Tuesday, March 30, 2010

$25 eBook Reader Application Scenarios

My sixth grader goes to school with a 14 pound backpack. A few years ago, Consumer Reports weighed  backpacks at three New York schools and found that sixth graders had the heaviest backpacks, averaging over 18 pounds. A lot of that weight is textbooks, and there's a lot of concern that kids are hurting themselves by carrying around so much stuff.

The Kindle 2 weighs only 9 ounces; shoppers will take home 22 oz. iPads starting this Saturday. How long will it be before schools start issuing ebook readers instead of textbooks?

The big issue, of course, is cost. In my last post, I compared ebook readers to digital watches and other consumer electronics products that saw dramatic price reductions in the years following their introduction. It is inevitable that ebook reader prices will also come down to a point where they can find new applications such as textbooks for school children.

Another possible application is libraries. I've written several times about the difficulties ebooks pose for libraries, but I've not discussed a scenario that's becoming increasingly popular: libraries loaning ebook readers to patrons.

Most libraries that have tried ebook reader lending have found the programs to be popular with patrons. Typically a number of Kindles are loaded with a set of ebooks; sometimes all the Kindles have the same collection; sometimes different books are loaded onto different Kindles and somehow the library has to track which Kindles have which books. Patrons have to be instructed not to use the library Kindle to buy extra books. Unfortunately libraries don't have the budgets they would need to scale these programs.

So far, though, there's not been an ebook reader or reader loading system designed with library lending in mind. Imagine that the readers have dropped to $25 a piece. At that price, it would make sense to issue library reader devices (with a deposit) instead of library cards. If the library circulation system was designed specifically for use with dedicated reader devices, a patron could have access to a universe of books while in the library building; there would likely be a limit on the number that could be taken home. The reader device and circulation system would be designed so as to allay the legitimate concerns that publishers have with ebook distribution by libraries.

The Twilight Saga CollectionAnother possibility is that content could be locked onto cheap reader devices. Imagine going to Target ten years from now, and instead of seeing stacks of the latest After Twilight Saga hardcover at the checkout, imagine seeing stacks of ebook readers preloaded with all ten novels in the Twilight and After Twilight series. Locking the content onto the reader device would enable all the reuse and resale that's possible with print books today- the buyer could lend the reader to friends, sell to a used book shop, or just keep it on a "book"-shelf in its attractive cover.

Each of these scenarios supposes that ebook readers will evolve to become increasingly inexpensive single function devices like the Kindle, and that they will diverge from general purpose media consumption devices like the iPad. A device designed specifically for reading will deliver a better reading experience at a lower price than one designed to support 3D video and gaming.

If you disagree, consider this question: How much reading would my sixth grader be doing if all his textbooks were issued on a gaming machine?
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  1. If a $50 reader would be a disaster, we'll soon find out!

  2. Here's where the interesting analogy breaks down: if the usage scenarios you're postulating here, everyone owns not AN ebook reader, but many -- hundreds or even thousands for some people who own that many books. Whereas you only need one iPod or iPad (or, I guess, iPud must be in the pipeline). I can't imagine ever wanting to own more than two or three instances of the same piece of harware, however cheap.

  3. I've been trying to think of an example of a device that we don't shudder at owning more than three of them. Here's what I've come up with: the ball point pen. USB thumb drives. Clocks.

  4. rothman spouted this same idiocy for years.

    you can't make an e-book-machine for $50,
    let alone actually _sell_ at that retail-price...


  5. This would be a somewhat elegant way of solving the copyright "first sale" problem with digital media -- locking the digital media back into the trelm of the physical -- but I think that is where the elegance ends. The envinonmental impacts are huge (all of those devices will need some charge even if we stick with passive e-ink displays). The analogy to the things-I-have-more-than-one-of falls down: ball point pens and USB keys are disposable devices and clocks tend to be fixed in location.

    Multiple $10 devices would also be bucking the trend in portable electronics. We are seeing the rise of multifunction devices. Smartphones are filling the role of GPS receiver, camera, internet terminal, and reading device (and, oh yeah, a phone) to the detriment to the proliferation of the single use versions of each of those. The iPad -- as a new class of multifunction device -- will likely accelerate this trend as other tablet makers come on board.