E-Books: An All-Time Top Flop Technology

Computerworld yesterday nominated 21 failed technologies for reader voting for biggest all-time technology flop. The article by David Haskin is worth a read for amusement value, the rogue’s gallery includes all the obvious suspects: Newton, DAT tape, DIVX, Flooz, Microsoft Bob, IBM OS/2 and PC Jr. and… of course… e-Books. I doubt e-Books will win top “honors”, but I think the description in the article is relatively fair (albeit a bit hard on the Sony Reader):

E-book readers started being sold about 10 years ago and are still being developed. The most recent entrant into the market is the Sony Reader. But they’re still a flop.
The idea is attractive because, theoretically, e-book technology allows you to load many books and periodicals on a reasonably small handheld device, making it easier to travel with lots of reading matter. Also, e-books are easily searchable, another huge advantage over paper books.
However, e-books are much in need of standardization. Specifically, the number of potential formats for e-books remains huge — the Wikipedia entry for e-books lists more than 20 formats. It’s not pleasant to contemplate buying an e-reader and then finding out that a book or periodical you want is available only in an incompatible format.
Furthermore, the devices themselves just aren’t good enough yet. Some folks find them unwieldy; others say they’re difficult to use. And for many people, there’s just no replacing the old-fashioned, reassuring feel of paper.

To me the real punch line of this article is that almost every listed flop has subsequently given rise to major technology successes. DAT tape paved the way for CDs, Newton for PDAs/smartphones, even the PC Jr. arguably was a forerunner, at least conceptually, of the very successful iMac. The paperless office hasn’t exactly come to pass, but I sure get a lot less inter-office mail, and I print way less than I used to.
As far as the sucessor to e-Book failures: a large-scale digital publishing market is inevitable and it’s starting to happen. Yes devices need to get better: they are. Yes, we need format standardization: it’s happening. And (sigh) yes, many people will never want to replace the “old-fashioned reassuring feel of paper”!
But habituated bookophiles are getting older and a digital-centric generation is coming up. And globally there are billions of people who have no practical way to get books: I can’t imagine the feel of paper being very reassuring if you have to share one outdated textbook with 10 other students. And many people like the reassuring feel of a V-8 engine in a full-size SUV too, but that’s fundamentally an elitist perspective: irrelevant for most of humanity, arguably irresponsible for the rest. I love books, and don’t want or expect paper to go away entirely, but I won’t have any regrets if we achieve a world in which access to all the world’s content is instantly available on a global basis, without killing trees, burning diesel, or building warehouses. Especially if authors and publishers are making more money, because more premium content is being consumed, by more readers.
(thanks to the indomitable Jon Ferraiolo for the tip).

3 Responses to E-Books: An All-Time Top Flop Technology

  1. keith says:

    I’ll agree with you on this one. The public library has such books available to check out. But the ebook format is cumbersome to view & quite clunky to use. I’m all for saving paper & resources, but I just wasn’t able to make an ebook work for me. Adobe has one in the works too, but same issues… The UI looks nice but…

  2. Martin says:

    Books with paper will never go away. But ebooks will definitely increase in their numbers.
    Books have been around for centuries, they’re not going to go away in our lifetime.
    Paper books don’t strain the eye and they don’t emit particles at your eyes, and they still work when the power go out.
    As you mentioned, books don’t suffer from incompatibility or DRM.
    TV didn’t kill the radio, movies didn’t kill TV, VHS or DVD didn’t kill movies, and neither will ebooks kill old books.
    But you are right that ebooks need a standard, and I do believe they will increase in number and am looking forward to reading on my laptop, cell phone or other device. But I for am one of those that does like paper. (Yes…sigh…)
    Oh, and one last one, I can read a book at the beach and I don’t care if I get sand in it or gets wet. But I have lost a cell phone to salt water….

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