In the past month or so, since Apple’s iPad was announced, there’s been an increasing pushback against the idea that the tablet will be a meaningful stand-in for a dedicated e-reader. In particular, it seems to have really disappointed folks in the e-reading/publishing/new media community, many of whom expected a lot from the Jesus tablet — in some cases expected diametrically opposed things. It’s more ambient complaints than a specific detailed argument, but the general beef goes something like this:
- iBooks is an afterthought, it’s US only and doesn’t even come pre-installed;
- Nobody’s going to want to read a book when they’re constantly tempted to check their mail, play games, and browse the internet instead;
- A lot of the “enhanced ebook” demos so far look pretty crummy (this unites folks who prefer plain-text and people who wanted enhanced books to be more interactive);
- It’s a closed system, which means Apple controls it, Apple could censor what you read, and keep you from taking your books anywhere else;
- Nobody reads anymore anyway / Big-time e-readers have already invested in their Kindles / Real readers like print.
Now if you’re playing along at home, with the exception of the first, none of these criticisms are really iPad-specific. #2 is the supposed reason people don’t and won’t read on their laptops or smartphones, #3 is the criticism of early efforts at interactive books on the web or CD-ROM, #4 is the iPod, and #5 is just a repurposed version of the anti-Kindle argument, except here it’s strangely (but only occasionally) mounted in defense of the Kindle.
So here’s my argument as to why books on this thing will work. It doesn’t have much to do with the future of Flash or HTML 5 video (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist web people think about), the agency vs retail model of selling books (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist publishing folks spend a lot of time thinking about) or with the future of multimedia unbooks (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist new media folks spend a lot of time thinking about). It’s all based on my imagined psycho-anthropology of an average iPad user.
I’ll start with an axiom. The iPad is not intended to be an ebook reader, or even a music or movie player, or even really a cloudbook. In fact, it’s better if you stop thinking about it in terms of the kind of media you’d like to play or create on it at all. It’s not really about that. Or rather, media is only incidental to it.
It’s better if you start thinking about it in terms of the geography of the human body. This is how the iPhone worked. It had great software, handled all sorts of different kinds of media. But its real success in incorporating all of those different media, and different applications, is that it conquered what had been a highly competitive place on the human body. It conquered your pocket.
It’s not all that different from the kitchen gadgets we see advertised on late-night TV. “You can get rid of all of these gadgets, replace them with the ______, and finally get your counter space back!” It’s weird because we don’t think about our computing devices this way. But that’s really how they work.
The iPad obviously can’t fit into your pocket. And Apple wants you to keep your iPhone there. No. The iPad wants to conquer your backpack.
It wants you to leave your laptop, your books, your magazines, your notebooks, your portable DVD player, your netbook, your Kindle all at home. Or it wants you to never buy them. It wants to monopolize your mobile bag. If not at the airport, then definitely for short trips.
Now, let’s say I buy the first-gen, cheapest available iPad, the model that comes with 8GB 16GB of memory and Wi-Fi only. What is the geography of this device? I could use it at home, as a second computer, especially if I don’t have a laptop. But if I do have a laptop, either the laptop or the iPad may begin to feel redundant. The iPad’s superior portability suggests that it’s best used as a portable device.
But unless you sprung that extra dough for 3G, or you’ve got a local café with decent free wi-fi, you’re stuck with whatever you’ve got on packed away in local storage on the device already. This might be a movie, sure, or music, or a video game. But you don’t have very much room for a lot of any of these things. The only thing you really have a lot of room for is text.
(This is actually why I suspect plain-jane, text-only books are going to have a long life as the de facto default for a while. Dedicated reading machines like the Kindle or Nook can’t support anything else, and more versatile portables like the iPad don’t have the built-in memory or everywhere-internet to support a whole library of these things. Add our inertial devotion to document formats like PDF and it may be a very long time before multimedia books or magazines become mainstream items.)
Now, video games are a good example of another phenomenon that bodes well for books on the iPad. I’m going to call this “the principle of adjacent media.” Here’s the theory. When you buy a heavily multifunctional device, you usually have a fairly limited set of things you’d like to do with it. For instance, when I bought my iPhone, I wasn’t really in the market for a video game machine. I wanted something like could make calls, keep up with email and my calendar, browse the internet, maybe play music and show photos and maybe even read some books. I like video games, but I was pretty much web- and console-only; I never even had a Gameboy, or bought a game for my computer. In other words, video games had no claim on my pocket. But soon enough, I said, what the heck, and bought a few games for my iPhone.
That’s what’s going to happen to books on the iPad. For every user who does a bunch of reading on their iPad, you’re going to get a dozen who are going to buy books based on the “what-the-heck” factor. It’ll be better than buying a book in an airport, or at a shopping mall. The store will be right there. There will be several of them. (iBooks, Kindle, B&N and more will all have apps.)
And I bet that the relative weakness of the entry-level devices, the low memory and lack of 3G internet, will all actually drive iPad owners towards reading. First it will conquer their bags. And when they run out of internet, then they won’t have anything else to do.
(That, at least, is my wholly speculative theory about the whole thing.)