Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

The inevitable failure of e-readers

Posted on 24 April 2010 27 comments

Article illustration for The inevitable failure of e-readers

Today, I was flicking through the in-laws’ copy of last month’s MacUser magazine, in which the cover story is a five-page feature called ‘iPad vs. Kindle’. It’s a pretty thorough article and, as the title suggests, its focus is on drawing a comparison between Amazon’s e-reader and Apple’s latest device.

While I agree that articles like this have some merit (especially for those unfamiliar with the hardware (let’s not forget that the primary market for such magazines is switchers, not Mac converts)), I feel amazed that people are still considering the possibility of the iPad not becoming the de facto device for ebooks. Don’t get me wrong: it’s far from perfect and the Kindle is largely regarded by many to be superior option if all you want is e-reader capabilities; but in spite of that, the case for buying a Kindle (or any other dedicated e-reader) over an iPad is virtually non-existent, as far as I can see.

The Kindle is an e-book reader. And yes, the iPad is also an e-book reader. But that’s just one of the many things it does. Sure, it’s more expensive than a Kindle and so you’d hope that it serves other functions, but why anyone is still realistically comparing these devices is beyond me. It reminded me of a pingback from Minimali.st that appeared on my recent post about the iPad. Sure, for existing Kindle users, the iPad understandably doesn’t appeal because these people already invested in a Kindle (admittedly Minimali.st admits that he’d still get an iPad anyway; just not use it as an e-reader), but for those on the verge of buying an e-reader, where the choice is still open, there’s no way on earth that buying a Kindle would make more sense than buying an iPad. Seriously. While the Kindle may trump the iPad in the e-book department, why limit yourself to a dedicated device when, for not that much more money, you could get yourself something that does so much more in terms of functionality? The Kindle’s plus points don’t seem significant enough, especially when you consider its negative points: one-second screen inverts while the next page loads? Eurgh! We’ve become used to slicker UIs than that, haven’t we?

But anyway, I’m digressing; there’s a bigger issue at hand: e-books will not — in my opinion — replace real, physical books. Digital magazines, perhaps: throwaway items stand to be replaced with greater ease (not that all magazines should be considered ‘throwaway’, of course), but not something as integral in our lives as books. They’re ornaments that sit on our shelves and remind us of our passions; their spines are gazed upon every day and speak volumes about who we are. Sure, you could’ve said the same thing about music (well, we did, didn’t we?), but whereas the days of the CD are well and truly on the way out, vinyl has enjoyed a massive resurgence: there’s something so tangible about the format that we can’t bear to part with it. We still have a desire to own physical music — or at least the beautiful packaging design that helps make the whole thing ‘real’ — and that’s the reason that physical music will still exist for many years to come. The same is true of books: there’s nothing quite like the real thing; the smell of a book is just too tangible to replace with an ephemeral digital copy.

This is a generalisation, I know. You’ll still get suits on the tube reading fucking Dan Brown novels, and they’ll love doing it digitally. But gorgeous coffee table design books? No. These things will always be real, even if they have digital equivalents to satisfy a certain portion of the market. If the music industry has taught us anything, it’s that there will always be a place for the physical format, and so many people forget that our relationship with physical books is deeply entrenched in our culture: after all, we only had about a century of physical music before the digital revolution arrived, but we’ve spent literally thousands of years with our beloved books.

iBooks — or whatever format prevails — will come in handy and will offer advantages to a large amount of readers. But there will always be a place for the real thing. And if I’m wrong, well… I’ll have my hat with chips, please.

[EDIT, 26.04.2010: If you’d like a suggestion for further reading, Craig Mod has written an excellent essay about the current failings of e-reader software called ‘Embracing The Digital Book’. See also: ‘Designing for iPad: Reality Check’ by Information Architects]

[Photo kindly provided by Shutterstock]

27 comments

  1. Chris Garrett

    Chris Garrett

    24 April 2010 @ 10:58PM #

    Just want to draw a parallel here really, what about the iPod?

    I don’t know for sure what impact the release of the iPhone has had on the original iPod, but I can imagine from the fact that Apple still sell it, is that convergence doesn’t always suit every consumer and there’ll always be a demand for single purpose devices.

    Whether or not that demand remains large enough to sustain the development and distribution of the product ultimately becomes the decision of the manufacturer and they’re financial requirements.

  2. Jonas

    Jonas

    24 April 2010 @ 11:00PM #

    Regarding Kindle vs iPad: yup, comparison is mostly pointless. Actually, I was trying to find any use for e-ink displays… I couldn’t. Primary use for reading is still better on full-color LCD. Eye strain vs. colors and smooth navigation? For me, eye strain hardly feels. So Kindle and others will slowly die or evolve. But here Apple is upfront.

    However, regarding need for tangible things: I’d personally disagree. Maybe that’s my passion for minimalism everywhere, but if all my bookshelf could fit into one small device, I would be happy.

  3. Dan

    Dan

    24 April 2010 @ 11:08PM #

    Eh, I like my digital media way more. I have several physical CD’s (free from friends, I’d never pay a single buck to the music industry), and I don’t particularly care about having them. Same with books, all of mine are just in a box collecting dust. Plus not everybody lives in a big house with room for all their physical media.

    Not to mention how easy it is to pirate digital media. Can’t exactly download vinyls, now can you?

  4. Keith

    Keith

    24 April 2010 @ 11:29PM #

    I’m pretty much in agreement with you. I used to be skeptical of e-readers, but since my iPad got here I’m totally sold. I’ve read three books on it (using the Kindle app, which is great) and I won’t be looking back.

    Having said that, I’ll still be reading my favorite authors in hardcover and cherishing those books on my shelves, and, like you, I’m not giving up my coffee table design and art books.

    Where I see this really being a big deal is magazines. I’ll be buying and reading many more ‘zones now that I don’t have to deal with the paper. Same goes for comics, although I can still see myself getting my favorites in deluxe editions.

    Still, having said all that, I got a bit sad walking though the bookstore the other day. I can’t deny that reading books on an iPad is a pleasurable experience, and there are so many other benefits. As the experience gets better i’m sure more and more of my reading will be done digitally. I doubt books will ever go away completely, but bookstores? I’m worried about them.

  5. Tom Walters

    Tom Walters

    24 April 2010 @ 11:30PM #

    Yeah I agree, but I prefer books because I like to look at them on my shelf, if even only for a glance, because I can then easily choose one to pick up and start reading. Also, as old-fashioned as it may sound, I don’t give real weight to things I download, at least when talking about books, and I like to have and hold the literature that I have wrote.

    Lastly I feel that many books have something that e-readers won’t ever have – history. Maybe it was a book that got you through your final exam at collage, which still bears the scribblings of last-minute cramming, or the cookery book with chocolate on the edge of the page, such history enriches the experience of having an actual book.

    Great article!

  6. NICCAI

    NICCAI

    24 April 2010 @ 11:34PM #

    I think you’re right, but only in so far as the art of the book. You are correct in drawing the comparison to albums only in this regard. I think the demand you’re talking about, however, is a very niche market.

    The reality is that things need to get smaller. I put myself through school in the nineties working in book stores – I love books, but they are dying in many ways. People read less in long form. People have less space in their homes. My several shelves of books are now catalogued in Delicious Library but their books spend their days neatly tucked away in numbered bins in storage. Is this my ideal? – maybe not. But it is a reality of my space constraints.

    Today, I buy more services and items in digital format. I still buy regularly, and I still collect (a polite word for stage 1 hoarding). In the end, I’d like to think that I’m not defined by my physical goods, but that may be a trick of the mind…

  7. Rory Marinich

    Rory Marinich

    24 April 2010 @ 11:42PM #

    Elliot —

    The distinction you’re talking about is not that of electronic versus material, but of data versus architecture. Ebooks, like mp3 for music, attempt to remove all of the material surrounding a piece of content, then restyle that content in a new way. Books, like records, are about the architecture. There is such sensual data surrounding a physical book that you cannot possibly recreate the experience on an iPad or a Kindle.

    Electronic architecture will evolve — look at the iTunes LP as an instance of this digitally. Or look at the New York Times iPad application, which provides us with more information than a single newspaper possibly could, with its video content and immense archives. Certainly as ebook readers evolve we’ll be seeing more and more information encoded within an ebook, and the architecture of the data will strive to match the architecture we have in physical material.

    So the question then becomes less of “What are we losing when we move to digital?” and more of “What must we sacrifice to remain physical?” A book has volume; it adds clutter; it must be maintained in specific ways. What books do we value enough to maintain them physically? Do we value any that much? Do there exist books that AREN’T valuable enough to preserve?

    Some books — Mark Z Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” — provide an astonishing value physically. Penguin Classics offers an architecture that rewards visually having multiple books from a series, and they focus on books good enough to deserve such an attention to design. But I can think of whole droves of books I’d be happy to get out of my life and into my Kindle. I don’t need Dan Brown or Dean Koontz hardbound. They’re my junk food. I gain more by digitizing them than I do by keeping them physically.

    So while I don’t see books disappearing, I do see books slimming and becoming more precious and valuable than they are at present. Most households suffer from a gluttony of books; e-books allow a tighter and simpler lifestyle.

    Which isn’t a bad thing. I’m fine with reading books that aren’t constantly classics. Same as there’re songs I have in iTunes that I’d never think to buy in vinyl. And I like that we’ll have the option of devaluing a book’s architecture when we don’t value the book that much.

  8. Kevin Holesh

    Kevin Holesh

    25 April 2010 @ 12:35AM #

    I think e-readers will eventually fail because the iPad is a much better overall entertainment device. If I want to read a lot of novels, the Kindle is the way to go. Unfortunately the number of people reading books is declining. I read on Seth Godin’s blog recently that the average American buys one book a year.

    I use a Kindle for reading full books, but it isn’t good for books with lots of images or code, the majority of what I read. For that, I use the Kindle app on my iPad or a PDF reader. For me, it is worth it to buy both for different reasons. For other people, I could totally understand only buying the iPad.

  9. Rob...

    Rob...

    25 April 2010 @ 01:00AM #

    @Chris,

    You did notice that iPod Touch is the way of the future for the iPod, didn’t you?! Apple doesn’t report an increase of average selling price per iPod if all it is shifting is shuffles…

    Regards,

    Rob…

  10. Scott

    Scott

    25 April 2010 @ 01:21AM #

    Not sure on this but it seems to me that the near future of books will be similar to what the music industry has been going through for the past ten years.

  11. mary

    mary

    25 April 2010 @ 01:49AM #

    Physical music had to adapt to a common format, so it’s just liner notes and plastic. Your imagination can run wild when designing a physical book. I do like being able to read things online, but I love books themselves. I’m not even an avid reader, but I still like the whole idea of physical books.

  12. Bryce P

    Bryce P

    25 April 2010 @ 09:14AM #

    I agree, books simply can’t be replaced. A physical book once purchased could be lost, stolen or destroyed, but for the most part we take GREAT care to protect against these things. However, If 30-40 books are lost because you misplace, lose or otherwise have trouble finding an I-pad or Kindle device, that is SERIOUS capitol lost. I also find reading a book more personal and inviting than reading in online format. I’ll be honest, I don’t read all that much and most of what I do read is on the computer , but that is because what I do read IS FREE! If I am going to spend money on something I want to have it physically. I don’t want it to corrupt. I don’t want to lose it because my external drive bit the dust (which happens to often). I don’t want to lose it when my laptop, Kindle, I-pad or other digital reading device is lost, stolen, destroyed or otherwise rendered incapable of me using it to read what I had intended.

    I for one will stick to books for that intention.

    Cheers

  13. xun

    xun

    25 April 2010 @ 12:45PM #

    same here. physical books will never be replaced.
    for example, i still love to print my photos, even though i can share them digitally.
    it is the satisfaction that counts :)

  14. Zen Savona

    Zen Savona

    25 April 2010 @ 02:27PM #

    Totally agree, one of the reason i love books is because you can write in them! i know alot of people hate writing in books, but i think that books which are technical (for example my copy of your book has pen throughout) are enriched so much by our own personalisation.

    In my mind books are a beautiful thing that wont be replaces any time soon.

    Zen.

  15. David

    David

    25 April 2010 @ 07:26PM #

    “You’ll still get suits on the tube reading fucking Dan Brown novels” I nearly spat out my coffee laughing at that.

    More seriously, I agree, there’s something amazing about well designed physical products, the smell, the feell, something.
    I’m of the opinion that digital media can actually focus the quality of physical media. You hinted at this when you mentioned the ressurgange of vinyl records, and I think the same is true for the magazine industry. Just one look at services like Stack and you’ll see there are a number of amazing independant magazines still being produced. This doesn’t quite hold true for film though unfortunately, there’s not really an analogue equivalent.

    For some things digital is great though, I think textbooks are a perfect example. The number of times I’ve wished for a search box on some tome of a reference manual.

  16. Heather

    Heather

    25 April 2010 @ 10:32PM #

    I’m reading this sitting next to my overflowing bookcases and I totally agree. The physical “there-ness” of a book is part of the overall experience. Reading a particularly thought-provoking scene, resting the book on your lap and pondering what you’ve just read, that’s part of the experience. The heft of a large novel gives you the sense you’re about to take part on an extensive journey.

    And, I’m not ashamed to admit, it wouldn’t have had the same effect to wait for an email when the last Harry Potter came out, instead of waiting on my porch and seeing the mailman carrying that Amazon box and shouting, “that’s mine, hurry! Hurry!” (Yes, I totally did that.)

    Between the smell, the touch of the paper, the typography, the feel of flipping back and forth between maps or footnotes or the cover, there will never be a replacement for the physical book. Like you said, it’s too much a part of our lives.

    Too much a part of humanity.

  17. Tim Wright

    Tim Wright

    26 April 2010 @ 05:36AM #

    I feel like the concept of e-books is almost exactly the same as that of MP3s. I don’t see why they wouldn’t have the same fate, as long as the mediums continue to improve.

    After playing with the iPad for the first time, it made me not want one even more. Since then, I’ve had numerous other opportunities to convince myself that I need one. But I just don’t. It has all the things I hate about the iPhone, plus it’s bigger, more closed off, and awkward to type. It’s just not for me. But that’s beside the point.

    If the Kindle made a few more enhancements I’d be all for dumping my physical books for e-books. As a reader, the Kindle is far superior and isn’t that “little bit more money” you’re talking about something like $200-$600?

    Not worth it to me, especially having a MB Pro already.

    my2cents

  18. Christoph Zillgens

    Christoph Zillgens

    26 April 2010 @ 04:37PM #

    Hi Elliot!
    You’re absolutely right. You can’t compare iPad and Kindle. While the whole feature list of the iPad isn’t even invented yet, the Kindle is focussed on one thing: Reading books. And in my opinion, they don’t even get this to work properly. I had the chance to test a Kindle a few weeks ago and I was totally disappointed. Beside the downsides mentioned above, the screen also hasn’t enough contrast compared to a printed book. And there is no way to adjust that. It was also strange for me to navigate with a small nipple on the right instead of having a touch screen (ok, that is technically not possible). I also wouldn’t recommend the iPad as an e-book reader alone, but there is so much more you can do with this device PLUS the ability of using it for reading books (or at least magazines) that I don’t see any chance for the Kindle to survive.

  19. Dan Bendt

    Dan Bendt

    26 April 2010 @ 09:37PM #

    Hi Elliot! Great site!

    Digital media will never replace the great works of physical media, in the same way you can’t be fully appreciate the Sistine Chapel unless you’ve seen it in person. The experience is much more visceral than any ultra high resolution picture could ever produce.

    As you mentioned, ebook readers certainly make more sense for books that will undoubtedly have a limited shelf life. But I think there will always be a market for a device that is primarily for reading ebooks. Same for the netbook. Not everyone appreciates “the Apple experience”, and will pay bottom dollar regardless of the extra features they might get.

    I find myself more and more becoming a connoisseur for the things I truly enjoy, and will pay a premium for the best experience — whether that be digital or physical.

  20. Marc

    Marc

    26 April 2010 @ 11:11PM #

    I would have to agree that physical books aren’t going to be replaced by digital books.

    What’s more interesting to forecast is how publishing will be changed by e-books. The music industry was a bit slow to catch up to digital content, so it’ll be interesting to see how publishers adapt to make their work more enjoyable as a physical experience.

  21. Graham L Stocks

    Graham L Stocks

    28 April 2010 @ 05:50PM #

    Nothing can beat the the real physical experience of a book, by chance catching your eye on a shelf, then delving into it to discover unknown treasures and new directions of thought it might inspire! You can’t get that from a digital book list.

    I also feel it is right not to have to rely on a machine and a power source. Is modern man blind without electricity?

    Unfortunately I think children’s education will rely more and more on e-books. The physical pleasures of smell, feel and design as well as history and value could be lost. I hope not.

  22. Thomas

    Thomas

    28 April 2010 @ 09:01PM #

    You’re forgetting that the whole point of e-Readers like the Kindle are the displays. If you’re looking for a dedicated device to read books on, would you rather have a more expensive device with an LED screen that casts glare in sunlight, overheats easily and has a short battery life, or a cheaper device with a screen emulating the appearance of real ink, with a battery life of weeks?
    Apple are sure to make a profit from their whole ‘iBooks’ venture, but people really need to accept that using the iPad as an e-Reader is a bad idea.

  23. Theo

    Theo

    29 April 2010 @ 12:37AM #

    Great article !

    “And if I’m wrong…” I`m sure your not. There will always be a place for books or vinyl as they give you a unique experience that no digital device does. Don`t get my wrong i use e-reders and also listen to music in digital form it`s just not the same.

  24. Natalia Ventre

    Natalia Ventre

    29 April 2010 @ 01:41AM #

    There is no comparison.

    If the cell phone manufactures are still around despite of the iPhone, I think the Kindle and others e-ink devices have a long life ahead.

    I’m not so sure about the real books. Digital audio is popular because MP3 players are extremely cheap, if the reader’s price gets lower, maybe we’ll kiss books goodbye.

  25. Stephen Tiano

    Stephen Tiano

    02 May 2010 @ 11:58PM #

    As a book designer, I’m hoping there’ll always be call for both physical print books and eBooks. My own feeling is that I simply like cracking open a new, print book. And it’s the medium I’ve educated myself to design for. But that’s not all I like.

    Someone commented earlier that coffee table photo books are particularly nice in the physical package. Having just done a book of photoessays, tho’ not a full-sized coffee table book, I heartily agree that some thinks are better in three, touchable dimensions. On the other hand, I do believe the textbook industry could stand the reorganization that textbooks on the iPad could foster.

    How great for a student to be able to hit a link in an eTextbook and, perhaps, be taken to a video that more deeply delves into their subject matter. Just for instance.

    The iPad, it further seems to me, has more of what you want to see in an eBook: color, great rendering of photos. And there’s no denying that its having multiple uses (movies, music, email) makes it a more desirable appliance. On the other hand, I will keep my iPod Touch, as it’s more easily portable; and I love being able to run with it and have it track my times while accompanying me with music.

    I’ll still need my laptop for working away from my studio. And no way I’m giving up my 24" iMac and second 23" Cinema Display in the studio.

    I guess I’m asking whether we can’t just all get along.

  26. Michael Hall

    Michael Hall

    05 May 2010 @ 06:05PM #

    i have to agree, i’ve been meaning to get an ebook reader – any of them, but can’t justify the high cost.

    i’d much rather spend that much moolah or even a little more on a laptop that can do many things along with reading ebooks.

    if all it’s gonna do is let me read ebooks, then it better be priced that way, if it cost almost as much as a laptop then i might as well get a laptop

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