I ran across an interesting pair of tech articles over the last couple of days. Although neither of them is directly about e-books, it seems as though, between them, they might have some interesting things to say about them.
The first article is a piece by Daniel Cooper on Engadget looking at the recent emergence of 4K video technology. Cooper begins:
The cardinal rule of technology is simple: It must never, ever, under any circumstances, be boring. The engine that motivates consumers to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on a device that’s not essential to furthering our lives is all down to the excitement it gives us.
He then explains that the 4K video product demonstrations at IFA 2015, Europe’s equivalent of the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, were just that: boring. They were unable to offer a compelling reason that consumers should want to spend their hard-earned money upgrading. Not only is there not enough content to justify the purchases, most consumers would have a hard time with the idea that they need to re-buy their media collections again after only just upgrading from DVD to Blu-ray—and not so many consumers even went that far because regular DVD was and still is “good enough” for most of them.
And if high-definition video has problems, high-definition audio has it even worse. In a market made up of consumers who happily adopted MP3 even though it demonstrably sounded worse than CDs because it was more convenient, trying to sell an audio format that sounds better but is less convenient than MP3 is a non-starter.
Between these issues, Cooper doesn’t think that new 4K smartphone from Sony has much of a chance. Its 806 ppi screen is sharpness overkill, because the human eye can’t discern any difference beyond 300 ppi. That smartphone, the new video technology, high-definition audio—all this new technology is effectively boring.
Then we have an article on the blog of Buffer, the social-media-sharing app that I use to schedule reshares of interesting articles. It’s actually about a year and a half old, but it only came to my attention recently. This one has a similarly pithy summary: “People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.” (Oddly enough, it’s also written by someone named Cooper, “Belle Beth Cooper,” though I don’t know if she’s related to Daniel.)
The selling point for products, this Cooper explains, isn’t what the product can do, it’s what a person can do with the product. As the saying goes about drill bits, people don’t buy them because they want a quarter-inch bit. They buy them because they want to make quarter-inch holes.
People didn’t buy iPods because the devices could store and play music. They wanted to be able to listen to music. People don’t use Evernote because it can clip documents. They use it because they want a good way to be able to remember things they see. And if we apply this to Daniel Cooper’s Engadget article, we see that people aren’t buying into this new gee-whiz technology of 4K video or HD audio because these products don’t make them sufficiently better people than they are now. After all, they’re already people who can watch movies or listen to music. Watching movies or listening to music that look or sound incrementally better is not a compelling selling point.
And that brings us to e-books. Those of us who were adopters during the early years of commercial e-books, from the days of the Palm Pilot forward, know that while we enjoyed them, they simply didn’t offer a compelling-enough experience to get most consumers hooked. If they wanted to read a book, it was simpler just to take it down from the shelf or get it from a bookstore or library. But then Amazon came out with the Kindle, and so offered to make people into “versions of themselves” who could start reading a particular book within a minute or so, no matter where they were. And that’s all it took to make Amazon king of the e-book-retailing hill.
Amazon has been coasting on the strength of that ever since. In some ways, as bad as video and music might have it, e-books have it even worse. What can you really offer people who are already Kindle users? Better screens and backlights? Many people don’t even use Kindles but read from tablets instead. Other people still happily use Kindles that are a couple or several years old, because they’re good enough.
But it’s still Amazon’s advantage, because once someone starts using a Kindle, nobody can offer a sufficiently compelling reason to get them to switch to something else. An e-book is an e-book, and if a competitor can’t even do e-books as well as Amazon (as we’ve seen Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple can’t seem to work out how to do), why change it up? It’s boring. Nobody has figured out how to make a “high-definition e-book” yet, so attempting to get someone to change platforms wouldn’t even have as much appeal as shifting to 4K TV or HD audio, because at least that would have some improvement.
Companies have been trying to figure out some way to innovate a sufficiently interesting alternative to get people to switch over, having to do with things like new methods of discoverability or social sharing, but none has yet been more than a curiosity. When someone does come up with something that might be compelling, like Oyster’s monthly-fee subscription service, Amazon copies it and they’re right back where they started.
If there is something that will de-throne Amazon, nobody’s found it yet. It will be interesting to see if they ever can.