stevejobs2Movie rentals and a slim, wallet-thinning laptop are the big things out of Apple right now. No e-book-friendly tablet. The rumors persist. But no official product announcements come.

So what’s really up with Apple and E?

Could this be at least part of the reason why the e-book-fit tablet somehow never materializes? The New York Times interviewed Jobs and reported:

“Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading.

“‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said. ‘Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.'”

Part of the literacy problem?

Hmm. Could Jobs and Apple be part of the problem—at least through omission? His company is well wired into the U.S. educational system and years ago could have pushed a Newton-type tablet for reading. No, Apple can’t single-handedly turn American schools around. But what if Jobs used his marketing skills just a little less to plug multimedia—and a lot more to champion e-books (and suitable preparation for teachers and librarians, so E would be blended into the curricula)? It’s no secret that kids are gravitating toward screens. They may go to the libraries, but all too often it’s the computer terminals rather than the books they’re lining up for. Reading Web pages on a screen isn’t the same as enjoying a p- or e-book—and the sustained thoughts of the writer, followed by the reader’s own. So give us that tablet, please, ideally at an affordable price.

Surprise ahead?

I’m writing this while taking Jobs at face value. With Apple you never know; Jobs has been known to indulge in his share of disinforming. I’d love him to do the rumored tablet or at least to encourage the development of good e-book software for the iPhone.

Meanwhile perhaps the MacBook Air, the Twiggy-thin laptop, can be used as an e-book reader. But it’s not the same as a tablet and the price is certainly beyond K-12 budgets. Come on, Steve. You can do better. Your company put out the Big Bro commercial against IBM. What better recipe for an Orwellian society than an illiterate, ignorant citizenry?

Related: My review of the XO, where I complain that the current startup screen on the OLPC machine disses books despite the impressive display. The hardware itself is superb for E purposes, and FBReader is a nice fix for those comfortable with it.

(Thanks, Jason.)

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  1. I seem to recall that particular stat was in reference to books bought new not read. It may be that many people buy used books, trade with friends, or go to the library. And hey. Guess what. If 40% read only one book a year, that means that 60% read more than one book a year. Factor in college students and high school students. Both groups are notorious for not reading. Even if only 5% of the population were reading more than five books a year, that’s 15,000,000 freaking people. If only 8% of those people bought a Kindle or other eBook reader, that’s an audience of 1,200,000 people. Would you ignore a demographic that large just because it wasn’t a majority? Jobs is spoiled from selling mp3 players.

  2. So, taking Jobs at face value, 60% of Americans read at least two books each year.

    That’s a hell of a lot more people than use a Mac OS X-equipped computer each year, so I’m not sure what he’s complaining about. Compared to the Mac’s market share, this is a huge opportunity for Apple!

    Seriously, though. Jobs might want to go into this new fangled invention called the bookstore sometimes. *Somebody* must be buying enough books to keep these huge ass Barnes and Nobles and Borders in business, especially when they have competition in the form of libraries that don’t even charge to read their books! (Damn pirates).

  3. As usual statistics mean what the speaker wants them to mean and aren’t very telling. Jobs forgets that Apple only had 2% of the computer market and currently only has 7%, which would, statistically, make Apple and Jobs a loser. But enough denigration of the computer guru.

    Before I move on to my main point regarding reading, I would like to say that no, the new Mac Air would make a terrible ebook reader, if not the worst possible one. Why? Two reasons: 1. The machine costs $1800. 2. The battery cannot be replaced. Would you want your 10-year-old to have that kind of machine for book reading?

    Of primary concern is the matter of the younger generation not reading. Sadly true, but the fix isn’t ebooks; rather, the fix is getting teachers and parents to read and to require reading.

    My kids are readers (well, they aren’t kids, except to me, any more, the youngest being 26) and I’ll take credit for that, thank you. Why? Because I started reading to them from infancy. Nearly every night I read something to them. When they got old enough, we had 2 family reading sessions every night: the first was with I or my wife reading to everyone else; the second was each of us reading our own book quietly for 30 minutes. Only then could they watch any TV.

    As they got older still, we made biweekly trips to the bookstore. The kids were told to pick out any book they wanted to buy. The only requirements were that the book had to be challenging (reading level) and that if bought they had to read it and then provide an oral summary of it before the nextg trip to the bookstore. They were allowed to buy more than 1 book if they could read all of them before the next bookstore trip.

    All along, however, the family reading sessions continued, not ending until they were 8 or 9. By that time we had been through Tolkien’s The Hobbit several times (the kids kept asking that it be read to them). My final push to read for them was with their teachers. When the teacher sent home a research assignment, I required the children to go to the library and research it as I had to do in my youth. No googling until they had demonstrated good library research skills.

    My kids also had a good example in me. In those days, I read 2-3 books a week; now I’m distracted by the magazines I need to read so I read fewer books over a longer period. But it paid off. My son, for example, reads a couple of books a week — either borrowing from my personal library or buying them at the bookstore.

    So to cure the book illiteracy parents and teachers have to insist on old-fashion reading and not on googling or watching TV. We need to accept the challenge because books are knowledge and without knowledge there is no future.

  4. David writes:

    I’m writing this while taking Jobs at face value. With Apple you never know; Jobs has been known to indulge in his share of disinforming.

    Do you mean to tell us that you don’t take everything His Steveness says as gospel, David? I’m shocked! 😉

    You may recall that shortly after the introduction of the iPod Jobs made a similar statement about personal video players, something to the effect of, “Nobody wants to watch a movie or TV show on a tiny little screen, so Apple will never make an iPod that supports video.” We all know how well that statement held up over time.

    I’m confident we’ll see an Apple tablet before too terribly long, possibly later this year. I found yesterday’s MacWorld announcements rather ho-hum compared to years past; I suspect Apple had hoped to announce the tablet but was unable to do so because it’s not quite ready for prime time yet.

    The best evidence that there is, in fact, a tablet under development is an article that appeared last week on Wired’s web site. In discussing the development of the iPhone, the article states, “Apple’s hardware engineers had spent about a year working on touchscreen technology for a tablet PC and had convinced him that they could build a similar interface for a phone.”

    Will this product make a great e-reader? Probably. Will it be a dedicated e-reader? No way. Will it be cost-competitive with other dedicated e-readers? Ha!

    Apple has always had a strong focus on the educational market, and I predict Jobs will change his tune once e-textbooks begin to appear on the market. The Mac tablet will already be available by then, and Steve may even be willing to produce a reasonably priced, stripped-down version of the tablet to capture market share amongst college students.

  5. i agree that this widely-picked up quote from steve is more of his classic sleight of hand. he said in the past that they would never do video (as Todd, above, mentions), that they had no interest in doing a phone, and many other things, i’m sure. now that amazon’s become a competitor for the itunes store, it would be *perfect* for apple to go tit-for-tat and release a tablet/ebook device that would put the kindle to shame. steve’s just misdirecting, this i believe….

  6. I agree, ironically movie versions of books like “1984” and “Farenheit 451” made me think about this and then started to read more. I hope to read even more when using an e-reader, as I’m quite lazy to move and tired all time by some non-dangerous health problems.

    I think people is becoming a lot more stupid and one of the reasons is the excessive use of audiovisual content. People lacks ability to concentrate, processing and assimilate information that isn’t ready to get like in a fast food restaurant. This is making society to becoming a lot worser and, who will be the smart people that will make societies functioning and advancing in technology?

    Wasn’t supposed that the evolution of our societies is about the machines will do the hard physical work and we will concentrate into the intellectual work?

    And about Steve Jobs, he just want media attention. Don’t care of his words, let him be happy with his Disney shares and looking the “don’t be evil” rebel of Silicon Valley when he’s now one of the (evil) corporative ones at the level of IBM or Microsoft, but with the exception of having a niche market (professionals of audio/video/desktop publishing) that they care reasonably very well.

  7. In my post of a couple of weeks ago, I tried to calculate what kind of reading someone would need to do to justify a dedicated $400 eBook reader (it works out to a lot of books). If most Americans read only three or four (or zero), that means they aren’t really in the market. Which is one reason why I believe we should continue to push multifunction device makers to add eBooks as an option. If nothing else, it allows an entry path to larger-screen devices as people given the opportunity to read want to upgrade to a better experience.

    Of course, Amazon’s core market is people who read lots of books–which is why the Kindle is a good business decision for them. Because te Kindle has switching costs–if you buy paper books, you can shop around to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local half-price used bookstore. But once you’re a Kindle owner, it’s just so easy to buy from the Kindle store (although Fictionwise is doing its best to make that an attractive option, too).

    I agree that a multifunction Apple tablet at an affordable price, would be a wonderful product. I’ll believe the great price when I see it. One thing Apple has always believed in is premium pricing.

    Rob Preece

  8. Mike: Which reading stats? Give me more clues and I’ll do what I can to retrieve the info. Thanks.

    On another topic, sorry about the posting difficulties you mentioned in an e-mail. A cache-related issue may have caused the post not to register. Robert will be working on such problems, which are associated with others. The real solution could be a move to a new hosting service. Again, my apologies for the difficulty. – David

  9. Based on sales figures from publishers, a lot more people read books (talking paper here) than use Macs. Amazon did $4 billion in revenue in 4Q2007, the great majority of it books. Apple did a little less revenue in the same period. And Amazon is not the only book seller in the world, they are only a fraction of the market.

    I wonder how Jobs would react if someone dismissed Apple by saying, “The whole concept is wrong, people read books, they don’t use Macs.”

    The fact is, people watch TV, watch Movies, listen to music, and read books as well.

  10. Steve, those are excellent points, but if Jobs isn’t just putting out disinformation, he perhaps is looking beyond the eager readers of the kind who patronize Fictionwise and Amazon and other e and p stores. Oh, and here’s one other possibility–following through on a rumor. Perhaps Jobs is having tech problems on the tablet project and wants to keep people’s expectations down right now. Thanks. David

  11. David, here’s the Reading Stats:

    The following is from a Boston Globe article reviewing the “To Read or Not to Read” report which can be found here:

    “We know what young people are doing more of: watching television, surfing the Web, listening to their iPods, talking on cellphones, and instant-messaging their friends. But a new report released today by the National Endowment for the Arts makes clear what they’re doing a lot less of: reading.

    The report – a 99-page compendium of more than 40 studies by universities, foundations, business groups, and government agencies since 2004 – paints a dire picture of plummeting levels of reading among young people over the past two decades. Among the findings:

    Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day.

    The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

    Almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure.”

    Maybe this is what Steve Jobs is referring to. It’s bothersome to me that he’s thinking that way since I wrote to him recently requesting that he develop an ebook app for the iPhone. But Steve is Steve and sometimes he sends smoke signals just the opposite of what he does. A while back he said no one would watch videos on an iPod.

    I have a funny feeling a smaller device will appear soon that will be a competitor for the Kindle.

    Don Smith, Apple Distinguished Educator

  12. Sadly, kids today mainly don’t read because its not cool, it sounds very stupid, but its quite true. Many people at my school believe books to be stupid or lame or “for nerds”. I’m not sure where this belief came from. but it definitely exists. also a thought just occurred. Since schools have been making certain reading mandatory, there is no glory in reading books, its just another thing that people do. It used to be glorified to be literate, but that was before the present age. Now thousands of beautiful things are considered boring or stupid (i continue saying stupid because of how many unintelligent people call things stupid, i think its just hilarious)

    and if this is the future, i can’t imagine what these peoples kids will be like, or perhaps everything oscillates in popularity. theories theories theories.

  13. Statistics without historic can be pretty meaningless, at what point in time did 70-90% of the population read more then two books every year?.

    And the median age for archer city is actually 39 years(acording to vikipedia) and you would expect the younger generation to shop more online then the older generation.

    Another aspect might be the huge volumes of books hiding in attics and being passed down from generation to gennerations in recession time that volume might replace a lot of new sales, and with Project gutenberg dominating the ebook world this is another area of reading that will barely measure on any scales.

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