Amazon certainly orchestrated a coup in getting Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of the Kindle. But while that will continue the product's momentum, it's unlikely to be enough to revolutionize the book business. That's because, as often happens, tech companies get too focused on what their technologies can do and forget to look closely enough at what consumers need to support long-established habits. But there are some upcoming developments, like e-paper, that could, with a few changes, help the business leap along.
The classic tech issue is becoming enamored with what engineers can do. But a business needs to be enamored with what its customers want to do and how products or services could get them where they wanted to go even more easily. Oh, and then there's the "make a profit out of it" part that missed so many dot com bombs and that is currently challenging Web 2.0 firms like Twitter. In other words, it becomes ludicrously easy for companies to buy into their own press releases. It may be that management believes all it says, but some skepticism of your own genius is a healthy trait.
Convincing people to adopt new ways to do things means getting them to change their habits. The only way that happens is by helping them achieve what they were after in a painless way they hadn't considered before. E-book manufacturers have focused on two basic concepts: customers can carry around as many books as they possible want without any added weight, and downloading titles becomes instant gratification. That pair might be compelling to some customer segments, but not everyone feels the need to have an entire library on-hand with further titles immediately available. This is the time equivalent of price sensitivity.
Furthermore, the benefits don't include some abilities that people take entirely for granted, such as being able to read anywhere at any time without thinking about charging a device, the ability to quickly and easily flip through to find a passage and go back and forth comparing two, and an enduring hardiness of books.
Technology might offer some help. For example, Plastic Logic of Mountain View is planning to release an 8.5x11-inch reader using e-paper technology that should provide good readability in a range of ambient lighting conditions as well as relatively long battery life, given some of the characteristics of the basic technology.
However, that just eliminates some barriers. What companies need to do is consider how people use books and why. For example, books are well adapted to quick skimming as you flip through pages, dipping in here and there to get a sense of the overall structure and topic. You can easily go back and forth among a set of pages, keeping a finger at each, to try comprehending together a number of related points. Barring a fire, books are relatively permanent (and don't disappear if a hard drive fries).
People can lend them to one another or give them away. It's possible to take books out of a library, pick up used copies, or even rent them without being tied in to one particular retailer. Someone can go to a foreign city and buy something to read without needing a wireless account there. Until e-book vendors find ways to address these issues and provide something that encompasses these expectations and then exceeds them with additional benefits, the technology will continue to fall flat in the marketplace.
Plastic Logic Reader image courtesy of Plastic Logic.