The invisible e-book

I’ve been putting off a post about the rumoured apple tablet because there’s so much noise already out there. Even in the book space. And I reckon I’ve resisted pretty well, until now. Some background: When I was writing the book, it was a different world. The Sony reader had only just been released after a couple of years in Japan as the libre. Publishers were still recovering from the first generation of ebook readers. Gemstar, rocket ebook etc anyone? In the other corner were the PDA readers with dedicated fans of a plethora of formats and stores catering to a readership of a few dozen. Back then, then was no kindle and the second wave of ereaders was something that I expected to happen, but hadn’t yet.

But even then, at my first meeting with my publisher, she said “you’ve got to think that when ebooks take off, apple will be there.” She knew that I’d agree and I did. After all I was and still am a dedicated apple watcher. But we were basing our observation on the success of the iTunes store and the iPod. Remember the iPhone and the app store only existed in secret labs in Cupertino at that stage. So it was partly an expectation and partly a hope. The iPhone took us one step closer to fulfilling both the expectation and the hope.

The rumoured tablet is the next step, but its importance is not the technology itself. That’s something that apple naysayers don’t get. The iPod and the iPhone were both dismissed by geek experts as not being as feature-rich as they should have been. But that’s missing the point totally. What iPod and iPhone managed to trigger was cultural change. The first tapped into a way to buy and listen to music that literally revolutionised an industry. The second changed the way that ordinary people used used their phones. In both cases, what begins as a new toy becomes an indispensable part of one’s everyday life.

But why did ipod and iphone change everything when diamond rio and nokia n9000 didn’t? In both cases the actual hardware was only a small part of the picture. What was more important was that both ipod and iphone represented significant steps in making (in this case small) computers invisible. Ipod users don’t need manuals. The scroll wheel removed the barriers between people and their music.

Multitouch does the same for everything else. For most iPhone users, the interface is second nature, it’s invisible. That’s why apple’s tablet, should it actually appear on the 27th is important. Kindle does the job in a workmanlike manner, but e-ink is not responsive enough so the interface just gets in the way. Remember, printed books are a technology too. It’s just that over several centuries they became second nature and invisible. Whatever replaces print needs to easily gain those same attributes.

In the last decade or so, apple seems to have understood that cultural change is hard. And that one way to get people to change the habits of a lifetime is to make the new way appear totally natural – as if it’s the way things should always have been done. When technology becomes invisible, cultural change can happen.

Roll on the 27th

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3 comments so far

  1. wouter on

    I hope. I hope. As a librarian trying to make ebooks available to my patrons I am finding it hard. Some changes in prices, hardware and circulation software will be needed. I’m hoping that after the dust settles on this market in full flux, we will be left with somethig to work with.

  2. […] Out A New Angle on the iPad Why the iPad Matters Future Shock Same Ol’ Same Ol’… iPad The invisible e-book I need to talk to you about computers The iPad isn’t what you think it […]

  3. […] Posted February 9, 2010 Filed under: ebooks | I posted about invisibility a couple of weeks ago. It seems that David Carr from the New York Times gets it too. In a PBS chat […]


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