eBooks: When, Not If

eBooks have been a bust so far: anemic consumer adoption and a miniscule total market. But recent signs that a second wave may be coming have reached the mainstream press. News that an Arizona school is eliminating textbooks in favor of iBooks hit ink this week (naturally, the story made enGadget over a month ago). Personally I think that that the overall trend away from traditional reading and towards electronic reading is already clear (how many people read blogs on paper?) and eBooks emergence as a significant market is a “when” not an “if”. When it is likely to happen, and what should Adobe do to help?
First, let me be frank: eBooks are a bit of a sore subject at Adobe right now. We and other SW vendors promoted and made substantial investments in eBook infrastructure during the initial hype wave. Although we succeed in establishing PDF as a leading eBook format, when a forecast $3B market for downloadable books by 2004 turned out to be less than 1% of that number, discouragement is perhaps not surprising. Meanwhile general adoption of PDF and Acrobat is going great guns, and we are seeing significant traction in the enterprise space. So why the heck would I be bullish on consumer eBooks?
Besides congenital optimism, one explanation is naivite: I didn’t participate in the first wave of eBooks, so I don’t have the associated scar tissue. But I’d like to think there’s a some substantive reasons to believe that eReading is growing, and that eBooks as a significant business will soon follow.
Most importantly, I believe that the initial failure of eBooks had much similarity to the initial failure of PDAs (Go, Newton, et. al.): devices simply haven’t provided a “good enough” user experience. One breakthrough device – the Palm Pilot – singlehandedly rehabilitated what had become considered a no-go segment. I believe that a breakthrough device is needed to catalyze electronic reading. Despite the name, iBooks are not by a long shot to reading as iPods have become to listening. I much prefer to print long documents vs. read them on my notebook computer. The breakthrough device could be a new class of PC – something like the much-rumored Apple Tablet , that busts out starting with college dorms and frequent-flying executives. It could come via reading on mobile phones – where some innovative solutions are starting to pop up. But my access to a Sony Librie has tipped me to the opinion that the breakthrough in adoption may well be sparked by a dedicated reading device. Librie, while clearly a first-generation effort, delivers a reading experience like no other electronic screen I’ve ever encountered. My spouse is a hardened techno-skeptic a few clicks away from being Waldorfian. She not only read whole books on it, but wanted to bring it to her “women’s book group” gathering (particularly notable since this group seems to do far more wine drinking than book reading).
The other reason is sheer economics. Paper-based book distribution is is costly and a drag on the environment (rumor has it the Chinese are pursuing eBooks because they’ve calculated that there aren’t enough trees in the world to supply adequate textbooks for every Chinese student). More importantly, the economic costs and constraints prevent businesses from adequately capturing the long tail . Does anyone really think that consumers, who are poisted to get online access to effectively every movie and music track ever made, will remain content with the limited book selection at their local mall’s chain bookstore? Some of this long-tail can be satified via print-on-demand – which may grease the wheels for truly electronic distribution, just as suppliers of film processing to digital pictures arguably catalyzed the transition underway to completely digital photography.
So how soon will all this happen, and what should Adobe do to promote eReading and eBooks? Hard questions. It’s obvious that there are things that we need to continue to work on: striving to make Reader a great end-user experience for immersive reading; increased support for electronic workflows and technologies like XML in our publishing tools. But I’m pretty sure we need to do more, and I welcome your suggestions.