Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If at first you don't succeed...

Now Amazon has decided that they want to jump into the non-market that is e-book and introduce their own e-book reader. Back in the 90's, everyone was sure that people would dump their paper books in droves and adopt the new e-book model. Hey, it takes up less space, has a horrible screen, requires batteries, and costs every bit as much to buy an e-book as it costs to buy a hardback. What was not to like?

Fast forward to today. Out of all the online versions of our beloved media, books are the ones that have gained the least traction. Periodicals are increasingly found online these days. Music is dead in stores not named Wal-Mart or Target. Movies are heading down the same path. Yet there are still free standing bookstores all over the country. Many of them rely as much on their coffee sales as they do on their books, but it's not like people are abandoning the format like they are with CDs.

On the e-book front, Sony has about the only serviceable e-book reader. It has solved most of the battery and poor screen issues but it still isn't gaining traction thanks to a pretty hefty price tag. Now Amazon thinks it can make some inroads by promoting their own $400 e-book reader. It doesn't have the polish of Sony's reader but it does have free wireless access to buy and download books through Amazon. How nice of them. They're saying best sellers and new releases would run about $9.99. They neglect to mention how much older and/or more obscure books would go for.

The Amazon and Sony models still fall very short of being as ubiquitous as the average book. You still have to turn it off on the plane (where I do quite a bit of reading). You still have to change batteries every now and then. You still can't fit it in your pocket nearly as easily as a paperback. Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos claims "Amazon designed Kindle with the e-book's strengths in mind," but that hardly looks to be the case. I'm about 5 minutes away from a bookstore that will sell me any best seller I want for $10-$15. Where can I find out of print stuff? Can I get textbooks in e-book format? Given their weight and availability, that would be a good use of the e-book. Can I get some logic puzzles and crosswords? Oh yeah, and can I get it for $50? As long as e-book readers cost in the hundreds of dollars, I'm just going to spend the money on more books. I think e-books are on the verge of being worthwhile, but they're not going to beat paper at its own game and despite claims to the contrary, e-books are not finding very inventive ways to combat paper on its own terms.

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