Kent’s recent posts discussing new e-reader devices and the possibilities of new textbook approaches for things like the iPhone got me thinking about the effect of this tidal wave of new technology hitting the market. Each device seems to have its own file format, each its own interface. While I’m usually a huge proponent of a varied ecosystem–monopoly bottlenecks are bad for both consumers and content providers–this flood of new devices is problematic for publishers.
Kent wrote about efforts to port textbooks to the iPhone/iPod Touch platform, which is a good example here. From the numbers I’ve found, there are about 45-50 million iPhones/iTouches out there in use. That may seem like a big number, but most scholarly publishers create products for niche markets, often small niche markets. So realistically, if you’re a textbook or journal publisher, only a tiny fraction of those 50 million users has any interest whatsoever in your products. The converse is true as well–only a small percentage of your customers owns an iPhone. For the journals we publish, we see between 0.4% and 1% of traffic coming from iPhones/iTouches. Is it worth investing in developing new tools for less than 1% of your customers? What happens to your investment if you choose a device/format that doesn’t catch on and dies off?
In order to reach all of your potential customers, to maximize the return for your investments and efforts, you need to create products that are available to your entire potential market. To do this, you either need to focus strictly on interfaces that most everyone can access (print on paper, the computer screen), or create new products that function across a variety of devices.
This is where it gets tricky. The same ePub file displays very differently in Stanza, Adobe Digital Editions, and web browsers. Most iPhone functionality doesn’t exist on a Kindle. The iPhone has a color touchscreen, can play video, has access to the entire internet, a built-in GPS and compass, a video and still camera, and many other features the Kindle lacks. As such, the cool new interactive-video-geographically-aware-augmented-reality features you’re building into your new textbook are going to be a wash for Kindle owners.
So you either need to create a version of your textbook/journal and its enhancements for every single device out there, or you end up with one kludgy version that sort of, kind of works sometimes depending on what the reader is using. If the expensive new tool you developed can only be used by 0.4% of your buyers, the extra sales it generates may not be enough to pay for all the work you put into it.
This is where having a monopoly in a market (or at least having market dominance by one device) is actually beneficial. Developers love the iPhone because they know that every iPhone/iPod works the same way, with the same interface. They don’t have to account for a near infinite amount of possible hardware combinations. It’s the same reason that Macs traditionally “just work”–the hardware is strictly defined to a limited set of components. In the Windows/Linux world, no two computers are the same. This creates competition in the market and lower prices (good), but software ends up being cobbled together because it has to address so many component possibilities (bad).
I’ve argued that one essential way to move the e-book market forward is to settle on a standard file format, the most likely being ePub, despite its many obvious deficiencies. The idea is that this would help level the playing field–all devices would work with ePub files so you could buy your e-books from any source and move them from one device to another, much like mp3 and AAC work in the music world. While that would be an improvement, it still doesn’t solve the problem here, as seen in the article linked above, the way different devices display ePub files varies wildly.
“The biggest complaint about the content of e-books today is that the quality is so low. This is not just an aesthete’s whinge. Beautiful text is readable text. It is our duty to our readers to do the best we can in e-books, just as we do in print. But despite all the promise shown by ePub, it fails, in practice, to provide the consistency that we need.”
What’s needed here goes beyond common file formats. What we need is a common set of standards, a blueprint for how devices handle those file formats. The development of web standards is probably the model to follow. Think about the many devices you can use to access the web, and how they mostly handle code to present things consistently to the reader. This is greatly due to the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international group dedicated to developing web standards. The W3C has had some failures, and particular companies have deliberately created their own proprietary standards to try to dominate the market (I’m sure e-reader companies won’t be above this as well, given Amazon’s current behavior). Nevertheless, having standards has greatly improved web readability over time. Viewing web pages in different browsers is no longer as wildly variant as it once was.
The good news is that such a group is already in place, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IPDF). Membership in the group is available, if you want your voice heard and your company’s needs addressed (and one should note, they’re not without their critics). The bad news is that we’re still in very early days with e-readers. If the web is any comparison, it’s taken a decade and a half to get browsers that are even close to standards-compliant. I’d like to see publishers put pressure on e-reader companies and refuse to do business with those who don’t comply with standards. That would allow us to move forward much faster than the web, where software companies had financial motives to avoid compliance. Let’s instead make their financial survival dependent on achieving compliance with standards.
The market will eventually decide on dominant devices, or at least dominant features that will become common across devices, and I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to speed that process. A set of e-reader standards however, will go a long way toward moving things forward. With standards established, publishers will be able to focus on our core strengths, developing great content and information resources. That certainly beats spending all our time balancing cost versus marketshare numbers for specific devices, endlessly tweaking code and wasting our efforts creating and re-creating the same resources for each new device. Until then, it pays to keep a close eye on your usage statistics to see if any trends emerge that are worth exploiting, but with the understanding that you’re dealing with a volatile and highly fragmented market. You’ll need to choose between addressing lots of small niches individually or trying to cover them all at once awkwardly.
(Editor’s Note (11 Sept 2009): Confusion over Bookworm rendering of ePub files was clarified in the comment thread, and the post has been updated to reflect this correction. Thank you.)