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.