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Ebook Readers: This Year or Next?

The promise of ebook readers has been with us for a decade or more. One issue has been the low resolution of the devices--typically much lower than what's on a printed page--as well as battery life, durability and, of course, the lack of content you'd need to incorporate such a device in to your curriculum.

When it comes to ebook reading, PDF or text versions of books abound, but the focus of this post is on dedicated ebook readers and the trends surrounding them since the future of ebooks will undoubtedly be delivery to devices we're not yet anticipating or have seen.

When it comes to current ebook readers, the one with the most buzz (and, perhaps, sales, rumored to be under 1 million though Amazon isn't saying) is Amazon's Kindle. Though only a black and white device, its long battery life, thin form factor and Kindle Store--with over 330,000 titles accessible over Whispernet, Amazon's wireless network via Sprint (as well as access to blogs and news sites)--it's become a voracious reader's must-have device.

We've seen another high profile device, Apple's iPhone coupled with their App Store (now boasting over 65,000 applications), appear as an extremely easy to use device coupled with access to a dizzying array of applications that has resulted in sales of 21.4 million iPhones to date.

Surprisingly the iPhone as an ebook reader is accelerating in use. There are several ebook readers for the iPhone that vary in capability and access to different sorts of content, both paid and public domain. No doubt sensing competition amid the accelerating rumors of a probable "tablet-sized iPhone/iPod touch" coming out (which would be an amazing multimedia ebook reader and general purpose device) along with Barnes & Noble shipping their iPhone app, in April of this year Amazon acquired the leading ebook reader Stanza (which now boasts over 2 million iPhone downloads), as well as coming out with their own iPhone Kindle application.

Since the iPhone and Kindle appear to be the two leaders in ebook reading, should you move forward now with one or the other? Are ebook readers, as a category, even ready for your district or classroom this year, or will they likely be next year? 

Based upon my broad overview analysis of the open textbook marketplace, what content is available in the public domain with efforts like Project Gutenberg, the current state of digital rights management (essentially going away in the music business and being addressed in the publishing sector), the state of the ebook reader device space, and the evidence mounting that students are not all that enamored with ebook-specific readers, and the State of California's open digital textbook initiative facing hurdles, I'd have to say no to moving forward with a dedicated ebook device choice this year. There are too many risks and uncertainties in this space to move forward quickly.

If content standards for publishing ebooks are here and a large amount of content exists, what if you chose one of the two leading ebook readers now?

Your student's young eyes probably wouldn't have much of a problem reading a book on the iPhone or iPod Touch's 480-by-320 pixel resolution screen at 163 pixels per inch (ppi), 16-bit (65,000 colors), is inferior to the printed page but superior in ppi (and lower in color output) to a computer screen.

The Kindle2's 600 x 800 pixel resolution at 167 ppi, 16-level gray scale is nicely adequate for long term viewing and the Kindle's amazing several days of reading battery life makes it a highly useful device.


My issue is the cost of these and other current ebook readers (and that the iPhone requires a mobile contract and the iPod Touch requires WiFi) as well as the impracticality of these devices themselves because they're sensitive instruments prone to breakage if not handled somewhat gingerly. Add to that we're still in the early stages of ebook format standardization, your methods of accessing and buying content (and distributing it out to students effectively), or that a clear understanding of the costs associated with wireless network access and whether or not publishers will have an incentive to digitize all the content you need to flip to an all-digital delivery, remains to be seen.

Next year is a different story.

The iPhone was the proverbial paradigm shift in mobile smartphones. Previously the realm of geeks and only mass accessible when they delivered fairly rudimentary applications (e.g., the Blackberry as a primarily perfect email device), the iPhone's touch capability, full multimedia support, almost immediate onrush of applications delivered, and the fact that non-technical people could easily optimize their use of a formerly geeky device, meant that it exploded in use.

Here's why I think next year's school start could be a great time to prepare to move forward with ebooks and readers:

a) Test Now: There is enough ebook content available from publishers that you can replace some textbooks with publisher's offerings and have opportunities to run tests this year on both ebooks and ebook readers. Perhaps a netbook, iPod Touch, current laptops or lab computers would be a way to determine if ebook content may or may not be a fit for your schools, students or curriculum

b) The Device Race is On! Clearly Amazon buying the most popular iPhone ebook reader was no accident. My gut tells me that the rumored Apple tablet (with all the goodness of iPhone/iPod Touch ease of use, fluidity in the user interface, and complete multimedia capability) caused Amazon to strategically ensure that they could make available all titles within their Kindle Store for a larger form factor, full color Apple tablet if it appears. If it does appear, my bet is that it changes the paradigm in ebook reading in the same way the iPhone did with the mobile smartphone category, meaning that all other makers of ebook readers will rush to emulate it (though its cost--guessed at by many to be in the $800 range--will put it out of reach for your budgets)

c) Ebooks Will Happen: Thought leading publishers have strategic ebook research and testing going on now and have been for many years--and the market is growing nicely in ebooks--and standards have emerged. The perfect alignment of a critical mass of the digital content you need, more and easier to use devices, and the ubiquity of wireless networks (both your own wifi in-school ones as well as mobile telephony networks) mean that accessibility of content (e.g., playing movies or receiving updated content within an ebook) will be seamless and simple for both you and your students. What remains to be seen is how this alignment will occur as a new, digital channel of distribution and how many you'll have available a year from now

e) Ebooks Are Green: Global imperatives are demanding we move toward virtuality and digital delivery as quickly as we can with as much as we can.

With more and more people making buying decisions on the perceived carbon footprint of items which have alternatives not needing to be shipped--such as bottled water in the grocery store--the trend is that people are accelerating this behavior and extending this perception to all physical goods which could have alternatives (e.g., digital rather than paper-based textbooks)

Whether you subscribe to the theory of peak oil or not, one thing is certain: global demand is continuing to rise and with one, two or three decades, there will be severely restricted energy assets and moving physical atoms (our bodies included) will be more expensive.

f) Parents are also continuing to be very concerned about the weight of backpacks on developing skeletal structures. Kids schlepping several books in backpacks hunched over simply makes parents mad (which I've experienced first-hand)

g) Another is the cost of printed textbooks which--while creation of the content still requires most of the same effort, energy and people to deliver--is perceived to be cheaper or more capable of falling over time

h) Color, Video & Photos: My biggest reason why I think ebooks will explode is that full color, multimedia-ish devices will proliferate--and have bigger screens--making the experience better even if the battery life is low. Who wants to see a photo of flowers but not know which is the red one? Or watch a science video of a figurative depiction of the helium-4 atom, showing the nucleus and its two protons shown in red and neutrons in blue...but not knowing which is which?

What do you think?


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.