Why Are E-Readers Such a Disappointment?

It is kind of sad but fascinating to watch a significant invention, something that could have changed all our lives, wither and stagnate because of corporate choices that lead to profit in the short run, but strangle the emergence of magnificent opportunities in the long run.

My in-laws are a bunch of readers; it is not unusual for the family to sit around the living room together, each buried in a book. My wife and her sister both have Kindles. They live across the country from each other, but at Christmas we all got together and my sister-in-law had some books that she wanted to share with her sister. In the physical world you hand your book to someone when you’re finished with it and then they can read it. You can give your book to them, and they can give it to someone else. You have paid for it, you can do what you want with it. This has worked as a business model for a long time; the author has been compensated, the publisher has been compensated, and now the book is an object in the world that can be enjoyed by people until it wears out.

You Don’t Own Your Own Stuff

But with electronic books ownership has been taken away from the consumer. You give the company your money and they put a copy of the book on your device, but they still own it. If you want to share it, you can’t. If they decide to take the book back, they can; it will just disappear, as far as you know. You don’t own your own stuff any more, you lease it.

Ebooks could have been a revolutionary technology, they could have changed the way we live in many ways. People should be able to put their shopping lists on the e-reader, their meeting agendas, you ought to be able to save and organize notes to yourself and share them. You should be able to save email messages in readable form on your Kindle, and web pages in nice scrollable form, so you can carry them with you and refer to them at your convenience. Computers — that includes tablets, phones, and e-readers — are uniquely suited to managing text. Text characters are unambiguous and are easily coded in digital form, unlike sounds and images, which typically have to be compressed or at least shrunken in a way that reduces the amount of information in them. Computers were designed with text in mind from the start, and ebooks could have been the application that took digital technology over the top as a consumer product.

But so far, ebooks are not revolutionary. They have not changed our lives significantly. People just treat them like books, except that we are not allowed to own them — we have accepted the new licensing model without understanding it or thinking about whether that is really what we wanted. Ebooks may be a little less bulky and easier to read on the Metro, but we read the same old stuff, novels mostly, and most significantly we read them in the same way we always have. Books haven’t suddenly become interactive, or more informative, or more accessible, even. In real life, people don’t use an e-reader for anything except reading the books that they buy from approved online vendors.

When you buy an e-reader you get swept into a universe, a culture with norms and rules; that is the tacit meaning of it, the frame. It isn’t about liberating your reading and bringing you infinite opportunity to absorb new knowledge, it does the opposite, narrows and constrains your experience to whatever your vendor allows; somebody else takes control. If you get a Kindle, you are swept into Amazon’s world, the iPad makes you a member of the Apple community. They all have their own requirements and norms for you the consumer to follow, defined by committees in corporate conference rooms with profit as the goal. It is possible, sometimes, to get apps and documents from outside the protected universe, but the vendors make it difficult. The corporations want to sell you stuff, they don’t want you going to the competition for it. And so they make it easy to give your money to them, and hard to give it to somebody else. That’s what you choose when you buy an e-reader, whether you know it or not. You are opening a door and letting yourself into a corporate capsule.

PDF — Wow, It’s Almost Just Like Paper!

And in the meantime, we use PDF files for work and play. PDF documents keep their formatting, which is probably the very least important aspect of a document. They are limited otherwise. PDFs are dead representations of text, pretending there is paper under them, unless you really do put them on paper, in which case the only difference is that you turn pages rather than scroll. Real ebooks adapt their text to the display, you can change the size of the font and it will fill the page (and you can adjust the margins so it fills the page to your liking). You can highlight sections, save bookmarks and comments, e-readers can link to a dictionary so you can look words up, you can leave the app and come back to the same place in your document. Sometimes you can see what comments other people have made, and there is the possibility of an entire social world around Kindle and ePub books.

PDF has the advantage that you can use it without changing much. It is not threatening at all and does not require you to learn anything new. If you have been working with sheets of paper and typewriters, the PDF will seem just like that, except you store it on your computer and you can look at it on a computer screen. There are different types of PDF and some are better than others, as far as the ability to search or to copy text, but consumers don’t know the difference. Also, “better” doesn’t quite reach the level of “good.” The beauty of PDF is that it is formatted like paper. That is all.

The Dream That Isn’t Coming True

There are lots of advantages to ebooks, and in a rational world we would be using an epublishing format for all our text documents. You shouldn’t have to print out a meeting agenda, ten people around the table all wasting sheets of paper that have the same thing written on them; they all ought to have an e-reader open and be taking notes on it and following along. You could set it up so if someone makes a comment, everybody gets it — or you could share certain comments with certain others at the table, maybe making fun of the boss or suggesting a negotiating strategy for a certain point. Happy hour plans. It could have worked like that.

When you find a web page you want to read and don’t have time for at the moment, you ought to be able to save it as an ebook and read it on the train. Scientific papers and official documents shouldn’t require a big computer screen to read them, as PDFs do now. You ought to be able to read on the Metro or at the beach, on an airplane; with the control that an e-reader gives you, you really should be able to mark it up and save stuff and share it and also, by the way, see the text clearly on a small screen.

Scientific papers are perhaps the biggest disappointment. All scholarly publishers now use an XML publication workflow, and articles could be published in ebook format as a matter of routine. It would only require a small script, and I’ll bet the publishers already have them. The National Library of Medicine can crank them out, because they use an XML workflow, too; they get papers in XML from the publishers and can convert to ePub on the fly if you request it and the licensing permits it, which it usually does not, and anyway nobody asks for it because it is such a hassle to get it onto your e-reader.

Scientific publishing should have been out in front of this. Academics should have insisted that their work be available on e-readers. But no, your choice is PDF, period, or they’ll mail it to you for thirty-five bucks. If they have produced interactive graphics you can’t see them. If there are tables of numbers you can’t copy them and see for yourself if two columns correlate, or add your own results to the dataset to see how it would change or how your results differ from theirs. If the community of scholars has commented on a paper or followed up on it somehow you have to go somewhere else to know about it. Of course academia is conservative, you don’t really expect them to push hard on the next new thing — but have you seen the automated meat grinder that is “peer review” now? Don’t get me started. Scientific papers are converted to XML, and then, insanely, they are converted back to old-fashioned, deadwood PDF.

Why Do They Leave It Broken?

The technology is there, or at least it’s close. The big problems are solved, the solutions just aren’t on the market. In the available e-readers there are still problems with tables, formulas, graphics, footnotes, interactivity, but it’s all fixable. There is one reason we are not able to manipulate text freely on our tablets and phones, and it is spelled g-r-e-e-d. The company that owns your reading doesn’t want you to know how to put your own documents on your Kindle, they want to sell you stuff. They don’t want you to share with somebody, they want to sell two copies. When you buy an e-reader you are sucked into a vendor universe, and unless you are clever with technology you will be sealed into their world. Their dream customer is the technophobic reader of romance or spy novels, who requires nothing but a simple stream of words. There may be a table of contents to contend with, some italicizing, chapter breaks. But, please, not even a footnote or a linked reference section. The e-publishing world is focused around the bestseller lists, where half-engaged people read like they always have. Even pictures, photographs, are too much to expect in this new technology. When a book has pictures they are almost always in the way, or in the wrong place, or formatted in a weird way. Because nobody wants to make it better.

Digital Rights: Not Yours, the Publisher’s

It is often possible to get around it. DRM — “digital rights management” — is the generic term for the ways the vendors stop you from owning your book in a practical sense, it blocks you from copying your book to another computer or device. There is software that will strip the DRM off a book but the publishers keep making it harder. I don’t know how the legal details work, but I am not morally concerned about the publishers getting all the money they possibly can; there is nothing at all wrong with sharing a book unless it is in electronic format and that is just crazy.

Most ebook consumers do not know what DRM is or have the skills you’d need to get around it. The vendors make it easy for you to buy a book for a few dollars and that is good enough for most of their naive customers. You can’t figure out how to share your book, so you shrug and tell your sister to buy her own copy. That’s just how it is. Everybody in the family buys their own. The publisher gets money over and over again, basically for keeping a server booted up and running. There’s no ink, no paper, no printing press to maintain, nobody packages anything or puts anything in the mail. You copy a file and they get money.

Language, including written language, is a fundamental feature of human life, it is the thing that makes all the rest of this possible. And the thing about language is that it is shared, two people have to understand the same language in order to use it to communicate. If one technologically adept person figures out how to convert his meeting agendas to ePub and put them on his tablet that is not much of an advance. But if the committee chair could send the team a link to the agenda and everybody could pop it onto their devices and show up at the meeting with them, it would be useful, or if we could shoot it around the table with infrared or wifi, nice. As it is, ebook reading is a solitary pursuit, you sit there and I sit here and we read, each in our own little world. Ebooks are not going to reach their potential until innovations are propagated to the public. The profit-seeking corporations who own the technology and its content are not likely to offer these features, and the public is too dumb to ask. Because — how would they know this is even possible?

Ebooks Have Infinite Potential

Today I was playing with MusicXML. This is music encoded in tagged text. I downloaded a free program that not only displays the XML as beautiful, perfectly-formatted sheet music, but it plays the freakin’ song on the computer. You can transpose with the press of a key, you can edit the sheet music. There is no reason in the world why your e-reader should be incapable of displaying sheet music. MathML same thing, it perfectly encodes equations, but most e-readers just haven’t implemented it. There is a flavor of XML for almost every field and new technology, every set of notation and symbols, meaning that all these things are available to an e-reader.

You would think there would be competition among vendors to add features, to make their devices even more powerful and versatile, but there is absolutely no such thing. There is no real open-source community, there are not people making cool plug-ins for Kindle, extending it in innovative ways. Why? Because you can’t. Amazon doesn’t want you to improve the Kindle. The only thing that has changed significantly on Kindle is that they made it harder to remove the DRM.

Simulating Paper

PDF still dominates in the office because it got there first and it allows people to think of their document as a “look” as well as words that say something; they expect page numbers and footnotes at the bottom of the page, all on simulated eight and a half by eleven sheets of screen real estate. It is just one baby-step beyond printing on paper, no challenge to the imagination, it does not shake up anybody’s way of life. Everything you did in the office with paper, you can still do — and do you see how many people still print out PDF files? That’s because paper is actually better in many ways than a PDF on a computer screen.

Paper is the better medium at this time because it is perfectly passive. In some ways it presents the ultimate challenge to a digital interface designer: see if you can beat paper. Paper just lays there, it does not anticipate or respond to your wishes, but only to your physical manipulation. And there it responds in every way that you could want, by being perfectly passive. You can crimp it, tear it, write on it, stick your finger between the pages in three or four places to hold your place, you can sit on a stack of books or swat a spider with one. To program a really good ebook you’d have to make it do all these things, you should be able to manipulate it super-easily and it should stay where you put it, with no initiative of its own. There’s a koan for you: the best program does nothing.

PDF takes almost zero advantage of the infinite possibilities of the computer and has none of the compliant qualities of paper, unless you print the document. It treats the document as a dead thing, a flat brick. PDF is relatively useful on a desktop or laptop computer screen but if you try to read a PDF file on a smartphone or small tablet you will need a magnifying glass, or you will have to scroll back and forth with every line. If there is a table of numbers in a PDF file, or some data you would like to analyze or do something with, you basically have to type it into a text document — copying and pasting is useless, and anyway OCR is hopelessly unreliable, especially for numbers, where it really matters. PDF files look like the original document, and that might be important sometimes, but documents could be so much more; they could be infinitely more than ink on paper, which is pretty much the same thing we’ve had since the ancient Egyptians. We have the technology today for documents to come to life, they could literally speak to you, they could be interactive, social, portable.

The ebook vendors provide “play stores,” which is a metaphorical concept we agree to accept, if you want something you go to the store for it. Certainly you do not make it yourself, or get it from a friend. The vendors’ stores are not going to provide you with anything that lets you do things that might take away money they could make. I recently tried to help someone install a non-Kindle e-reader on a Kindle Fire — there are two main ebook formats, and Amazon has their own, but sometimes you need to be able to read ePub. The Amazon store did not carry any ePub reader that I could find, and you have to search all over the device to find the checkbox that lets you download apps from any place beside the Amazon store — most people just aren’t going to look for that, permission to download files to your own device. And even if you figure out how to email a book as an attachment, the Kindle won’t let you save it and read it. In the end, you are just going to buy the books they offer in the format they have in the store, and give up on innovative uses of this potentially powerful new family of possibilities.

I’m sure the publishers think they are being smarter than the music industry was. Imagine if there was peer-to-peer sharing of books, oh what a nightmare, people would just go around reading whatever they wanted. It would be as if there was something like, say, “libraries.” The music business failed to come to grips with digital technology, the cat got out of the bag when people started ripping mp3’s and then they shared them and the industry lost control of the flow of money. Consumers got the music they wanted but the record companies didn’t get to charge them for it (and though I have ambivalent feelings about some of it, I do sympathize with the artists who deserve to be compensated for their work, and the teams who get it recorded and packaged). Publishers are not going to be so dumb. They will sell the same book to every member of the family and keep the technology so remote and inaccessible that you can’t develop apps for agendas and meeting notes, and you can’t put scientific papers on your e-reader.

People today have a certain sense of futility. We talk about “technology” as if it were a thing, and in particular a really complicated thing that people like us can never understand. I think it is just bizarre that young people do not know how to make apps — they have no idea how it works, they see the image of a button on the touchscreen and it is just like a real button to them. They should have learned that in school, here is how an app works. Repeat after me, class: “source code.” It is all shrouded in mystery; it feels like corporate committees secretly plan the next wave of technology with only their own interests in mind. And, actually, that’s what happens. Here we had a potentially world-changing technology, we could have made text documents an entirely new thing, could have changed the way we share — and participate in — the ever-changing ocean of information, and consumers have chosen to passively let the market respond to corporate ambitions of wealth rather than the informational needs of the market.

Like what you read? Give Jim Kennedy a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.