toc2010_logo.pngThat’s the title of a great article by Andrew Savikas at Tools of Change. Andrew argues that complaints about a 3.5″ screen being to small for reading miss the point.

The Kindle, etc. Andrew says, are continuations of the current book reading model. However, “small screen”, or mobile reading is disruptive in that it is appealing to a new class of readers who value things other than page size. They want convenience, portability and connectivity, among other things. The article goes on to point out, and I agree with this 100%, that designing ereaders is fine for existing readers, but by ignoring the new, and potentially larger, disruptive market publishers are falling into a strategy trap.


  1. Savikas is way, way off here. Hello — the key disruptive innovation of ereaders starting with the Kindle is the completely new and different way of purchasing books. Vast selection at your finger tips, browsable anywhere, anytime for instant purchase at a new low price point with instantaneous delivery.

    The screen size? The screen size? Huh, what, huh? This critique would have applied to Sony’s reader a few years ago which offered a new way of reading but a not very new way of acquiring books.

    I don’t think O’Reilly makes a good test case or baseline for the future of the ebook market. Their audience is extremely techie and their subject matter is completely techie.

    Finally, this notion that disruptive innovations make markets bigger is clearly not always the case. Exhibit A: music. Exhibit B: radio. Exhibit C: the telegraph.

    I guess I don’t even get this post from the headline. Kindle, Sony Daily Edition, Nook and other ereaders are just as mobile and portable as an iPhone and offer just as much in the areas of “convenience, portability, price, immediacy, and connectivity.”

  2. Hey Aaron (I must be following you from blog to blog responding to your retort to Savikas). 🙂

    eReaders are not as portable as the iPhone and other smartphones. I’m a fairly large guy, but while my iPhone is in my pocket, my eReader does not quite fit in there.

    I think Andrew is right, in that mobile is the way of the future… I just don’t think mobile = mobile phone. Amazon gets it, they put a wireless modem in the Kindle. Sony figured it out, they’ve started adding that connectivity as well.

    There have been tablets for years, but probably not since the Newton has there been a tablet that was easy to use, and dedicated to a couple of smart functions, rather than trying to cram a computer into a notepad.

    I write more about this on my web site where I respond to his response to my comment on his original article (phew!). If a 6″ to 10″ tablet does books about as well as a Kindle, is as easy to use as an iPhone, and oh yeah can do 3D gaming, movies, music, photos, the full (flash-less) web, and so much more… well, I’d considering that as a huge threat. When HP releases a Tablet but calls it a Slate and throws a full copy of Windows 7 in there, it’s not even the price anymore that holds me back – Windows 7, regular, non-iPhone optimized Mac OS X, etc are not for tablets. They are for computers. I know I can read the same books on my laptop as I can on a Kindle or nook… yet I choose not to. That’s not anything other than a deliberate choice based on the simplicity, convenience, form factor, etc.

  3. I am with Scott. Nobody imagines that cameras in phones are better than an SLR, but everybody carries a phone, and most of them have a camera. They are complementary, but disruptive because of their ubiquity. The same applies to reading books on a smartphone.

    I have recently deconverged from an iPhone to a Sony Reader, but really only because i like tinkering with gadgets. I will probably continue to read on the Sony at home, but it might not survive the commute – it isn’t quite as pocketable or readable in the crushed confines of London’s rush hour tube.

    However, one thing that continues to mitigate against ebooks in general, and more so on reading them on phones, are the usual myths of smelling, touching and reading in the bath. But they are seeping into the publics consciousness now, and content will rule. People consume music on all sorts of devices unimaginable to the analog generation, and books will go the same way for many people.

  4. I agree that ‘smelling, touching, and reading in the bath’ are myths that are not part of the basic process of reading. And, I agree with ToC that where light fiction is concerned, screen size is not crucial.

    But what about magazines? What about newspapers? These not only ‘wow’ the reader with big pictures, layouts, and generous use of white space, all within a large format; they also depend upon advertising to survive. And advertisers want big IMPACT that is quite difficult on a 3.5 inch screen, color or not.

    What sort of fees do you think you’ll get for an ad for an upcoming movie like Avatar, presented in a 2-inch box?

    Then there are science textbooks, that try to keep the reading students awake with tables, color images, timelines and graphics of all sorts. Put a timeline of European history 1500-1900 on a 3.5 inch screen, and see how many have the eyesight to read it — or the patience to scroll all the way from beginning to end (with many backtracks to check on something that scrolled out of sight a couple of minutes ago).

    It’s as much as saying, ‘Ereaders are sustaining, and the iPod Shuffle is disruptive — just use text to speech for everything, you don’t need to use your eyes to read at all.’

  5. What I keep seeing over and over and over is people who say that a stand alone reader like the Sony or Kindle won’t fit in their pocket. This idea is “dead” because it won’t fit in a pocket.

    I don’t worry about my Sony Reader fitting in my pockets. Most of the time I don’t have pockets. I ALWAYS have my purse.

    I find this argument dismissive and sexist.

  6. I was going to walk away from this, but I can’t. You caught me on a Monday when I’m grumpy because I’m at work instead of home reading.

    There’s another group that’s being ignored by the ‘screen size doesn’t matter’ crowd. The people who are reading on mobile phones now, in 50 years when their eye sight starts to suck and their hands start to shake, they’re not going to be able to read on a small screen. They’re going need a device with a larger screen.

    I work in a public library in a retirement area. I see the the current crop of seniors ever day. I also have crappy eye sight, so I understand their love of large print books. I think that love is going to be transferred to large screens.

    I keep being told that if the resolution is good the size doesn’t matter. I think that’s delusional. There comes a point resolution doesn’t matter, if the font is too little it can’t be read. For me to read on an iphone, I’d have to change page about every half a paragraph.

    If the form is interrupting the reading, to that extent, something’s wrong.

  7. Aaron Pressman writes:

    [T]he key disruptive innovation of ereaders starting with the Kindle is the completely new and different way of purchasing books. Vast selection at your finger tips, browsable anywhere, anytime for instant purchase at a new low price point with instantaneous delivery.

    Funny thing. I’ve got that on my iPod Touch. In fact, I have an even bigger selection than the Kindle, since I can also order and download instantaneously from eReader/Fictionwise, Kobo (nee ShortCovers), and Baen (and probably others I don’t even remember right now) in addition to the Kindle store (via the Kindle app)—not to mention all the stand-alone “appbooks” in the “Books” section of the App Store. Given that this incorporates not only the entire Kindle library but also several others that Kindle can’t do, I’d say the advantage there goes to the iPod Touch/iPhone with its 3.5″ screen as well.

    (Of course Kindle-users can read Baen books too, but they have to download them to their PC and then sync them to the Kindle via USB cable. But I can buy them direct from the browser on my iPhone, then download them with either Bookshelf or Stanza. Can’t do that with the Kindle!)

    Granted, I need a wifi signal to do that rather than the Kindle’s always-on 3G network. But on the other hand, wifi signals aren’t exactly uncommon these days, and if I had an iPhone I could pull books down via 3G too.

  8. But the argument that small form factor alone will be the tipping point for widespread adoption of ebooks is a specious argument (as well as sexist and ageist and you-name-it-ist *g*), because it doesn’t even begin to take more than one “typical” user’s point of view into account.

    There is no one size fits all when it comes to ereader devices. There are many different types of readers with many different needs that will (eventually) be addressed by many different kinds of readers, whether those are a 3.5″ screen smartphone, a 7″ dedicated reader, a 10″ netbook/tablet, a more traditional computer, or something we haven’t seen yet. Books come in a multitude of formats in order to meet the many different access needs of readers. Ereaders are going to have to do that, too.

    To say that an ereader with a larger screen won’t work when held up against a smartphone in terms of “mobility” (what definition of mobile are we to use?) works not at all for those who don’t have access to viable public transportation. A smartphone does no good at all someone who is driving during their commute and not riding.

    To say that a Sony or Kindle won’t stay around in the long run because “it doesn’t fit in a pocket” and therefore isn’t portable is discounting the many people (largely women) who buy romance ebooks (which are the largest driving force of increasing sales in publishing right now, right?) and read them on their stand-alone ereaders, netbooks, and computers that they keep with them in their bags and backpacks.

    To say that a smartphone is going to be a disruptive technology because “[a]ttributes like convenience, portability, price, immediacy, and connectivity are more important to these customers than attributes like paper weight, coating, or smell” is to ignore, for example, the quickly growing population of seniors who can’t even read the tiny fonts on current devices, let alone manage to press the tiny buttons or icons used to navigate.

    I agree with Aaron that it’s not the form of ereaders but the method of purchase and delivery that’s going to be the truly disruptive technology in the case of ebooks. I think it will come down to publishers making non-DRM’d content available at reasonable prices and in formats that allow the readers to make their own choices as to which ereader they want to use. The gadgets that win out in the end will be chosen by the readers, not by the content providers–to think otherwise based on one sample market (the tech readers of O’Reilly’s products) is ridiculous. The only thing publishers can do is be sure to provide open content that can be read on whatever platform readers choose.

  9. For the past five years, I’ve read from my (large form factor) eBookWise while at home or while commuting by train. When I’ve been going to business meetings, out for a walk, doing consulting work, or generally where I don’t anticipate an extended reading period but I might catch a few pages, I use my Palm. I always have my Palm with me but read more words on the eBookWise. I don’t understand why people think there has to be an either-or here.

    I also think the whole ‘disruptive’ thing is misleading. There are only 24 hours in each day and there’s a clear limit to how much of that people will spend reading. We’re not talking about multiple orders of magnitude more reading no matter what we do. As we bring Africa and rural India/China into the eBook world, we might get one order of magnitude increase in the reading population but that’s pushing it.

    I see a continued co-existence of small portable form-factor devices and larger devices for sustained reading. I think Amazon’s ‘Kindle for iPhone’ etc. is a brilliant approach to addressing this market reality.

    Because my company produces books in multiple formats, I don’t have a dog in this fight. As long as people read (and read electronically) I’m happy. But my own experience says no single answer will be perfect in all situations.

    Rob Preece

  10. Well, let’s see, I have a 2.8″ smartphone, 2 x 3.5″ backlit PDAs, a 5″ reflective LCD reading device, and a 17″ laptop. Depending on where I am, what I’m doing, and what I have with me, I may read on all of them. The challenge for publishers and distributors is to make sure I can easily buy your product in a form that works with ALL of them, so you can be sure I’ll give you money.

    Last time I checked, making sure your customers can quickly and painlessly give you his money for your goods was step 1 in business. Second step is to make sure he likes you and your product and comes back for more. I’m not sure there is a step 3.

    Jack Tingle

  11. Certainly DRM as currently configured by everyone does. I’m open to new ideas. A universal DRM standard that’s invisible to consumers wouldn’t bother me. Note I’m also not looking for one to appear any time soon.

    Jack Tingle

  12. I also think that people will want to read their books on a variety of devices… I currently read my books on a Mac Pro (at home), a Dell laptop (away from home when I will be sitting down for a while and have a power plug), an iPhone, and a Motorola Droid.
    I read books from a variety of sources, the B&N ebook store, Fictionwise, Baen, and Amazon (via the iPhone Kindle app).
    What *I* really want is a first class reader on all these platforms (I usually use the eReader Pro app, on PC, Mac, iPhone, and Droid, however on the Droid the app is still beta and doesn’t match at all the quality of the iPhone version), and one that could sync any bookmarks, tags, and especially current
    location being read…
    People shouldn’t obsess over one ereader device (or app) being the end all and be all for ereaders!
    BTW, I do read in the bath, or hot tub, with a handy ziplock sandwich bag!

    Scott Jones

  13. @Jack and Scott: “Step 3” in business is to maintain effective security against loss through theft, without damaging your business. That’s where the DRM is supposed to come in, and where it is woefully ineffective and inadequate today. But I agree, Jack, it’s not impossible… just a good ways off (think biometric).

    Standardization will eventually allow consumers to read their e-books on whatever-the-heck they want… which will also allow manufacturers to create hardware according to consumer tastes and needs, allowing them to customize their experience. Lack of standardization (multiple incompatible formats) is the real disruption going on at present.

  14. As far as DRM is concerned, I really don’t mind the DRM used by the B&N sites (B&N, eReader, Fictionwise), which may not be totally secure, but does prevent casual sharing (like people buying one copy, and then mailing it to all their friends). I’m still able to read my books on all of my devices, without having to keep “unlocking” every book. I typically *don’t* buy ebooks on Amazon (only 2 compared to the over 100 I’ve purchased on B&N, Fictionwise and Baen) because of the DRM and I can only read them on my iPhone.
    I don’t think the DRM is really ineffective, the pirated books I’ve seen have been scanned in from print copies into PDF format (and look terrible)
    [no, I was not pirating a book, I was checking with google the availability of a book that I already had purchased from B&N in paperback form [because it was not available in ebook form], and discovered it on the side, after the author told me that her book should have been available as an ebook]
    Personally, I think one of the big factors driving piracy is the unavailability of books as an ebook (or in a format that you can use)


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