When I think of technology and what is successful and what is not, what ends up being a big success is not necessarily new, but something that has been tried many times before. It just took someone or some company to take a different approach to make it a huge success. When I look around the industry at the state of what is becoming the eReader space its interesting to see how it has evolved from its inception to the current rage, the current rage being the Apple iPad.
As is usual for me I guess I have to leverage those 18 years at Microsoft. Some of my “former” readers find this very boring, but I think for this little blog its a good place to start. Since the dawn of Microsoft R&D one of the things they have worked extensively on was eReader technology. Microsoft Research (MSR) was launched in 1991 right around the time I started with the company. It was one of the earliest Microsoft mantra’s -“to provide the technology for the paperless office”. Trying to move books to the PC seemed like a great place to start. Probably most people do not know this or do not care because during all those years not much in the way of a product was actually released. They did invent something called Clear Text which was cool as it looked and read like a book when and was not very hard on the eyes. In fact most of what I see today in the industry is Clear Text. But true to Microsoft they looked for partners to create the “wow” experience.
It was a long time before anyone figured this out to make it popular on a wide scale. It came from what would seem an unlikely candidate, Amazon. I only say unlikely because up to tha point they were really a eCommerce site. However when you think about all the relationships they have with the major publishers it made sense. It is expensive to carry an inventory of books and ship books. When it is all stored and delivered digitally then the margins become much more attractive. The Kindle became a huge success from Amazon and an eye opener for the industry. This idea of reading paperless books and been envisioned for so long but the dream of success had never been achieved. I first saw one of these devices on a flight. An older gentleman was sitting next to me in First class. He was showing it off to one of the flight attendants and I could not help but ease drop. The Kindle was elegant just based on its simplicity. It allowed you to change font sizes at a click of a button. This was great in my eyes, since as I get older it is getting harder to see. then there is the sheer quantity of books that can be stored on your Kindle.
However when I look at the Kindle, despite its current success I view it as a stepping stone technology. That technology that is great and popular until something better comes along. There are a lot of past and current examples of these type of technologies. Tivo seems to me likely to fall behind as a home media server finally takes hold (xBox is going down this path).
The new rage and the one that I think will be around for a while is the Apple iPad. Unlike the Kindle it is not a single function device but allows users to read, watch videos and play music to name but a few things in a seemless user-friendly experience. We over use the term “user-friendly” in technology but in the end it cannot be emphasized enough. Simply because so many companies say it, but fail to deliver upon it. Then there is the question of how many devices to I want to lug around, the more I can condense my devices into one device the better my experience. The iPad is yet another big hit for Apple and one that seems destined to sink those in the eReader space who oppose it.
It will be interesting to see if Amazon will be able to respond to the threat of iPad or carve out a niche for itself. I think they will be very challenged to keep pace with the innovation coming from Apple. Not to mention the fact that Apple is leading the consumer technology industry in defining the term “user-friendly”. As I said in the beginning what is being done with content is not new, it is not as if it has not been envisioned. It has just taken time for everything from device form factor, to software experience to content distribution to fall into place. But that time has finally arrived and now there is no turning back.
Good Night and good Luck
Hans Hoffmann August 31st 2010