Are E-Books Chasing Imaginary Customers? - InformationWeek

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Commentary
10/21/2009
09:24 AM
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Are E-Books Chasing Imaginary Customers?

Barnes & Noble has unveiled "Nook," its own proprietary electronic reader, and the headlines breathlessly wonder if it's a Kindle killer or whether Apple is about to announce its own. I'm still wondering if anybody wants an e-reader to begin with.

Barnes & Noble has unveiled "Nook," its own proprietary electronic reader, and the headlines breathlessly wonder if it's a Kindle killer or whether Apple is about to announce its own. I'm still wondering if anybody wants an e-reader to begin with.Don't get me wrong, I love technology, and I'm all for using it to solve problems large and small. The book business is certainly in difficult straits these days, and its problems are in many ways similar to those afflicting its brethren of the printed page (i.e. newspapers and magazines). Generally, content publishers have to figure out how to compete with electronic distribution that blows up their claims to authority, and then puts stuff into people's hands faster and more cheaply...if not for free.

But books don't have that particular problem, do they? The medium -- words printed in ink on pages bound between two covers -- is uniquely usable, flexible and durable, and provides an experience that is at once both tangible and abstract. Books aren't broken as much as there are qualitative issues with what gets put into them, and inefficiencies in how they're put into consumer's hands.

More importantly, if a medium is going to replace books, it has to be better at doing what books do, not just add functions. That's why automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages, or how CDs blew away LPs. Adding hyperlinks and shopping functions to text changes the book experience instead of improving it, while leaving the format's fundamental strength (and weakness) unaddressed: people don't read for extended periods like they used to. Books have a habit problem, not a technology problem and, if you're going to read one, the old fashioned analog format has yet to be matched, let alone beat. B&N's Nook doesn't change the game.

That's not to say that e-books can't or won't find many uses, especially in instances where they can replace stacks of books or bring entire libraries to remote locations. And again, I'm really no Luddite on this one. We may well read text hovering in the air before our eyes one day, or perhaps beamed against the screens of our corneas. I'm all for it.

So here's a big idea for getting us closer to that future: how about making an e-book that looks and feels like a book book, only better? Isn't that what the mobile phone business did when it migrated us away from our landlines? Their products still looked and felt like telephones, at least for starters. Why isn't there an e-book that you open, hold, throw around, and otherwise consume like an analog one? The trick would be to get people comfortable using that, and then start moving toward downloading content directly into their brains.

The Nook isn't better, just different, and I wonder whether it even fixes the problems facing the book business. Really cool technology doesn't change the fact that it might be chasing imaginary customers.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, coming in November.

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