Friday, September 2, 2016
Why Did E-Readers Fail?
Proprietary e-readers such as Kindle, Kobo or Nook have failed largely and simply because they require proprietary, dedicated hardware. In short, the World Wide Web had obsoleted them before they were designed. IBooks for Apple iOS and OS X devices will linger on because Apple desktops, IPads and smart phones have another use. Why didn't Stanza, which can display any of these formats on a personal computer, tablet or phone, catch on? For the same reason we use Windows or Mac-based software more than the vastly superior, bullet-proof Linux: there was no big money committed to promoting the latter.
Money as a Filter
We have been brought up to believe that "you get what you pay for." This is not the case with software, including at the systemic level. To understand this principle, grab your remote control, turn on your television, and hit the "Back" or "Last [channel]" button twice. What happens? Chances are, it takes you to the previous channel and then brings you back. WTF? Why doesn't it take you the last channel, then the penultimate one, and further back every time you hit the Back/Last button? Like your Back/Last button does on your browser, it could work in conjunction with a "Forward" button for returning to more recent channels.
Other examples abound. Some premium priced word processors cannot print aligned columns, even in a non-proportional font like Courier [New]. Hypertext Markup Language or "HTML", the basic language for web sites, has trouble with alignment and indentation. Poetry editors complain about linebreaks on e-readers. Portable Document Format or ".pdf" has similar difficulties. Meanwhile, a freeware text editor (e.g. EditPad) created by some geek has no problem presenting and printing all of this. Ditto independent literary sites. Parenthetically, this is an economic reality: when we pay someone to do something their interest usually ends with the completion of that project, if not earlier. By contrast, geniuses tend to be more "focused and self-motivated" (read: obsessive), as evidenced by the failed efforts of their parents to dislodge them from their basements. By any objective measure, inspiration beats money every single time.
We ask: "Why would anyone want to pay money for clumsily ordered text when more functional and fancier writing is free?"
The answer we get is: "Because the content is professional/commercial quality."
Actually, that is true only of our "long" reading (i.e. books, especially novels). Most of our "short" reading (blogs, articles, jokes, discussions) is online and free. Facebook is our news fulcrum, obsoleting print magazines and newspapers. If we need instructions do we look around for the print version or search online? The vast majority of this information is gratis, easily accessible, graphical and interconnected. Hypertext rules.
Subscription-only services are losing ground not because the expense is too great for subscribers but because it is to great for potential subscribers. It restricts access and, thus, general interest. Paradoxically, if "Game of Thrones" were not the most heavily pirated series in history it would not be the icon it is. It would be an obscure and bizarre indulgence of the wealthy, like yachting. Similarly, no novel on a format accessible to less than 1% of the market will ever be a best seller or be discussed by the public.
Expense is not the only issue; there is also the matter of convenience. Imagine if every HBO episode were purchased individually, each show preceded by an onscreen payment, like a pay-per-view movie. This is how we purchase novels/e-novels. Tedious, and tinged with buyer's remorse if the item disappoints.
Few things are more frustrating than making a one-time visit to an information venue and being confronted with a demand for a substantial subscription free. Imagine if all these sources were handled by one central service and the cost were the lowest coin of the realm. To wit, suppose everything you pay to read were to cost a penny. Not social media, personal blog or special interest sites but every commercial offering: every magazine (now e-zine), newspaper edition, textbook, literary collection, standalone treatise, and, yes, every novel. Everything that needs support from readers. One penny, total, even if reading that document requires multiple return trips.
Of course, collecting one cent is not profitable so everyone would have an account with some organization, similar to your Google or PayPal account. A publisher could present indices, blurbs and teasers of their products, as many already do. When readers select the final text their account would be charged one cent. Do you read 1,000 such items a month? If so, your cost would be $10. That's less than most individual subscriptions, less than your ISP or cable television charges and it can be paid automatically via credit/debit card or a remittance service like PayPal. Little expense, zero bother, using cookies that make it "transparent to the user."
Who can afford a computer and an Internet connection but not a penny?
Who is going to balk at reading something where the investment is a penny?
Is a penny enough, though? The service might charge up to half of that so...is half a penny enough for a publisher or author?
For all the reasons listed above, there are no best-sellers in the fragmented e-reader world. Forgive the hyperbole, but some producers will be happy with "100% of nothing" while others will prefer "1% of a lot". There are ~2,000,000,000 English speakers worldwide and a growing percentage of them are online. Compare hit counts on popular content sites to periodical subscriptions or book/e-book sales and we'll see how quickly the 1% exceeds the 100%. This tortoise versus hare race includes the snowballing effect of more readers producing more discussion which, in turn, produces more readers. These visitors can generate direct advertising revenue for the producers and heighten interest in other items the publisher sells.
Another paradox is that the online world is "more permanent" than the print one. A book published in 2010 will be out of print in 2013 and may be very difficult to find in 2016. Text posted online decades ago is still available (if only in open archives) today. Thus, authors and editors may be collecting those benefits long after initial publication. This provides an incentive to maintain domains, extending the life of online content.
Other approaches are being tried but we predict that, in one form or another, this "penny-peeking" (critics might call it "penny-piquing") approach will be the standard.