Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Books Vs E-Readers - My Reservations About E-Readers

In my last post i focused on The Benefits of E-Readers, however there are some issues with them, that for me, are potential deal breakers.

You Never Really Own The Product - Your use of an e-book is not absolute. Effectively you pay a company to borrow the book indefinitely and they can chose to take it back whenever they want. You might think, that in the same way that you own a book, you would own an e-book. This is not the case, last year Amazon released a version of 1984 on Kindle and shortly thereafter withdrew it from sale. However it didn't stop there, in an ironically Orwellian twist, they also removed the e-book from the Kindle of everyone who had already bought it too. Ok they refunded the people who had bought it, but how would you feel if your favourite book one day disappeared from your e-reader? Worse still, that case was handled well. People got a refund and a replacement was offered quite promptly afterwards, but that is unlikely to always be the case. There is no reason an unscrupulous provider couldn't chose to selectively censor content or just decide to arbitrarily remove books on a whim. Even if the provider was not being malicious, many of the e-readers rely on a connection to a server to authenticate content. If that connection is lost, the content ceases to work. It could be a temporary outage, or the company could go bankrupt, either way you would lose access to something you have paid for. This is easily my biggest concern with e-readers and unless it is addressed, i can't see me making important purchases only electronically.

Useful Life - As with all computer files, how sure are you that you will be able to access an e-book in 3, 5 or 10 years time? A physical book, provided it is kept well, should be just as readable in 100 years time as it is now. An electronic file? ... who knows. Software and hardware change so quickly, that you cannot be sure that it will be easy to read the file in the future, especially if it is in a proprietary format or uses DRM. Similarly to the above point there is a good chance that you could lose access to something that you have paid for. 

You Rely On Power - You can use a book anywhere, anytime ... except in the dark. An e-reader on the other hand is always reliant on having a power supply. It might only last 10 hours between charges like an iPad, or it might last 7 days like a Kindle. Either way if you lose/forget the power adapter, there is an extended power cut or you are somewhere remote, you are screwed. The same could be said for an MP3 player or a mobile phone, however the alternatives to those technologies require power too, a book does not. Power outlets are popping up all over the place these days, due to the prevalence of laptops and mobile phones, but it is still less flexible than a book.

You can't flick through an e-book - This is a minor point, that i'm sure could be adequately overcome with a good way to search the e-book. However one of the advantages of books is that you can flick through them quickly. You might remember roughly what the page looked like or where it was through the book and a quick flick will help you locate it. Certainly with e-ink, this is not feasible on an e-reader, the refresh time is a few seconds, so potentially it could take quite a while to 'flick' through an e-book. This is less of an issue with more traditional LCD displays, however it still wouldn't be as fast.

Hardware cost - A book is self-contained, you don't need anything else to use it, an e-reader requires additional hardware. Now that would be fine, if the purchase price of the e-books reflected the lack of printing and distribution costs. Unfortunately they don't, at the moment e-books generally cost the same as (if not more than) hard copy books. So there is no ROI, there is no tipping point where spending £300 on an iPad will save you money, if you buy more than say 60 books a year. The e-reader system, under the current pricing, will always be more expensive. Things become even more expensive if you don't read a lot. For example if you only buy 5 books a year and e-reader hardware lasts 2 years, you are paying an extra £30/book for the privilege of getting an electronic copy. 

Second Hand Sales / Sharing - Unlike a real book, there is no way to sell or lend an e-book. Once you have paid for an e-book you are stuck with it. It might suck, you might never want to look at it again, but there is no way to recoup any of what you paid by selling or trading it. You also can't lend a great e-book to a friend, while it would be technically feasible, it isn't really in the publishers interest. In their view, as the printing and distribution costs are zero, why shouldn't your friend just buy a copy. Even if there was a system where you could share e-books, it would rely on your friend having the same (or compatible) hardware as you. With a book you can sell, trade or lend it at your discretion. 

Regional Restrictions - For me the most annoying thing in the iTunes store is; "this content is not available in your region". Why the hell not? What does it matter where i am located, i am prepared to pay, it doesn't cost them any more to send it to me, so why turn down a sale. The only reasons for regional restrictions are; 1) With physical products you have to ship them, sometimes you don't have enough to ship or it takes longer to ship to certain places. In this case regional restrictions make some sense, why serve 2 markets poorly when you can serve one, then the other, well. However this is not even remotely applicable for electronic products, they cost nothing to reproduce or deliver, so why restrict their sale. Which leads us to; 2) It allows content providers to gouge certain locations at different rates. If a company has enough control and can charge twice as much in one place as another, why wouldn't they. In the past this worked acceptably, but only because it was not easy for people to find out if they were being gouged or find lower cost alternatives. With the internet people are immediately aware if they are being charged more and are often able to source cheaper alternatives. It is a global economy so why are there still regional restrictions?

Availability - I know i listed this as an advantage on Monday and while availability would generally be improved, there are a number of situations where it would not be as good. Provided a book is available in your language, you can have it shipped anywhere and use it. I used to get books shipped from the UK to Australia, because even including the postage charges, they were half the price and there was a better selection. That would not have been an option if i had a Kindle or an iPad and was stuck with the Australian store. It is also likely, that many older or more obscure books are not available electronically and therefore could not be purchased. That will improve as it becomes more economically viable to scan and digitise books, but it may never be economically viable for some titles.

So as you can see, there are as many problems with e-readers as benefits. Next I will look at barriers to the adoption of e-readers and in particular Why E-books Are Not The Same As MP3s.

Books Vs E-Readers Series
3 - My Reservations About E-Readers

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