What I’d rather have than an eBook reader: the iPod Touchbook

First, let me say this: I will purchase an Amazon Kindle and will use it before I make any comments like, “it sucks,” or, “it’s the greatest device, ever.” However, from what I’ve read in this Newsweek cover story and in the Newsweek writer’s blog and on a post at PaidContent.org by Rafat Ali that outlines the Kindle’s specifications, I must say the reports leave me rather underwhelmed. I’m an Amazon.com fan and I hope I’ll one day say these initial reactions were wrong.

From where a sit (a publisher of magazines, a bibliophile, an info-gadget early adopter and a rather active customer of both companies I’ll be mentioning in this post, Amazon.com and Apple), here are some observations I have of the Kindle concept — again, not a review of the actual product, but observations and reactions to what has been revealed about the product and, frankly, the entire “eBook” reader concept. (Later: Seth Godin has a digital-age author reaction I didn’t consider.)

1. The Kindle has been under development since 2004 — and it shows: It sounds like a three-year-old feature set. Actually, it sounds like a 20-year-old feature set as very little about it is different from the eBook concepts anyone who has followed this niche for the past two-decades will know. Other than the marketing channel — we’ll always be connected to Amazon.com via wifi so we can download new content to our reader 24/7 — is there something radical about this? Again, because it’s Amazon and I allow them to know so much about my reading preferences, they’ll be able to market books better to me than, say, Sony. But is that what’s going to make me passionate about this device? No.

2. The following desperate-sounding quote from Jeff Bezos sets off my caution-meter: “This is the most important thing we’ve ever done…It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.” This quote concerns me for two reasons. One, he may actually believe it, which would mean that one of my all-time entrepreneurial heros is disconnecting with reality. Or two, and I’m guessing this is more the case, it’s an extremely important project — a passion, a cause — to him personally. I can understand this, as it’s something that has vexed the book publishing world for as long as anyone can remember, and, sure, Bezos would like to be the guy who solved it. Unfortunately, this means that everyone at Amazon who has been working on this has been creating a product to please the boss. And as much as I love Amazon.com, I’m not so sure it’s a winning idea to design a consumer electronic product for Jeff Bezos, who indicated to the Newsweek writer that an eBook reader “should be less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture.” (And from the looks of that device he’s holding on the cover of Newsweek, he got what he was looking for.)

3. There are not one, but two, elephants in this room: Apple and Google. (Actually, Microsoft and Yahoo! are also in the room, but they are rhino-sized, not elephant. And, come to think of it, there are all the other booksellers, both the chains and independents, and then there is Sony and I know, I know, I should really include the iRex folks but this room is just not big enough for all those animals.) Do I need to explain why? First, Google is always the elephant in the room when it comes to digitized books. But if you think about such Google moves as Android and how it will affect mobile access to the web, it doesn’t take rocket scientists (Bezo’s employs some of these, also) to conceive of how a more open platform than Amazon’s will be available to the market. As for Apple, I’ll get to that elephant in the room in point 5.

4. Is this all there is? At this price? Okay. Maybe I’m wrong — and I hope I am — but this just doesn’t sound like much. As my son (now 17) went through a few years of buying and selling hand-held videogame platforms, I was extremely impressed with each new iteration. The PSP finally convinced me that portable videogame platforms were way more than gaming platforms. Indeed, now Sony describes the PSP as, “the first truly integrated portable entertainment system designed to handle multiple applications – music, video, photo, internet, and wireless connectivity, with games as its key feature.” But as cool as the $169 PSP is, for $100 more you can have an iPod Touch or an iPhone — which makes a PSP look like a toy, which, uh, I guess a gaming platform is. My point is, however, look what’s happened to the world since 2004. All these flat little rectangular devices have flooded into the market and every few months, they’ll do more and more. And now, we’re at the point where we have a wide array of thin, rectangular wireless devices that will do practically anything a computer can do — and they cost less than what the Amazon Kindle costs.

5. Why do we need an eBook reader? This is directly related to my previous point, but it also relates to what I wrote 18-months ago when a flurry of rumors hit about Apple developing an eBook reader. That post was even before the iPhone and the iPod Touch, but anticipated there being such a device that filled the rectangle of an iPod with a touch screen. As I pondered then, if an iPod like that (which we now have, the iPod Touch) was increased to the size of a book, why would there be a need for an eBook reader? If via that device we could access movies, music, the web, our email, talk with anyone in the world, etc., etc., what good would an eBook reader be? Note to those not thinking about this stuff: every time you purchase an album from the iTunes store, and the liner-notes come along with the download — you’re purchasing an eBook via Apple. In other words, Apple already owns a rather commanding distribution engine to sell “eBooks” called the iTunes Store — a platform that is already syncing with software sitting on the desktops of millions and millions of Macs and PCs worldwide.

So there’s the other elephant in the room: Apple. All it would take is Steve Jobs announcing on January 15 a new “iPod Touchbook” that is the same size and price as a Kindle and poof, Apple has the distribution channel and Amazon has something akin to the Zune.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’ll buy and review a Amazon Kindle, but what I really want my eBook reader to be is a Kindle-size iPod Touchbook (or what we call around here, Rumor #3). I guess since Apple doesn’t blog — they advertise and publicize and present and pronounce — I guess I am wasting my time blogging about this. Perhaps I should be sending this message to Apple in a way they might understand (Books are my girl frend…):

6. Ironic last point: If Amazon.com sold eBooks in a format that would be readable on my imaginary iPod Touchbook, I would purchase them via Amazon for the same reason I now purchase all my music via Amazon. Competition is good.

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  • Hudge
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  • Looks like a Klingon designed that device!

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  • Agreed. It’d be nice to not have “one more device” to carry along with the cellphone, iPod, and laptop. Another argument for Apple is they already have a digital download distribution system in place: iTunes. People are already used to managing content on their computers to push to their devices in the form of MP3s, and Apple already has a store. They already distribute pdf content in the form of album liner notes.

    The digital ebook thing has potential and I feel it’s one of those cases where Amazon and Sony have a go at it with not exactly perfect devices – and if a market looks like it’s being created – apple flips a switch and obliterates the competition quickly.

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  • Cindy

    Please, please, please, Apple – give us an ebook reader that will work on the iPhone, etc., and I don’t care who I have to buy the books from, just make sure that there are current bestsellers, a good variety of travel books and classics available. Thanks!

  • I love this post.

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  • Steve NeSmith

    The Amazon Kindle will go down as the Segway of electronic readers. One day we will look back and realize that Amazon pioneered something special but it will not be anything close to the answer.

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  • Hudge

    Interesting comment about Segway. I get the impression they have changed the question, somewhat, or maybe decided to answer a different one by marketing solutions to police, law enforcement, military (including robotics) and other commercial applications.
    To me, the problem with a book sized device is that it is book-sized, which makes it somewhat awkward to carry, esp. if it combines phone and those other whiz-bang features. Could they make it foldable, too?

  • scott

    1987 called. tiger electronics wants its design elements back. okthxbye.

    aesthetically, the kindle is hideous. the sony reader looks significantly nicer, although neither one really seems to be getting it. you’re right about apple and what would happen if they entered the fight. imho, an ideal setup would be turning itunes into delicious library with a media player. view books, magazine feeds, e-books, audio, video and games all via a delicious library (or coverflow) interface. if i could get rss feeds, magazines, and books in itunes, archived and sortable/searchable, and then uploadable to my iphone, that would be pretty nice. while certainly something not most people would agree with, i think one could read an e-book on the iphone without too much difficulty – especially in landscape mode.

    prediction: the kindle will be the foleo of 2008. the biggest difference is that the kindle will fail in the marketplace, as opposed to the foolio which never even made it to market. do people really want to carry yet another device?

    i’m surprised you skipped over the drm aspect to this, but for anyone interested in an article on this, check out: http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/doublethink/amazon-kindle-is-an-ugly-snowspeeder-of-contradictions-325513.php

  • Oy, Rex, I really think you should try the Kindle before you write so much. This is a 2007 product with 2007 features, NOT 3 or 23 year old specs.

    With the built-in, always on, FREE wireless broadband connection, not only is the bookstore always with you but the collective knowledge of the Internet is always with you. While reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” last night, I came across a passage about Samuel Chase arguing an anti-slavery case in the Supreme Court called Jones v. Vanzandt. Wanting to know a bit more, I shifted over to the Kindle’s Internet browser and within a few clicks and hops from Google, found a copy of Chase’s Supreme Court brief. Reading history, it’s transformative to be able to flip to original sources and related material without getting up off the couch. You can also access free ebooks on the Internet. I have a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” found via Google and downloaded a few seconds later. And Amazon stores all your books and your notes “in the cloud” so everything is backed up and you can delete a purchase and re-download it anytime later. And, unlike iTunes, Amazon also has opened its Kindle publishing platform so anyone can upload a book, set a price and start selling to Kindle users. All of these features seem smart, useful and decidedly now.

    In terms of the form factor and design, the e-ink screen allows loooong battery life and very crisp text in a font that’s especially easy to read. There is no noticeable eye strain or the feeling of tired eyes I get reading long documents on my laptop. The keyboard comes in handy when you want to search, use the Internet or take notes, but the keyboard is basically inactive while you’re reading a book, so you can put your fingers on that part of the device for comfort. Used in its little leather portfolio, the Kindle becomes very natural to hold comfortably for reading at several angles. It’s much more convenient that propping up a weighty hardcover. I also heartily endorse the decision to make it PC-free. Mac users, Linux users, all are welcome. Connect the Kindle via USB and it’s just a drive

    And about Apple and Google, once the Kindle builds a sizable audience, as I think it will, the elephants will be dancing to Amazon’s tune. For example, why can I only download out-of-copyright books from Google in a PDF image format? How about HTML? The reason the record labels started to allow DRM-free music sales was because Apple had become so powerful and was never going to allow others to use its Fairplay DRM format. When Kindle users likewise dominate the world of ebooks, and sales of ebooks start rising faster than ever before, other companies will be pushed to change.

    In terms of the iPod e-reader you hypothesize, how much would such a device cost? Isn’t the screen one of the most expensive elements in the iPod Touch? I think it’s going to be a lot more than $400. Plus, either you only have wifi or you have to pay for a monthly phone and data plan.

    I guess your most powerful argument is whether the world wants a specialized ebook reader. That seems like somewhat of a philosophical debate. Frankly, I don’t want an iPhone to replace my iPod because the AT&T network around here stinks and it’s not compatible with my employer’s email system.

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  • David

    I agree completely with you. I would buy an iPod Touchbook as soon as it became available.

  • Rex,

    I completely agree. I would much rather have an Apple Touchbook than the Kindle (which I own). However, you’re forgetting one small detail. The device is only one-third the equation. iTunes is another third. So far so good. A seamless way to get content from the store onto the device. What Apple is missing is the RELATIONSHIPS. They don’t have any relationships with book publishers that enables them to get access to the content. (I know because I am the CEO of the Thomas Nelson. We are the sixth largest book publisher in the U.S.)

    Could Apple develop these relationships? Sure. My point is that they haven’t started and this is where Amazon has a leg up. For most of us, they are one of our largest customers—and we trust them.



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  • Rex, wouldn’t you miss the e-ink screen ? One of the reason I’d like to get such a reader is for the comfort on the eyes, and for the ability to go reading in the sun. To me, just this is worth the price. A nice read of digital content in the sun. With an LCD screen, it gets trickier…

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