In hand

This week Amazon in the US announced that its sales of ebooks had overtaken hardbacks (and hardback sales were also up). In a parallel universe Japanese manufacturer Sharp jumped on the iPad bandwagon announcing its intention to launch a colour tablet of its own.

What kind of turning point is this? The success of the iPad raises questions about how many electronic devices people are prepared to carry, and the problem for established ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle is that they only really do one thing. Amazon’s recent success with ebooks probably reflects the fact that the firm has slashed Kindle prices. This might suggest that if the price is right perhaps people will be happy to have a separate device for more extended reading, or it might just be that there’s a big enough niche for the Kindle to be profitable, without taking over the world. 

On the other hand the iPad seems to have shown that there’s much more of an appetite for a multifunction multimedia device which you can also use as kind of notebook. Laptop and phone manufacturers (like Sharp) are now queuing up to launch their own versions.

It’s difficult to tell at this point whether the success of the iPad will habituate the market to reading books on screen, or whether it could actually slow the demise of print. The basic truth remains that the iPad and all prospective competitors use pretty much the same screen technology as a conventional laptop. Screen glare can make these devices tiring to read over time and completely illegible in bright sunlight. These are the disadvantages that drove the development of e-ink devices like the Kindle.

All the same it may be that the iPad offers a “good enough” reading experience, good enough that is to scupper the medium-term chances of e-ink. The irony is that for ordinary people undazzled by the geeky prowess of the iPad, this might well prolong the life of printed books (because they will still be better than reading on the screen).    

There’s another issue. It’s been said that dedicated ebook readers work because you can get lost in them in much the same way you can a book. With a multifunction device on the other hand there’s always the present distraction of other things just a finger gesture away. They become part of our fast food media culture, feeding our restlessness, impatience, and gratifying a state of permanent superficiality.

We’re told then to get excited about the prospect of multimedia texts, where the words can be augmented by moving images and sound. But this seems to me a solution looking for a problem. There’s nothing very new about putting words and sounds together (they’re called songs) or words and moving images (it’s called film, or even theatre).  I can see that mixing these things on a “page” could offer scope for new creative experiences, but they are likely to be less revolutionary than our technologists suggest.

Instead of the smoke clearing then, it’s just thickened. I don’t imagine the iPad hegemony will last long: in fact I’d bet that Steve Jobs’ new empire is about to go the same way as his old, with his insistence on a closed system opening the door for Android-based devices (just as Microsoft achieved world dominance with Windows while the Apple Mac became a niche product).  But in this brave new world of mostly-connected devices with limited functionality the fate of the dedicated ebook reader seems in the balance. Certainly I won’t be buying one in a hurry. I could be tempted by a better smartphone, probably running on Android, offering me calls, email, internet access and the chance to listen to music from time to time. I might even read short texts on it, and use it for note taking. I’ll carry on using my netbook or a laptop for proper work on the move. But for now, if I want to read a book, I’ll read a book, and wait for the technology to catch up (or go further).

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