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 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]

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