since then have invested the amount they could've spent on a couple of phones on one of these devices, but that's not the last time they've had to dig deep in their pockets, ignoring the loose change they'd normally spend on a paperback, searching instead for their credit card or Amazon gift vouchers.
With ebooks costing between $US10 - $US15, you're forced into continually feeding your Kindle/Reader/Nook/Other-warm-and-nurturing-sounding-device with cash, and as the ereaders are so physically large you also need to invest in a manbag just to avoid being mugged. Did we say mugged? We meant "laughed at." There's a reason why you don't see people using them on public transport.
They're impractical and expensive. It's such a Sony trait, to reinvent the wheel when the current model is still going ‘round perfectly. While Blu-ray may've eclipsed the deceased HD DVD (RIP), barely anyone uses an SACD player anymore (disclosure: except, err, me. But only with one album – Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms. Cough.) Even less people than that still use Betamax and MiniDisc. They, like the ereader, are futile exercises in trying to create a market for something that has little demand.
That's the crux of my argument. Any company that attempts to own market share in that area is fighting a losing battle. Consumers won't buy an electronic book when they can get a paperback for the same price or even less, and when they can lend it to friends, read it in the bathtub or even sell it on and make a percentage of their money back.
Our grandchildren won't be housing first edition ebook copies of War and Peace in an antiquated Kindle, passed down from generation to generation. There's no opportunity to get sentimental over an e-book, and when it comes to works of fiction and non, which have had thousands of man-hours injected into them, surely that's the reason people read them? To escape for a few hours turning some pages, and then eventually handing it to a friend with a glowing recommendation to read it from cover to cover?
Instead, we're now encouraged to send links to one another or rely on Amazon to recommend titles, and to poke a button to turn the pages. I imagine the writer of Diamond Sutra never would've put up with e-ink page lag, nor been too impressed with having to charge the device after only a few days' worth of pressing a button repeatedly, trying to turn the bloody page.
I have no beef with reading ebooks on a mobile phone or tablet, however.
During September of this year, there were more ebooks added to Apple's App Store than there were games, according to San Francisco-based analysts Flurry. There's an obvious advantage to reading an ebook on an iPhone, as chances are you already own one. You don't have to fork out several hundred dollars on a new device that just displays lines of e-ink. iPhones are devices which serve more than one purpose, and while some ereaders allow for music playback and even gaming, you'd never buy one just to play MP3s on.
Same story with tablets—whether you've got an Archos, ASUS or a secret Apple tablet no-one knows about. Provided the cost of the ebooks doesn't outweigh the cost of a paperback, it's an extra bonus for anyone who owns one of these multi-purpose devices.
Not even the comments of Nintendo President Satoru Iwata bothered me, when he told the Financial Times that they're considering equipping the next version of the DSi with 3G connectivity to download ebooks on. At its heart, any Nintendo product will always be bought for gaming, and if it offers other features such as ebooks, then that's a nice extra. But it won't be bought for the ability to read books on.
While analysts Forrester Research claim that 3 million e-readers will be sold in the US during 2009, it seems even Amazon and Barnes & Noble aren't too confident of the lasting power of their devices. Both companies have launched apps for the iPhone, which give close to 40m users access to hundreds of thousands of books on devices they already owned. Is this a case of Amazon and Barnes & Noble shooting themselves in the foot, or safeguarding themselves over what they know will be a short-lived industry? My money's on the latter, but tell me your thoughts.