Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Where Is My Uber-Kindle?

I find a kindred spirit in Nathaniel Snow:

I want a handheld e-ink device that reads pdf files, has a long battery, and can be “written on.” I want to be able to carry my (and everyone else’s) library(ies) in the palm of my hand everywhere I go. And the technology already exists.

So why don’t we have it?

Obviously the publishers don’t want this. As soon as an e-reader can easily display pdf’s I will buy a scanner capable of reading two-sided documents, a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional, and commence to feed my entire library into that thing. I will then post (here, possibly) the entire list of books in my library for you to download for free.

And everyone else will do this, too. It will be the mp3 revolution all over again. It is so close we can all taste it. I’ve already cut back my book purchases significantly. It will be more difficult to prevent this kind of file sharing, because there are more vehicles today. With mp3’s all we had was Napster at first.

Some thoughts:

1. This is the ultimate Green Revolution. Paper consumption could plummet. Transportation costs for books disappear.

(Has anyone estimated the social savings since mp3 killed the CD industry?) Barnes and Noble will disappear. Magazines will become obsolete. Blogs and webzines will dominate. Thousands of bookstores and magazine shops will disappear. We will no longer bother recycling paper.

2. The real scarce commodity becomes INFORMATION. Not content, but which content. Google Reader and Amazon already do this for me. Itunes does it for you. You have a list of what you like, the algorithm tells you what else you might like.

3. Every word of every book becomes instantly searchable. Indexes are obsolete. Search for a word or a phrase or whatever you like. You get it. Research becomes so much easier. The cost of my Ph.D. becomes orders of magnitude less than that of previous generations due to ease of processing information. The really valuable commodity becomes insight into specific situations. Econometrics gets done by droids. Economics gets done by economists. Thinking like an economist becomes precious. I get paid lots and lots of money, as GMU rises to the top tier of Economics programs.

4. Everyone is better off through creative destruction. Read Schumpeter. Read it again. (For free!)

I Want it NOW!

The closest thing to what Nathan wants is probably the iRex Digital Reader, but it goes for $649 to $849 depending on which options you choose. Another substitute would be a tablet PC. The problem with tablets is that most are too heavy too use for reading for prolonged periods, don't work well outdoors, and have very short battery life compared to an eBook reader. Lenovo's X200 is a smaller, somewhat lighter version of my X61 and is going in the right direction with a 50% increase in battery life. Still, they aren't quite the same. The outdoor part is particularly key. Ever since I bought my AlphaSmart Neo and started writing more outdoors, I realized just how constrained I tend to be by my laptop's need for power and to be kept out of sunlight. It's great to be able to read and write outside. The simplicity of my Neo also helps me focus on writing without other distracting programs I can play with. I'd expect the same to be true for an eReader relative to a tablet PC.

Nathan nails it when he says an eBook reader has to be able to read PDF files (as the iRex can do). I can see all kinds of applications for a successful eBook platform. Things as diverse as what I like to call "pubcasts" -- periodic, subscribable downloads of printed text. A kind of blend of podcasts and blog feeds. What could distinguish this from blogs is that the pubcasts could come in specifically formatted pages, be of longer length than most blog posts, etc. They would also be a great way to periodically update books that keep contemporary information. There's no reason academic journals couldn't be distributed this way.

I also see a great resource for open-source textbooks, travel guides, how-to manuals, etc. Just as blogs have turned everyone into a citizen journalist, and podcasts have turned many into amateur broadcasters, a successful eBook platform could turn anyone with a computer into their own publisher. Certainly anyone who currently owns a computer can write their own book, but what makes eBook readers so powerful is that it would give citizen publishers a platform to broadcast and receive their work. My guess is that this would have the same effect on publishers that blogs have on newspapers. No longer would large publishing firms be the gatekeepers who decide what gets published and what doesn't. Who knows how many novels don't reach a popular audience today because of a lack of access and publicity? A successful eBook platform would allow all of that to get bypassed.

I was thinking a couple days ago that one other area eBooks could have tremendous impact is in the developing world. Rather than trying to make $100 laptops, why isn't someone trying to make a $50 or better yet, a $25 eBook reader? Think about it -- many great works are already in the public domain. If enough open source textbooks were developed, you could load each reader up with a set of textbooks that would last a student from kindergarten through basic undergraduate college levels. Possibly even loading a subset (or entirety) of Wikipedia on as well? The possibilities are both exciting and endless. I've been to many parts of the developing world and can guarantee that books are far more useful in many parts of the world than a computer would be. Why isn't this more of a priority? It can be prohibitively expensive to transport books overseas and many educational establishments lack the libraries they hope for. What if we could just e-mail books overseas instead of ship them?

For this purpose, style and size are not as critical as durability would be and the ability to run off of a variety of power sources. I think a unit that could run off of rechargeable AAA batteries that could be recharged through electrical connections, solar cells, a bicycle powered generator, or simply pop in a set of regular AAA's would be ideal. These batteries are already ubiquitous around the world.

Other eventual applications might include a book subscription service that allows you to electronically download a set number of books at a time -- similar to how Rhapsody works with music or Netflix works with DVDs. Or possibly for $50 a month (or maybe $25 or $100), you get access to any and every book you want? A lot of the business models and contracts would have to be changed, but the underlying technological capability is there. The puzzle is why is no one doing this?

I think Nathan is partially right that there are some large companies that don't want this to happen but that doesn't explain why there's not a start-up to take advantage of the market opportunity? Another partial, but not complete explanation is that the large players (Amazon and Sony) each have pieces of the technology that would make this a run-away hit, but no one player yet holds all the pieces. Maybe there are a series of blocking patents preventing this from happening?

Whenever the floodgates open on this technology, I see great demand and fantastic innovation taking place in ways and at a rate we haven't even begun to imagine.

Like Nathan, I want it now!


Juris Naturalist said...

I really like the implications for the developing world. Missions organizations should get behind development of this technology for the simple purpose of getting resources to native ministers cheaply.
I am also concerned about the existence of blocking patents. Bodrin and Levine have demonstrated that the deadweight loss of patents, so rarely discussed, is the transformation of innovation from a gradual process to one of breakthroughs and then nothing.
Let's get rid of them.

thinking said...

I too really like the idea of using a cheap ebook reader for developing countries. That's a fascinating thought.

However, I imagine there would have to be some infrastructure in place to support these devices, such as availability of power sources, and some means of delivery of content to the devices.

Interesting thought about the blocking patents...but with regards to the Kindle, there's nothing to prevent Amazon from hiring a good industrial designer. Amazon has the functionality, it just needs a better design, and no patent is blocking that.

And let's take Sony, which does have a great design. Why can't they put a cellular radio in one? There's no patent against that, and they know cellular technology through their cell phone partnership with Ericcson.

Which again leads to your great question: the ingredients are all there, why doesn't one company put them all together?

James said...

I am a big fan of e-readers and have used every single one for reading everything from blogs to technical books to comics. There are a couple of issues I have with your article:

1.) PDFs are the reason why PDFs don't work on e-readers. In order for a PDF to be readable on any device, the file is (very basic explanation)basically a big image. The thing about e-readers is they are NOT just displays. They actually read paragraphs and breaks in lines to appropriately space the words on the page. Now, when you put a PDF on a reader that needs to determine what is / isn't a paragraph so it can space things appropriate there shouldn't really be any wonder why it doesn't look right. As such, take a sheet of 8.5 paper with text, go to the xerox machine and shrink it to 6 inches.. see if you can read it, and that's why PDF isn't working on smaller screens such as the Sony / Kindle. It does work in the Iliad as the screen is a proper A4 size.

For a more technical and thorough explanation of this, go to and do a search. This topic has been beaten to death amongst those that constantly use e-readers.

2.) Amazon, Sony, Irex, CyBook are all corporations. They exist to make money for shareholders / owners. That is their job, that is what they do.

A number of people keep saying that money can be made back through selling content for e-readers. Read up on the history of video game consoles and then get back to me when you think you have come up with a way to get content to support a machine.

You also can't expect the manufacturing, marketing and selling of an electronic item like an e-reader to end up being LESS than $50 allowing them to sell it for less. Again, it's a company so it NEEDS to make money on its device. You point out the obvious flaw in relying on content (public works), and I can't find one example in electronics where a screened device (not relying on heavy cost subscription to subsidize cost (think cell phone)) comes in at the price you are hoping for.

3. This was mentioned in another post, but e-readers are not the printing press. Books work on their own in that you print it, sell it and leave. There is nothing else needed to compliment the device. An e-ink device needs electricity, updated material (read: Internet), and software upgrades (no programmer gets it right the first time). This means your poor African village or Southern town fantasy WILL NOT WORK without the infrastructure there (which can't be there as you are wanting the damn things for close to free, so with WHAT money would a company build a usable e-book library?)

5.) Misc: Sony doesn't put a cell radio in its reader because it would be completely impractical to pull off the Amazon model on a global scale. There is no way for Sony to make agreements with every carrier in every country to allow free data transfer, and there is less of a way that people are going to opt in for an unlimited data plan for their reader only.

The Industrial Design of the Kindle is not the best looking, but of all the readers is the most flexible in use. Like a real book, don't judge it by it's cover :)

I understand the want for an uber device, and I am not trying to deter that dialogue, just trying to provide answers for some of the things you have brought up.

thinking said...

James: thanks for adding some real insight to this discussion.

Brian Hollar said...


Thanks for the comments. You have me curious -- which eBook readers have you used and which one is your favorite? I would so love to get one – hopefully very soon.

You brought up some good points. Let me see if I can respond to each.

1) You are correct that PDFs are essentially image files. For people like myself who deal with multiple PDFs on a daily basis, having a device that uses an e-ink display (the technology currently used in e-book readers) that can display PDFs would be invaluable. E-ink displays work conceptually like any others -- they have a certain pixel resolution, are able to show various shades of grey (with color ones in the works), and can be used to display both text and images. Several eBook readers have already been developed that can read PDF files including the iRex Digital Reader, Plastic Logic's forthcoming eBook reader, and the Sony models (although Sony does only a so-so job at rendering them). Certainly it would have to be a larger-screened device than the Sony or Kindle readers, but that's what is on my wish list. The limitations on this have more to do with software and processors than it does with the display technology. Of course, I'd want it to be able to read text files and current eBook formats as well.

2) I agree any company is in business to make money. The current dominant business model for eBook readers is to couple them with content providers. What I'm trying to say is I think there are other viable business models. Sony and Amazon could both open their platforms more without reducing their current content offering, but would appeal to a broader market for the readers themselves. Think of it like the iPod and iTunes. Certainly Apple likes selling the iPods and selling music through iTunes. But do you think the iPod would be as popular if Apple restricted them to only playing music purchased on iTunes? The power of the iPod is that you can play music you rip off of CDs, download podcasts, and purchase music from a variety of sources including iTunes.

As far as the $50 price goes, I don't expect us to get there tomorrow, but I do expect us to get much closer to that price than the price we are currently at. If they can sell netbooks for $300, I suspect they can sell eBook readers for much less. Part of the expense of units like the Sony is the miniaturization process of the component parts. If someone manufactured a more bulky unit, it's likely they could do it for less. Just as increased competition has consistently lowered the prices of PCs (in both real and nominal terms), as eReaders become more numerous, prices should fall on those as well. I'm intrigued at what this anticipated price-drop might make possible in the future.

3) What I think would be great for an African village is to pre-load devices with open-source books and books from the public domain prior to sending them to more remote areas. Part of the reason I think running them on regular batteries (AA or AAA's for example) is in case they are away from a power source for extended periods of time. That's also why I mentioned solar cells and/or a bike powered recharger as other options. I've been to a lot of areas (Namibia, Moldova, India, etc.) that do have decent access to both power and Internet, but are still sorely lacking in books. For most of these places, the expense of books and the price of shipping them becomes prohibitive. With a cheap eReader, you only have to ship one device to send a whole library. Cell phones are spreading the most rural of areas around the world and people are figuring out ways to keep them charged. I have no doubt we could see similar innovation with devices like this.

4) Sony could simply build two versions of their readers -- one for the US and one for elsewhere. Many countries have data access on cell phones with roaming plans. (Many countries have higher bandwidth cellular connections than the US does.) Having said this, you might be right -- it may be cost-prohibitive to develop two distinct models. I'm curious if they sell more readers in the US or in Japan? (Probably Japan.) Amazon has the advantage of being a book-seller first and having lots of content and business relationships to facilitate digital book sales. Sony has to partner with content providers to try to compete. Japan may have a more complex and rigid series of contracts preventing Sony from developing a profitable Amazon-like business model over there and I suspect the costs of contracting with both cellular and content providers here may also be unprofitable.

While the Kindle might not win any design awards, I haven't heard of many people who own one who don't absolutely love theirs. I have come right up to the edge of buying one myself and only hesitated because of rumors of the second version coming out soon.

I appreciate you bringing up those points and hope what I've written makes sense. I think you brought up some great points and would love to dialogue some more on this.

Brian Hollar said...


I have concerns about the deadweight loss of patents, but don't discount the fact that you can have a monopoly that (thanks to competition and innovation to secure that monopoly position), can produce goods in greater quantity and lower price than a company in perfect competition (where there is much less incentive to innovate). I understand your desire to get rid of patents, but I'm not quite ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I need a lot more convincing to come to the conclusion that patents do more harm than good.

Brian Hollar said...


I haven’t gotten far enough into my patent law class yet this semester to discuss business model patents, but they do exist. (You can even get a patent on a strategy for evading taxes.) If Amazon has some sort of a patent on using cellular technology to sell books, they may be able to inhibit other developers from coming up with similar services. From both a legal and business standpoint, there is more in play than just the process of slapping the technology together to arrive at what is technologically feasible. As you say – all the ingredients are there, there may be invisible forces making it too costly for anyone to cook.

I expect this calculus to change in the future, but probably not as quickly as pure technological progress would allow.