Someday, we are all going to be reading books with some form of eBook reader. While some may doubt this prediction, let me explain why. And I hope, after you read what I have to say, that you just may agree with me.
First, let’s counter the prediction with an observation about reading books on current eBook readers: it’s not an enjoyable or “better” experience than reading a paper-bound book. Hence, that’s why very few people actually use eBook readers today.
Let me make another prediction: eBook readers are not going to be successful until they offer book lovers a better, more worthwhile and enjoyable reading experience than traditional paper-bound books do today. To be sure, all of this hinges on what providing a “better” experience actually means. While it’s easy to say eBook readers today do not provide a better user experience, it’s more difficult to describe what must be done in order to make the user experience “good enough” (so that most people reading a book would prefer an eBook reader than a paper-bound book).
It seems to me that someday, someone should be able to make an eBook reader that would be really slick–so cool that, emotionally, seeing this new eBook reader would be like seeing the iPhone for the first time. You’d feel as if it was really right and that you’d “have to” have one.
Here are 15 features that I believe eBook readers must have in order for most people to want to use one instead of reading a paper-bound book:
1. Correct size
The correct size for an eBook reader is larger than an iPhone and smaller than an ultraportable. It would likely have a 6-inch by 8-inch diagonal display and be very thin like the iPod touch. It’s got to be light and feel elegant in your hand.
2. Instant on/off
You have to be able to turn the eBook reader on and off instantly, without any “boot-up time” (other than perhaps when you buy it, plug in the batteries and turn it on for the first time). It’s an appliance, not a PC. It would likely be based on Linux and operate like TiVo.
3. Great (natural) user interface
Apple doesn’t need to distribute a user’s manual for the iPhone. You just pick it up, turn it on and it works the way you expect it to work. That’s the kind of UI that will be in our future eBook readers. Could it be based on the Apple iPhone operating system? Sure. But, most likely, it will be more of an open standard. And if I were betting, it would more likely be based on Android than the iPhone.
4. High-contrast, high-resolution, bright color display
This seems impossible today, but the iPhone display leads me to believe that this is possible. It would also need to work well indoors and out. The technology used in the rugged laptops from General Dynamics comes to mind as an example of this capability.
The current eBook reader displays that use eInk technology are just too slow. There’s way too much latency between displaying the characters and making changes. But, advances in technology will solve this over the coming years. It may take a breakthrough in display to get something that’s great to look at over extended periods, is bright and readable (both indoors and out), as well as “pliable” so that it can adapt to changing pressures as you walk around.
5. Random access
This is basic, but really important because it’s already one of the capabilities of most eBook readers: you can select a chapter or bookmark, and then jump instantly to that place in any of the eBooks in which you are reading.
Naturally, any eBook reader that people will enjoy using over time must be durable in order to last years–not just days or weeks.
With the price of flash storage dropping year after year, it’s reasonable to expect that a GB of flash will cost under a dollar before long. And, it would seem that 50GB would be adequate (5GB would be the minimum). It’s not the text that would be challenging but, instead, the multimedia such as audio, photos and videos.
8. Easy annotation
The basic form of annotation is the yellow highlighter that we’ve all used to highlight in textbooks while in school. Additional annotation is the writing we do in the margins and anywhere we want to over the text. This brings up a very big challenge: how to provide the right texture and feel that is like pen on paper but actually better? You would need to be able to select width and color of the line and, perhaps eventually, some electronic painting functions like filling a shape–but that’s likely to be a higher end feature.
9. Easy access to the dictionary and synonyms/antonyms
Again, this eBook reader capability would make reading an eBook “better” than a regular book today, because you can’t look up that interesting word in a paper-bound book. You want to be able to highlight a word and easily see the definition–most likely by simply tapping and holding the pen on top of the word.
10. Acceptable cost of device
I’m leaning more toward the cellular telephone and cable TV business model, where users pay a monthly fee and get the device (a set top box or phone) for little or no cost, as long as they sign up for a multiyear contract. Family plans will make this even more affordable. And schools may subscribe to educational eBooks and simply pay a monthly fee for each student.
While an educational computer may need a keyboard for composition writing, a consumer eBook reader certainly doesn’t. We’re talking something like $10 to $20 per month for a basic system and a lower number of books, and then perhaps something like $40 per month for a high-end system and access to more content.
11. Built-in wireless communications
This is one area in which the Amazon Kindle got it right: you turn it on, select books and they show up without you doing anything else. That’s the way future eBook readers will work. Plus, they’ll allow more content to arrive faster, much of it being delivered during the night when most wireless networks are unused.
Eventually, the future eBook reader will have multiple wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi and cellular, wireless wide area networking (that is, 3G and WiMax). This should be hidden so that users simply turn it on, order books and they show up in the device.
12. Acceptable business models
We have to get away from pricing books like their paper-bound relatives. The incremental cost to publish an eBook is zero. Authors need to get paid with perhaps some form of supply-and-demand adjustment to the monthly “all-you-can-eat” model.
You could, for example, give users a certain number of credits each month for their fee and let them choose how to spend them. The author and publisher of a popular book may adjust the credits required to buy their book (based on demand). And, a book may naturally decline in credits over time as its popularity wanes.
13. Broader distribution
Unlike the cell phone networks today, eBook reader networks should work on all networks–just like the Internet, so that subscribers can go into any distributor to get the book of their choice. The distributors need to have roaming-like credit transfers between distributors, just like how using a cell phone works today on any (GSM) network.
14. Integrated animation and video
This is where the future eBook reader achieves a dramatic advancement over current ones. Today, photos are expensive to reproduce on paper, but shouldn’t be expensive to include in eBooks. Thus, future authors can include their favorite photos or videos inside an eBook and have these become part of the book-reading experience, rather than separated in some special photo section that’s only in the center of the book. Sure, the Web can do this today, but it isn’t portable and isn’t designed to communicate a story in book form.
15. Acceptable digital rights management (DRM) and intellectual property protection
I fully understand and recognize that there’s a lot of digital content piracy, especially in music. But it seems to me that if we provide an open standard for eBook publishing that is cross-device, cross-publisher and includes DRM–all at reasonable prices–then people will gladly pay for the privilege of enjoying reading that really good story. The rights of authors and publishers will be protected and the entire ecosystem will be stable.
Thus, I feel that the future eBook reader is a distinct physical form factor that’s bigger than an iPhone, but smaller than a small laptop portable. While those who created Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader should be commended for pushing the envelope on technology, we still have a way to go before the criteria above will be all achieved at the same time.
However, once it does happen, the market will explode–similar to how it occurred with the adoption of the TV and cell phone. We’ll see 75 percent worldwide adoption in less than 10 years from when the right set of technologies shows up in an eBook reader.
Predicting the future of reading
My prediction again: someday–let’s say, hopefully by 2025 but certainly by 2050–technology and business models will have matured so that eBook readers will be used by more than 50 percent of the population. At that time, reading an eBook will become a far better experience than reading a paper-bound book is today. And we’ll honestly look back and wonder how we possibly managed to kill all those trees and print millions of books on paper, when it’s such a better experience reading them on an eBook reader.
Since joining Frost & Sullivan in 2006, Dr. Purdy has been specializing in mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of Inside Mobile & Wireless, which provides industry insights and reaches over 100,000 readers per month.
For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people’s mind-sets, and developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, his ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile & wireless industry. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.