What The iPad Means For Digital Fiction

So you’ve probably heard about the iPad, and Apple’s latest plans for world domination. For the first time, however, we – we the small, rather obscure digital writer community(!) – are directly affected by the actions of what is probably the most influential tech company of the age. This is big. This is something worth thinking about. What does the iPad mean to the digital book world, and why should we care?

I think there are two things that we need to talk about. First, the Kindle is screwed. There has been some debate on Twitter as to why and how Apple compares with Ye Olde Amazon, and the biggest argument against the iPad is that it has a backlit screen, and backlit screens suck for reading.

Now this is true. Backlit screens do suck for reading, and I know this because I own a aluminium Macbook, and the screen is terrible when I’m doing work under sunlight. But I don’t think it matters. Isa asks: Why would anyone want to read on an iPad? and that is, I think, a rather valid question.

It is also the wrong kind of question to ask. The correct question people should be asking isn’t “why would anyone want to read on an iPad?” but rather “why wouldn’t they?” Isa’s question assumes that the majority of buyers would be logical book-nerds – comparing e-readers on metrics such as heft, size, and screen quality, but that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

The right way of framing the question is to begin asking: who’s likely to buy the Kindle? Who’s likely to buy the iPad? What kind of people are they, and how are they different?

The Kindle is for readers – book nerds, but of a particular, non-technophobic kind. People like you and I. The iPad, on the other hand, appeals to just about anyone: rich geeks, early-adopters, technophobic aunts, families who’d like a secondary computer, kids who want a gaming device, your uncle Harry who loves reading in the toilet … the list goes on and on.

The iPad is a computer. The Kindle is an ebook reader. In this aspect, at least, the Kindle is outclassed. There are more people interested in buying the iPad than there are people interested in buying a Kindle.

And so the question isn’t – who wants to read on an iPad? – because that’s the wrong question to ask. The question you should be asking is rather – what, exactly, is going to prevent all these people from buying books and reading them? What’s going to prevent Johnny, say, whose parents buy him an iPad for Christmas to play games and surf the web on – and one day the new Harry Potter equivalent comes out – what’s going to prevent him from thinking: hey, the book’s cheaper on the iBook store, and I don’t have to go all the way downtown to buy it from a shop. What’s going to prevent Johnny from buying the book – literally flicking his thumb over a sheet of glass – and reading it on his iPad?

The answer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the truth of the matter is that Johnny’s probably going to buy other books for his iPad, and spend ridiculous amounts of time arranging them on his virtual bookshelf, simply because it’s a) cheaper, b) quicker, and c) it’s all just a thumb flick away.

And so now here’s a related question: given the audience of these two devices, who do you think the content producers – the publishers – are more interested in going to? The Kindle? Or the platform that is the iPad? The answer to that, of course, lies in the number of potential readers, which is related to the number of current users, and I’m willing to bet that there are far more potential readers on the iPad than the Kindle ever would have, given a year or so.

It isn’t clear, however, how Amazon would react to this news. John Gruber predicts that Amazon would jettison its Kindle arm to sell content through the iPad, because Amazon is a content company first and a product company second (and Apple the reverse). I’m not sure if this would happen, because I can imagine Amazon’s fears of being locked into a single store, but regardless of how you look at it, the Kindle’s days are numbered.

There is one last thing we should know, and this affects us more directly than any of the above predictions. It is this: the iPad uses the ePub format. The ebook format wars are effectively over. We’ve got a winner, folks, and that winner is ePub. Plan for that, because things might get pretty heated, pretty fast.

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Category: News · Publishing
  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    Okay… since this blog post feels like it should be subtitled “Why Isa is WRONG WRONG WRONG!!” I feel even more inclined to comment on it hahaha XD

    Couple of points:
    1) The kind of market dominance you’re describing takes time. People forget that neither iPod nor iTunes came out and just changed music. They came out and had to compete, market, market and market some more and slowly after several generations of improving the product they revolutionized music. But the iPod is the exception for Apple, not the rule … look at the first generation iMacs. They caused a huge storm of debate. NO FLOPPY DRIVE!?!?!? What do you mean NO FLOPPIES??? Turns out Steve Jobs was 100% right about where computing was going and what the market wanted … but that didn’t matter at all because Apple was outmatched in marketing at the time by its rivals. So Apple’s innovations in computing haven’t caused any revolutions that killed any of their competitors off, their competitors simply steal their ideas.

    Look at the iPhone and Nexus, the iPhone caused a revolution but Apple hasn’t killed Blackberry or any of the other cellphone manufacturers. They just turn around, steal the best ideas and life goes on.

    2) Your market assumptions are wrong: The majority of Kindle users are not people like you and I. The majority of Kindle users are older … technophobes that you assume do not use eReaders and that the iPad will snap up. Over 70% of the Kindle market is over 40! (http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/04/kindle-users-skew-older-does-that-impact-news-bizs-revenue-hopes/)

    3) Do people even want one thing that tries to do everything? There was an article in Wired about this months ago (they called it the “Good Enough” Revolution I believe). Designers assume that people want all these amazing features in one product, but what the market bares out is that most people want simple products with few features that have a core function that is effective and convenient. The gadgetry doesn’t have to perform 100%, but it’s failings can’t inconvenience the user.

    Cellphones can branch out a bit with cameras, games, etc because they are built to be small devices people have with them all the time. The iPad is not built this way, it’s good for business people who travel a lot I think, but the average consumer is going to look at this and go “…. but I can do this all from my computer at work/home”

    What’s the lifestyle of the iPad’s target market? If most people wake up, go to work, then come home … when exactly can they use the iPad where they couldn’t or wouldn’t just use a computer?

    That being said I think the iPad has a real opportunity to revolutionize the textbook market (all your child’s books for class on one tablet!) … and in that capacity that fact that it cannot multitask is actually an asset.

    But otherwise I think declaring the Kindle dead and the ebook format war won is a little premature.

  • http://clarekrmiller.digitalnovelists.com Clare K. R. Miller

    I have no interest in the iPad. The only time I don’t want my computer to be multitasking is if I’m, well, reading a book. (Or listening to a podcast, but that’s what my iPod is for.) And why would I want something that all I’ll do on it is read books if it’s not optimized for that activity?

    But experience has shown me that what I want in technology and internet has very little to do with what other people want. So you’re probably right.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Okay… since this blog post feels like it should be subtitled “Why Isa is WRONG WRONG WRONG!!” I feel even more inclined to comment on it hahaha XD

    It’s all part of my evil plan to increase reader interaction! Mwahahahaha! /ducks in case Isa throws shoe at me ;-)

    You’re absolutely right about one thing – this is going to take some time. My bet’s on two years. Maybe less, if the iPad really is to computing what a few people think it really is.

    A few other things:

    1) On market assumption: my market assumption is simply that the iPad has a larger user base than the Kindle ever would have. It’s the same way that the iPhone is a compelling platform to publishers in the past year or so, because it’s such a huge market.

    2) Do people want one thing that does everything? Argument’s mistaken, actually, since the iPad only wants to do a few certain things very, very, well. What things? Jobs listed it out himself: media, email, and web surfing. The people-don’t-want-something-that-does-everything argument was also deployed in the months leading up to the iPhone’s release. The argument failed.

    3) What’s the iPad’s target market? I can buy a computer for my grandparents now. I can give them an intuitive, emotive computing experience. What does that say about the iPad’s target market?

    Now I’ll admit here: I may be wrong. But to be honest, I’m not really concerned about that. I’m going to start looking into the ePub format, and the iBook store, and I’m going to do some SDK-experimenting really really soon – because as a publisher and a content producer, it pays to be ahead of the curve. And I think the curve is here.

  • http://www.fluffy-seme.net Isa

    Argument failed? Says who? … last numbers I looked at had number of smart-do-everything-phones at 28 million something (http://blog.nielsen.com/…) …. which sounds super impressive until you consider that the total cellphone market is well into the BILLIONS.

    So out there right now there are millions of people buying smart phones like the iPhone but billions of people buying plain, ordinary crappy phones because they just want something that rings.

    It’s also worth noting that as of October Blackberry was STILL beating Apple in sales.

    I won’t believe that the iPad offers an intuitive computing experience for technophobes and older consumers like you’re claiming until someone actually demonstrates that in action. My mother keeps asking me how to attach files to emails … despite the big button that says ATTACH. What’s intuitive to our demographic isn’t necessarily intuitive to others just because we assume it should be.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a devote Mac user, you simply cannot have a better product experience. That being said, there is nothing about the control of Mac products that I have ever found “intuitive”: the iPod wheel drove me insane for months, it took me a full week to figure out how to get my iMac to do everything that I already knew how to do on a PC, it takes me twenty minutes to do ANYTHING on my friend’s iPhone. Saying that something is intuitive is to say that you can look at it and without touching it, without playing around with it, know exactly how it will work. Apple’s products are the exact opposite of that. They are neat, and efficient, incredibly pretty and well designed but if there were intuitive Apple stores wouldn’t have to run “this is how to use your computer” courses.

  • http://www.brainhandles.com Greg Bulmash

    Just remember that there are Android-based pads and Google’s pushing it like crack. In 2 years, Android may be calling iPhoneOS its bitch.

    Either that or you’ll get a tablet running WinTel. Look at the Mirus Schoolmate. It’s bulkier and only has 5.5 hour life. But it’s more of a family machine than the iPad.

    I don’t know. Even I was seduced by the iPhone, but the combo of AT&T and no physical keyboard kept me away. I am not at all seduced by the iPad.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Isa: Alright, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere with this. ;-) Let’s just call it a day and agree to disagree. Cool?

    @Greg: Holy cow – that’s a good point. I’d completely forgotten about Google and Chrome OS. If Google plays its cards right, it may be a good competitor to the iPad, though probably not for books, at first. (Not until Google Books is settled, which should give Apple a one year advantage. But still – if it’s a large enough platform …)

    As for Microsoft: nahh. The only reason Tablets have been so sucky the past coupla years has been because Windows is/was the sole player in the field, and they refused to create a whole new OS designed for touch. They’re going to have to play catch-up, which puts Apple at an advantage.

    My bet’s on Google, and Chrome OS. Which is actually kinda cool.

  • oZ

    I have been looking for an ereader for about 6 months now, seriously considered the Kindle but then caught a bolg talking about the Nook … so I waited. The Nook is launched and it’s a real mess … maybe the Kindle’s not so bad after all, but wish it had native pdf support so I could import some reference material for business … November Amazon announces that the Kindle 2 now has native pdf … the Kindle’s the Bomb!! … but wait, what’s that about an Apple tablet? But what’s the real world story on backlit LCD vs eink and eye-strain? … and the iPad is twice the price of the Kindle and I have trouble considering any device without Flash a “web-browser”.

    So … my finger hovers over the purchase icon with my cart of a Kindle 2 & cover … I could really use some feedback on the eink thing.

    I have never written feedback in a blog before but the terrific content on this subject has me believing :-)

    Thanks to all!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @oZ: I’m tempted to ask you to wait and buy the iPad, but if you’ve been looking for an eReader for 6 whole months, you should go buy the Kindle. Two reasons:

    a) you’re actively seeking out an eReader, which is remarkably different from the argument that I’m making above. While I do believe that the iPad will eventually steal Amazon’s thunder, this is going to take some time, and my argument doesn’t lend itself to dedicated book-nerds like yourself.

    b) there’s a risk that Amazon shuts down its Kindle arm, but it’s unlikely that they’ll stop selling Kindle-related content. They are in the content business, after all. And, besides, Kindle content is readable on both iPad and Kindle, anyway, through an iPhone app – so if you switch devices at a latter stage, you’ll still have access to content for both devices.

  • http://sorrowfulunfounded.com Chris Clarke

    The iPad is certainly what I’ve wanted in an eReader but the overall device isn’t something I’m after. I can’t multitask, and while I’m happy to see Flash die, it is still needed for the majority of websites with content that Flash makes viable (at least until HTML5 goes mainstream, I don’t see it going away just yet). I think for me, an Android device like the Archos 5 would be more appropriate.

    Something I think people are forgetting is that the Kindle app for iPhone will run on the iPad – since the iPad is running the iPhone OS and Apple has said that iPhone apps will run out the box. If for any reason the Kindle app and Stanza don’t run, it will be an artificial limitation.

    To be honest, I’ve been happy reading books on my iPod touch in Stanza having read over 25 (combination of light novels and web fiction, less web fiction because its painful to convert chapter by chapter to the format) books in the last few months.

    I think its a bit early to declare ePub the winner. Amazon has a lot of support behind MobiPocket. Apple will likely use DRM too, so your iBookstore books will not likely work on other eReader devices.

    I released an early early development release of a plugin for WordPress the other day, which should produce books compatible with the iPad (see my blog). They seem to display ok in Stanza. If anyone reading this has experience with MobiPocket, please contact me as I need assistance.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Chris, re ePub: Amazon’s the only store that’s not using ePub. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it doesn’t bode well for them.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    It’s amazing how much inventiveness and competition drive the computer/phone companies to try to out-do each other and attract customers. It’s Natural Selection’s adaptation process condensed and jacked up. Survival of the fittest — which can mean better design, better marketing, better customer experience…

    And just when you think someone is winning, something new gets invented.

    I wonder what will happen when they perfect the contact lenses that project computer input so you can see it wherever you’re looking. We’ll probably repeat this whole process…