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Thursday
Jan282010

Reflections upon Electronic Books & Why in Spite of the iPad, I Probably Still Want a Kindle

First, let me say that with Accordance, Logos & Wordsearch all installed on my MacBook Pro, I literally carry with me thousands of books everyday. Thus, you can't say that I haven't embraced electronic texts. I've done that probably more than a lot of people.

And yet, I still have a soft spot for a good old fashioned, physical book. I can curl up on the couch with a good book, but not so easily with my laptop. I always joke that you can't read an electronic book in the bathtub--or at least you shouldn't (however, it's probably been over a decade since I read a book in a bathtub anyway). I still like to use a physical Bible when teaching or preaching in front of others. For that matter, I still enjoy the exercise of writing actual notes in the margins of my Bible as part of my preparation--even though I often do the same thing electronically in Accordance (certainly much more than I use to). There's something that I get experientially from physical books that I don't yet get from technology. But keep in mind that having said that, I still own thousands of electronic books--so I'm not being a Luddite here.

Regardless, I believe that while physical books will never completely go away, the electronic book is going to be an increasing presence. Supposedly, Amazon sold more books for its Kindle over the holidays than physical books for the first time ever. If true, I'm not surprised. And the new iPad may be an example of what Apple often does best--taking an already existing technology and moving it into the mainstream.

I was never interested in an electronic e-reader beyond my own MacBook Pro until about 3 or 4 months ago when I held a Kindle in my hand. Before that, I had rejected the Kindle as yet another gadget that probably most of us didn’t need. As already mentioned, I carry thousands of books, mostly biblical reference works, on my laptop, so why would a Kindle be necessary anyway?

But I ran into this guy—a pastor of a church—at a Starbucks, and we struck up a conversation about the Kindle. He had one and told me that it made buying books so easy and was so portable, he’d read well over 50 books last year. That’s much more than I read.

What really got me was the screen on the Kindle. Yes, I have thousands of books on my laptop, but I essentially use them all as reference. I never read one from beginning to end because my laptop screen is too hard on my eyes after extended periods of time. Not so with the Kindle from what I saw in my brief enounter. The Kindle had a screen that was very relaxing to the eyes. I really could see myself actually reading whole books on this thing.

Since the Kindle reads PDF files, I could also see myself converting some of my books on my laptop to PDF format and carrying them with me on a Kindle. In fact, I imagine that would be my main use for a Kindle. I definitely wanted one after I saw one first hand. But I'll come back to that.

There are other ramifications for the electronic texts and readers. Yesterday, the New York Times was given prominent treatment during the iPad announcement. The New York Times has already been experimenting with newspaper subscriptions that only show up on the Kindle. You wake up in the morning, turn on your Kindle and the NY Times is already downloaded on it. They are actually pushing a lot of subscribers to go this route because it removes the cost of delivery and actually is cheaper in the long run (even factoring in the cost of the device) for subscribers. Not to mention saving the wasteful cost of printing something on paper everyday. Electronic delivery could very well save the newspaper industry if they could get enough people to subscribe. And of course a device like Apple's iPad offers the benefit of multimedia that the Kindle doesn't currently offer. Suddenly even we muggles now have moving pictures in our newspapers.

Think also about textbooks. When I was in college, I kept a few of the books that were in my major area of study—I still have some of them—but like most students, I didn’t keep the majority of my books. I sold them back. What if the price of textbooks could be significantly decreased—perhaps even cut in half—by allowing them to be downloaded to a Kindle or an iPad or other similar device? The publishers should like the idea because it eliminates the reselling of textbooks which brings in no money back to them. Students would like it because electronic books should be much cheaper. I could even see a scenario in which a student registers for her classes and by the time she gets back to her dorm room, all of her textbooks for the quarter were already downloaded to her Kindle or iPad. I could imagine a similar situation in high schools, too. There's an incredible amount of potential for electronic texts in education

For me electronic texts on my personal computer have been a boon. I really appreciate not having to carry a stack of books with me to work on a project. I use the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary as a prime example of the benefits of an electronic edition. I've got both the physical set of the AYBD and a copy in Accordance. The physical set is six thick volumes. The electronic set is simply virtual. Further, the physical set does not have an index. You might wonder why an index would be needed with a dictionary, but you'd be surprised. Without an index, I have to search for a subject second guessing the way the editors would have arranged it. Plus, sometimes an subject is covered in more than one article. The physical set makes further treatment difficult to find, but an electronic copy that is searchable makes it much easier. Also, note in the graphic on the right that in the Accordance version of the AYBD, I can search specifically for certain fields. Besides the benefit of searching for the content of the dictionary, I can also zero in specifically on the way the dictionary treats biblical references, or search for all articles written by a certain author and more.

A concern I often hear in regard to electronic texts is whether or not they will be accessible twenty years from now. Think about it--I have a copy of Huckleberry Finn that was printed in the first half of the 20th century. It was given to me by my great aunt. As long as I take care of it, I should still be able to read it when I'm an old man. But how do I know that I will still be able to read an electronic text in 30 years that I've invested in now? That's a legitimate question, but one that the eventual creation of standard formats will answer.

I'm not worried about my investments in my biblical software. This is a field that is essentially all these companies do, and they've been doing it for quite some time. In a worse case scenario, if Company X were to get into financial trouble, I would think it would be worth another company's effort to acquire them and their customer base. Although certain variations of this scenario would be more frightening than others, I'm not worried about my current investment in this area.

For electronic texts seen in devices like the Kindle or iPad, however, it's important that standards can emerge. In an earlier experiment with electronic texts a few years ago, Amazon sold PDF versions of certain books. These texts had digital rights management built in to keep a purchaser from copying it willy nilly for his friends. I bought one of these PDF versions and have it to this day on my laptop. Unfortunately, I cannot open it. It was tied to the computer on which I purchased it. Amazon can't help me because they no longer sell the book. This is the kind of nightmare scenario that one fears if a significant investment is made into electronic texts. My decades old copy of Huck Finn on my shelf simply isn't affected by that kind of problem.

There's the other issue of ownership. Electronic books are virtual, made up of bytes of information on a storage device of some kind. Last year, Amazon made quite a stink when after discovering they'd sold electronic copies of George Orwell's 1984 for which they didn't have permission, they simply yanked them from Kindle owners who had bought the book via the Kindle's wireless connection. Not surprisingly, a store credit was not satisfactory to their customers. You know, if I buy an accidentally unauthorized printing of 1984, the manager of Barnes & Noble can't come into my home and take it off my bookshelf. Due to the outcry, Amazon has promised not to do this again, but the very idea that they could, is still a bit unnerving.

Yesterday, as you know unless you were hiding in a cave, Steve Jobs formally introduced the iPad. The worst kept secret in the computer industry, this "portable media device" promises to be something more than an iPhone/iPod Touch, but less than a full laptop computer. It's been called a "Kindle killer," but I hope this isn't so. I hope there's still room for both devices, but I also hope that the price of the Kindle comes down a bit in case I decide to eventually get one.

If you read the tech press at all, there's a surprising number of people disappointed with the new iPad. Paul Thurrott, for instance, has already written two posts about his disappointment with the iPad (see here and here). In his first post, he writes, "The thing I don't get here is... So far, nothing new. This has all been done before elsewhere. I'm astonished this isn't nicer looking or more interesting." But as much as I respect Paul, I think he misses the point. Yes, the iPad is less powerful than even a netbook, but for many people the iPad will be all the computer they need.

I know of no certain figures, but I would guess that there are a large percentage of computer users who do little more than read email, surf the web, and occasionally use a word processor. They don't need everything a full-fledged computer offers (whether laptop, desktop or even netbook). And while netbooks are nice (I even have an Acer Aspire One D250), they have many compromises that make them difficult to use as a main computer. But for the folks who don't need a full computer, the iPad may be ideal.

For education especially, the iPad will be beneficial. Not only do I imagine a scenario as I described above where one device could hold all of a student's textbooks, but with word processing capabilities as demonstrated yesterday with iWork Pages, it becomes a complete device for many users. And if you don't like iWork, don't worry. There will be plenty of other word processors available within a couple of years. If the iPad is successful--and I think it will be--I wouldn't even be surprised to see Microsoft release a version of Office for it. And I wonder what Google Docs would be like on the iPad right now?

The iPad will also be a very good option for people who need a smaller, less-capable, secondary computer. That's why I bought my Acer netbook to begin with. There are times when I don't need to take a full computer with me. Church is a good example. I teach on Sunday mornings from Keynote, but I wanted something less than my 15" MacBook Pro to carry with me. I had dreams of buying a netbook and making it into a Hackintosh and running Keynote from it. But that hasn't worked as well as I wanted and I'm back to using my MacBook Pro. So, of course, I'm very intrigued by the fact that the iPad has its own version of Keynote. I could also picture myself sitting in a church service taking notes on an iPad, something that I simply feel too conspicuous doing on a regular laptop.

There are also many times when I wished that my iPhone had a keyboard of its own. On an occasional weekend getaway, I don't necessarily want to take a whole computer, but I would like to keep up with email. The iPad would be perfect for this kind of use.

However, I want to see how Keynote really works on an iPad before I'd ever commit to one. When I teach with Keynote, I make extensive use of my notes in Keynote which show up on the presenter's screen but not on the projector. I have my doubts that the iPad will make use of extended desktops--at least in its initial version.

[Side note: Having read rumors that the iPad would have it's own version of the iWork suite, I was secretly hoping that Apple would release a Windows version of iWork. You might laugh, but that's not without precident since Apple's previous office suite, Claris/AppleWorks had a Windows version. This would have solved a main problem with the use of the Netbook. Currently I have Windows 7 installed on it for lack of a better solution, and a Windows version of Keynote would allow me to use it on Sunday mornings again.]

Thus, I really do think that in spite of the naysayers, the iPad is a significant offering. Yes, there have been tablet computers and e-readers and all the rest. But they've never been mainstream. The iPad may be the just right mix of everything that many people will realize that they don't need something more powerful. But time will tell.

I also hope that the iPad is not a "Kindle killer." I hope that there is room for both devices. Many people may just need a Kindle for reading without all the features of the iPad. Regardless, I think Amazon will be fine either way. They already have a Kindle reader for the iPhone which will presumably run just fine on the iPad. Even if they were to eventually quit manufacturing the Kindle device, Amazon could still sell books for their reader that would work on the iPad.

If Apple is successful with the iPad, I may want one eventually, but not the first generation. I had the first generation iPhone, but this time I think I'll sit back and let some of the rest of you work out the first generation bugs. The second generation iPhone was much better than the initial iPhone, and I imagine it will be the same for the iPad.

In the meantime, I'd still like to convert a number of my electronic texts to PDFs and read them on a Kindle. I have a hunch that four hours of straight reading on a Kindle is easier on the eyes than what it would be on an iPad. So, I'll be watching to see if the prices come down. Or if you want to yours, maybe you can make me an offer I can't refuse.

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Reader Comments (19)

When my wife's Macbook is dead, I would replace it with an iPad. She primarily uses it for internet, email, and an occasional word processing doc.

One thing that didn't seem to be addressed in detail is whether or not the enhanced photo viewing will include image editing. Will there be an iPhoto equivalent? This would be huge. Granted, there are already pretty basic apps for the iPhone, but the ability to import pics, edit them, and then sync with iPhoto on a desktop/macbook would be ideal.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick Bennett

Yes, even my wife wants one after she saw it. And I think it probably could replace the functionality of her MacBook Air. She was pleased to see Keynote on it, too, as she uses that pretty regularly with her work.

As for the issue with editing photos, it will be interesting to see how self-contained the iPad is. Is it possible to uses it fully without ever connecting it to another computer? That will be a real test.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

Interesting take, Rick. Seems like a pretty good product overall that builds on the strength of other excellent products, but you nailed my main concern when you said, "I have a hunch that four hours of straight reading on a Kindle is easier on the eyes than what it would be on an iPad." As the iPad has a backlit screen (unlike the Kindle), I don't believe it would be suitable for long-term reading as our eyes are just not built to take that kind of strain.

I work in IT, use a Mac and iPhone, and generally appreciate good technology. I would say the iPad is good technology, but maybe not the most useful nor necessary. It will be interesting to see whether or not it's a "game-changer". In the meantime, I'll stick with printed books.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Peterson

Keep your b/w one thing Kindle then. The iPad has just blown away and has now started a new category when it comes to tablet computing. Watch the keynote and you will fully understand what this thing is capable of today and its future.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterslappy

After getting a Kindle for Christmas I have found the same experience as your pastor friend did with his. It's easy to read on... really easy. I think it will out perform the iPad in that regard.

And I think that is where the Kindle succeeds. As you said, it does one thing and does it well. I've found that copying small portions of books from my bible software libraries over to my Kindle has helped me when I needed to read through them too.

The Kindle is for books and reading, the iPad is for... well I'm still trying to figure that out.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

One advantage to the iPad is that it's multifunctional. Many people are intrigued by the idea of ebooks, but not yet ready to take the plunge with a Kindle. But if they're buying an iPad anyway---and I think you're right on with the likely market for this, Rick---then they will probably try purchasing a book or two. I'm sure iBooks will be as easy to use as iTunes. If the pricing for books is right, this could significantly increase the use of electronic texts.

If I wasn't planning on buying a MacBook soon and handing off my iBook G4 to my wife for her limited web browsing, etc., then I'd be seriously looking at an iPad for a second computer. As it stands, they have decisively situated the iPad midway between the iPhone and a notebook. I personally would prefer that it replace, and transcend, one or the other (or both!).

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Parton

I probably should have worded that last sentence differently. I'm not asking Apple to phase out any existing product line in favor of the iPad, but I'm also not interested in purchasing yet another kind of device. I would love for it be able to replace either an iPhone or a MacBook for those like me who are looking for better---but fewer---gadgets, not more.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Parton

I think the iPad would be great. I am in the IT industry and I bring my laptop with me pretty much everywhere for teh purpose of checking emails, web browsing, word processing, etc. The iPad would be ideal. As well I am alwais listening to music on my iPod touch and I do a fair amount of reading on it, ie: the Bible and other etexts along that line. All of this stuff would be much easier on an iPad. One ntoe about Keynote. On apple.com there is a video of the full iPod launch. Jobs does a presentation with the iPad. When he is doing the presentation he is using an iPad and there is a large screen showing what he was doing. The large screen was going right long with his talking. My first thought was that the timing was pretty good. My second thought was that it would be great if you could extend the desktop. So as I was watching I seen the iPad screen and the actions on the iPad screen were the exact same as the screen. I looked to me that the desktop was extended. I can't say for sure if it was but it sure looked like it. I didn't watch the who video (it was long) I skipped through to different parts, so Thay may have talked about this feature.

Anyways, 2 thumbs up to the iPad.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim

With regard to the category of eBook readers, might I suggest you look at some of the Kindle's competitors before you buy. My wife bought me a Sony Reader Touch Edition ($299 MSRP) and I absolutely love it. It does not have the wireless capability of the Kindle but it works like an iPod. I have a Reader application on my MacBook Pro. I purchase books through the Sony Reader Store and they are downloaded to my computer. I can connect my Reader via USB cable and it synchs just like an iPod with iTunes. The Reader Store also is tied in with Google Books and you can download any of the public domain Google titles for free and they are optimized for the Sony Reader. Sony does make a 3G wireless model called the Daily Edition ($399 MSRP). Unfortunately, it uses the AT&T network as does the Kindle. We live in rural area not covered by the AT&T network and thus the 3G wireless capability is worthless to me. I am intrigued by the new Barnes & Noble Nook. It offers many of the same features as the Sony Reader and Kindle but it offers WiFi AND 3G. And the price is right at $259.

BTW, there is a standard format, ePUB, that is accepted by all of the eBook readers with which I am familiar. Of course Amazon does have a proprietary Kindle format but it will read the ePUB format.

Anyway, check out the Sony Readers and the B&N Nook. I believe if I was going to buy one now I would probably go with the Nook because of the WiFi.

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKenny

Alot of bloggers are not really pleased with the new iPad.There was 2 much hoopla over it and lots of people got turned off.Quite frankly, I for one see some of the cool potential uses of this gadget. Third-party applications for composing music, games, newsprints and magazines and books, tons of neat stuff, but they just didn't really sell it properly (excluding the books). It looks sort of undercooked

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPamella Parmer

The bloggers who criticize the iPad are (again) missing what it is. The iPod did not have revolutionary features when it came out. The iPhone didn't have revolutionary FEATURES when it came out. The iPhone did have a new kind of interface that was very well executed, but most of the same bloggers were saying it didn't have the features of a Blackberry, it didn't have a keyboard, it didn't even do a very good job with SMS, which is all the rage now. Uh huh.

I believe the Kindle will end up as a $150 device for books only, and the iPad will be a $500 device for books, magazines, and media. THey'll co-exist, with the Kindle as the cheaper, purist choice.

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWayne

Wayne, I agree 100% with both your points.

And I think that Amazon should release a wifi-only Kindle. I personally don't need the 3G connection or whatever it is that it uses.

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

I'm not sure I understand the reasoning behind the hope that book prices (especially textbooks) will drop for an electronic format. With as cheap as it is to print a book, the only thing I can see driving the high prices of textbooks are intellectualy property (which won't go away no matter what the format is) and possibly the used book market as you mentioned. I just find it hard to believe the used book market drives a significant portion of the $100+ cost of textbooks.

Is there something I'm missing here?

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Maybe.

I've no doubt that publishers will get every penny out of consumers of electronic texts that they can. Having said that, though, there's something psychological about electronic distribution channels for music, books and videos. For the average example of any of these, $9.99 has turned into the magic number in which the average person will spend their money. If prices are much higher or even equitable, many consumers will simply prefer to have the physical item.

Publishers don't have as wide of a margin as they used to. Yes, there's the cost of raw materials and printing the book, but there's more than that. There's also the cost of distribution (shipping). If shipping and physical production is cut out, warehouses can be cut out. Now reasonably, as I already mentioned, I don't think that physical books are going to go away, but we may see significant reductions. If the industry could be moved to a place where electronic texts were outselling physical texts, at the very least there'd be less need for the warehouses. And of course, if publishers switched to a print on demand system, even more so.

A publisher can theoretically make more money on a $9.99 electronic text than a $25 physical text.

As for textbooks themselves, no I don't think we'll see $9.99 organic chemistry books. And I certainly don't think these books are necessarily worth the prices that they are currently going for. However, as many recent textbooks add more illustrations and more graphics than a couple of decades ago when I was in college, I have no doubt that they cost more to produce.

But if a $100 textbook could be reduced to $50 or $75 even in an electronic copy--especially if it was a non-static copy--that would be a step in the right direction. I think there's serious possibility of this happening.

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

Ah, that makes sense. Thanks for the insight. I wasn't even thinking about things such as warehousing or distribution. I can imagine that that would be a serious overhead burden that gets transferred to the book price, especially on lower print numbers like I imagina college textbook would be (less economy of scale).

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Rick, this is the only Apple product that I will buy. Keep in mind that the iPhone was in many ways a testing platform for the iPad. They have learned a great deal of what people expect, and how the device should work. So the first Gen iPad should be really good since it's small brother has had plenty of testing.

I can't wait for it, and will purchase one as soon as it is released. The only enhancement that I can see is the dual screen capability that various companies are working on where you can switch from eInk tech to LCD. That would help a great deal with reading books for long periods of time. Wondering how my eyes will handle reading on the iPad.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Jimenez

Robert, for what it's worth, I'm leaning toward an iPad over a Kindle at the moment. e-reader aside, the killer app for me is Keynote which I use all the time. I'd love to simply carry the iPad with me instead of my entire laptop when I teach.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

buy up all the kindle books you can while you can because they won't be $9.99 much longer.....

February 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

[...] know you’ll think I’m wishy washy, but after declaring last month that I wanted a Kindle in spite of the iPad, I’ve changed my mind. Maybe this was the genius of Apple. Rather than letting anyone order [...]

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