Electronics – Tales of an e-book reader

About a year and a half ago, I mentioned to some friends I was considering starting a company that would produce e-book readers. “E-whats?” they asked, puzzled. “E-books. Nobody has done them right. Sony has built a nice device, but they’re missing the killer app, which is content delivery. Like iTunes, but for books, newspapers, and magazines.” Their blank stares were really all the proof I needed.

Of course, in November 2007, Amazon dropped the Kindle on us. At which time, I resigned myself with the reasoning that nobody was better positioned to dominate the market than the world’s biggest online book reseller.

Nobody knows how well Kindle is doing, beyond the fact that it’s backordered. Is it demand or supply chain problems? Who knows. But some people have turned their nose up at the Kindle for a variety of reasons:

  1. You’ll pry my paperback out of my dead, cold, hands.
  2. Showing off my bajillion-book library makes me appear cultured and refined.
  3. The iPhone is better positioned to become the perfect platform for eBooks. Just wait until the SDK.
  4. The Kindle is hideously ugly.
  5. The Kindle is expensive.

(1) and (2) there is simply no arguing with. People enjoy the sensuality of a book – the feel of the cover, the smell of the paper flipping by their fingertips, the aged look of the wrinkles and bent spines. They enjoy displaying their library for all to see. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. The e-book reader is much more likely to be used for casual reading, like a John Grisham or James Patterson thriller. We all read them, but we’re not dying to put them on display for others.

(3) I respectfully disagree with for a couple of reasons. The iPhone is a terrible platform for reading books for two major reasons: battery life and screen technology. E-book readers use a technology called, appropriately, E ink, which looks shockingly like real paper because it is not backlit. Because it is not backlit, and only requires electricity when changing the contents of the screen, it uses only a tiny bit of energy. Backlit screens are more straining on the eye and less calming than reading off paper.

(4) is absolutely true. I’m not sure what the Industrial Design team was going for–retro, or ugly chic. Either way, it doesn’t quite work. To me, it looks like an Apple IIc from 1984. While that design language was interesting for a home computer in the eighties, it’s not the book reader of 2008. My biggest problem with the Kindle’s design is that it’s a little too unashamed about being the anti-book. The keyboard, which is rarely needed, unnecessarily dominates the over 1/4 of the front. I don’t want to feel as if I’m reading off of a fancy electronic dictionary. The entire front should be reading estate. If you’re trying to replace books, don’t make the experience plasticky and tacky. The materials should be solid, smooth, and refined.

(5) is also true. $400 is a big asking price when the device is intended to replace $7 paperbacks. Of course, the product is priced at a premium to start. And nobody knows how many they are selling, because Amazon refuses to disclose.

In my opinion, even more than replacing books (especially hardcovers), the e-book market is better positioned to replace magazines and newspapers. Besides the obvious green benefits (think of the tremendous amount of paper produced, printer, and shipped daily–this would also be a great marketing point), most people throw out their newspapers and magazines at some point. The papers know the end is near, and the industry has responded much more gracefully to the shift than say, the music industry. They’ve launched updated, largely free Web sites with features such as videos, podcasts, blogs, message boards, and polls.

For the portable reader, it’s all about content delivery. You shouldn’t have to lift a finger. Upon waking, the day’s newspaper should be on the device as the newspaper is waiting on your front door. Your magazines should appear as soon as the issue is ready, just as you’d receive them in the mail. Pick your device off its charging stand and go.

Buying books should be easy and fun. And the books should be priced well below the price point of an actual book. I’d pay $5 for a Grisham novel.

Another killer app could be catalogs. People love flipping through catalogs, and although mail-order is heaving its last breath, a modern catalog would let people order just by tapping on the thing they want. You could choose your favorite stores and receive the latest catalog to flip through for free. Think about it: one-touch ordering a pair of jeans from J. Crew or a set of dinnerware from Williams Sonoma. Billed to your account and delivered, no fuss, no muss.

The following is my design for an e-book reader. It is made out of metal and hardened (scratch-resistant) glass, and has a treated interchangeable leather integrated cover and changing stand. There are no buttons. Just like a real book, open the cover to “turn it on,” close it to “turn it off.” The cover is held either open or closed by a magnetic latch. A magnetic sensor turns the device on or off. The rest is controlled by touching the screen. To scroll, move up and down with your finger. To turn a page, brush your fingers across the screen, as if you were turning a real page. Text entry, when required, is done via an on-screen keyboard. Bring up the menu by double-tapping the screen. Otherwise, the menu stays completely hidden. A light sensor activates a front light in dim situations. 

It features Wi-Fi for free over-the-air (OTA) downloads. In range of a free or registered network, Wi-Fi downloads the news and periodicals as they become available.

Browsing books, magazines, references, catalogs, and periodicals is done with an alphabetized “library” interface. Think of it as Cover Flow for books.

Purchases and free downloads are made from the device itself through an integrated store. Documents, like PDFs and other e-books, may be sent to the device for free by e-mailing them to a specific e-mail address. The device would not force the customer to use the built-in store.

Forget e-mail, Web browsing, games, etc. Those applications are well taken care of by existing devices (phones, computers) and there’s no reason to cram low-quality applications into a device that just happens to have Wi-Fi and a screen.

I’m going to work on the interface a bit and post an follow-up in the future. For now, take a look at the case design by clicking on the thumbnail below:

Click for Full Size


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