The Creator of the eBook is wrong

I’ll admit, I had no idea who Michael Hart is. But he’s wrong. Over on the Project Gutenberg blog he says the eBook reader will never take off, and lists some reasons why, in his mind he’s correct. (I’m sure there’s no bias as the founder of PG) I’m going to debunk them based on my own world view. (Be warned, his list is long and wordy, even before I add my two cents)

There are several reasons people will not buy a dedicated eBook reader, and some of them a very powerful reasons that cannot be argued with via any intelligent reasoning rationality.

First: the new generations are used to screens the size of Nintendo GameBoys, grew up on them.

Not sure what generation he’s talking about. Sure my neice and nephew are both Nintendo DS freaks, but they have a real computer at home. My mom asked me if she should get an iPhone and stop having a computer, my answer was no. There’s no way I would sit for hours playing aroudn on the internet on an iPhone, I know my mom couldn’t. She’d be blind before the next iPhone was released. I don’t own a netbook, and I sold my Nokia N800. my iPod Touch and iPhone are both great, and both run the Kindle app, and I use neither.

Second: the new generations also think screens on cell phones are just fine, and most of those are now even larger.

I’d argue that “just fine” is more along the lines of don’t know any better. I’d also argue that when a kids gets in front of a netbook or laptop with a more usable display, with WAY better resolution, they’d feel the same way I do. iPhones rock for quick look up, waiting room internet goofing around, etc. but I’m not going to sit o my couch, with my iPhone up to my face to work through emails or tweets even.

Third: the new generations have always got the paperback editions as much as the hardbacks, so they don’t have the same nostalgia for Look And Feel of those as do people who stared reading a while before paperbacks became very acceptable.

Fourth, Fifth, etc. the alternatives. . . .

This is completely bunk. I’m one of those paperback generation types. I don’tbuy hardcovers unless I either a. can’t wait for the paperback or b. want to show off a nice hardbound book on my bookshelve and get a few +1 book geek cred points.

I love the feel and smell of books, even paperbacks. I’m sure scribes loved the feel and smell of parchment, and olden day mathameticians loved the feedl of abacas beads, and slide rules. Times change. To bring a more relevant example up. CDs, and DVDs. Many folks love to have them lined up nicely in huge shelves, they like to read the jackets, look at the cover art, absorb every iota of director commentary. Yet iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, et al. are still doing pretty darn good. Times change, and whether we all want to or not, we change with them, it’s kinda silly to think in 20 years books will be common place. They’ll be antiques.

Fourth: most people don’t realize it, but many cell phones also come with WiFi built in so the unit is basically a small Kindle to start with! You don’t even have to have the phone activated to use the WiFi functions, which usually have a pretty normal browser, text reader, and such in them to start with, and also accept any numbers of third party programs most eBook readers have already heard of, no need for me to pitch them.

Clearly Mr. Hart has never tried to exist on WiFi alone. It’s far from ubiquitous. Heck broadband penetration in the US is near the lowest in the world if I recall, what makes anyone think Wifi will be different. Sure Indie coffee shops offer free wifi, sometimes it’s craptastic or doesn’t even work, but ya it’s free. Other times you can prey on people who don’t know any better than to lock their AP down.

I actually started out thinking the same thing Mr. Hart does. I bought an iPod Touch, had no music on it, and it was my ‘baby tablet’ or as I called it my iNewton. I carried it everywhere for about a month, then I gave up as most places I went had no wifi.

Fifth: many PDAs are also available that do an awful lot of the same things described above at a much lower cost than a Kindle, Sony, etc.

Sure, very true, and a lot of people will use those devices, prefering the jack of all trades master of none device. If you’re willing to make compromises, a PDA screen (usually no more than 3x2ish) will work, you can read a ‘page’ of text every 4-5 changes of the screen, with anywhere near useful fonts, and come talk to me after a marathon rainy saturday book reading exercise, or a long wait at a doctor’s office.

By that logic, we’d all own motorola razors, because they too have basic internet browsing, messaging, and actually have video and MMS messaging, unlike the iPhone, which contrary to that thought, is doing quite well in the market.

Sixth: if the largest cell phone screens would not do, even the iPhone, Curve, etc., there are all the new netbooks coming out that should get the job done in any number of ways as far as an eBook presentation goes, from reading out loud, dozens of programs to choose from to read or to listen via text to speech, etc.

See above. Sure you can squeeze all kinds of other uses into devices. A netbook also makes an excellent door stop when opened halfway, but why not use a door stop? A newton 2100 can run a basic webserver, costs way less than a rack mount Dell, why not use those to serve websites all over the world? Sure those are extreme examples intended to be silly, but they’re not far off you have to admit.

Seventh: in all the history of electronics the dedicated products, those that do only one good thing, rather than the integrated products, are never known to sell very well.

To quote fake Steve Jobs, “Dude, I invented the friggin iPhone. Have you heard of it?” But way before the iPhone was the iPod, it played music. It didn’t have an FM radio built in, it didn’t record audio notes, it was a music player, and mostly still in, unless you’re one of ‘those’ people who watch movies and TV on a tiny mostly square screen. Sure the multi taskerdevices are nice and 90% of our world is made up of those devices, but the other 10% are uni taskers, that do their single task REALLY well. Oh yeah there’s Zunes, and Rios and whatever else, that have tried the multi tasker route, how’s that worked out for them?

It’s like buying a HiFi that has one box for FM and one for AM, another as a pre-amplifier, and another as an amplifier, another bass or treble controls box, etc., versus one box for all.

Not to be mean, but the examples alone point out to me, that Mr. Hart is simply dated. Funny that some one so attached to ‘old ways of live’ would have invented something so game changing as eBooks, but hey, we all have our moments. I mean really? A HiFi?

Why would someone spend the same amount of cash on a Kindle/Sony as on a netbook or a laptop?

Speaking strictly for myself, here’s why

  • I wouldn’t take a netbook/laptop to the gym, my Kindle is on the eliptical with me each day.
  • I can’t read my laptop/netbook while taking off and landing. Some say I’m probably not supposed to with a Kindle, but no one has said anything, and since the power output is only in changing the page, and tiny to boot, I’d argue airlines rules have to change (separate post).
  • I never carried a book in my laptop bag, except when traveling. Now I cary a few dozen or less all the time.
  • I can’t compute on myMacbook in direct sunlight, reading would be out, but I’ve enjoyed my Kindle on my deck more than once.
  • I can toss my Kindle around, drop it (just did this morning) and pick it up and never worry it’s harmed, I can’t say the same for my laptop/netbook
  • I can read (and have) for hours on my Kindle. My eyes get sore/tired when I read long blog posts on my disply. And it’s a nice display.

The Kindle isn’t portable enough to be the more take along kind of item than a netbook/laptop.

I can’t imagine anything more portable. It weighs almost nothing, is the size of a Moleskine.

It would appear that ONLY the person who has an awful time reading would want a Kindle, simply, and truly, just because of the variable fonts & and the new X2 being about to read out loud, or the kind of person who just wants to have a lot of the latest toys and doesn’t care about price to benefits ratios and the like.

I’d say the converse is true, the only person who doesn’t want a Kindle/Sony is the person who doesn’t read much now, so the cost makes no sense, or the person who wants to crack open a hardback, recline in their lay-z boy and put a 45 on the turn table and enjoy ‘their’ reading experience, enjoying their anacronistic lifestyle.

Eighth: there are simply not enough Kindles to really change the eBook environment.

There weren’t enough iPods for the recording industry to care about when they launched either.

Just think about how many eBooks there are now, millions of eBooks given away in average months just from

Nothing against PG, but really? some of us like more modern reads.I mean PG is great, and I’ve got some classics on my Kindle just so I can have them when I want, but really,some of us are reading books published this milennia.

iTunes had its first million selling tune about a year ago, really only ~1 year after getting a shakedown cruise over with.

If every person who has a Kindle or a Sony buys the same book, only by adding their combination of sales will they manage a million seller, and that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

This I can’t argue with, but I think Mr. hart overlooks the underlying truth. Reading isn’t a big deal any more. Literacy is frighteningly low. People are “too busy” to read I’ve had people tell me to my face they wish they had the time to read. To which I typically say if it’s important you make time, same as anything else. Is surfing Digg, more important? It’s not a reflection on the Kindle that there isn’t yet a 1 millionth book sold, it’s a reflection on American literacy.

How long before Amazon or Sony comes out with a new model that won’t read all the previous book entries on the old models?

You mean like when VHS replaced BetaMAX? Sure Amazon/Sony could release a new device that can’t read their old formats, but that’d be kinda retarded. Anything is possible, but I hope they’ve been watching Apple. My Kindle 2 in 5 years may not get any firmware update love, but neither does my 1st Gen iPod color. But it still plays music like a champ.

How long before the first Kindle and first Sony are antique collector items rather than a real, live and well-used eBook reader?

Time will tell, but they’re electronics, so it won’t be long. Same as netbooks of today, will be cute children’s toys in the not too far future. I mean really, does Mr. Hart think that the netbooks and mobile phones he thinks we’ll be using will be around forever, not to be relegated to the antique pile? Where’d I put my Handspring Visor anyway?

This is NOT going to happen with eBooks from an assortment of other sources that have been here for much longer than Kindles or Sonys; the very first Project Gutenberg entry is still readable on any modern machine, the only thing is that a file from that era had only capitals if made on the normally available equipment of 1971 but it still works, and looks just the same now as the files downloaded on the first full day of eBook pioneering, July 5, 1971.

Is anyone even going to pretend that Kindle and Sony will even read their own proprietary files 38 years from 2009?

This is the crux of the issue. To Mr. Hart it’s clear eBook is text file. Sure 100 years from now .txt will likely still be a valid format, much like sheet music is. But who can play an 8 track? Mr. Hart is comparing the eBook as a ‘thing’ to ebook readers. Which is like comparing music to iPods. Sure the Kindle may be gone in a few decades, so will the iPod, but the medium won’t. Books and music will still be here.

And just the same as we can still play wavs, mp3, etc, we’ll be able to read eBooks, because the creative/intelligent companies will offer backwards compatibility or like iTunes, “convert your x format to the new Y format” Sure formats die, happens all the time, and I frankly hope Amazons DRM dies like the iPod’s. But it took time, I’m patient (not really, but can be when I have to be)

Sorry this was so long, but it really irks me when people get traction for their thoughts, by writing such meaningless biased crap. It’s as if chicken little had a blog.

There’s more to Mr.Hart’s ramblings if you’re so inclined, I literally could have put his whole post into mine, and picked each thing apart, but frankly ithink it would have been moot, after debunking his list.

By John Wilker

I'm a science fiction writer and conference organizer. In 2017 I published my first book, 'Space Rogues', a fun Sci-Fi adventure with a fun cast of characters. I'm also the co-founder of 360|Conferences, a conference and event logistics consulting company.

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