A Geek Speaks

John Siracusa is pretty well known in certain geek circles for his long and comprehensive reviews of software and operating systems. Writing for the proudly tech-oriented Ars Technica site, John has unpacked and repacked all manner of geek matters. Last week he turned his attention to e-books and again, addresses all the gory detail. It’s nothing we haven’t heard, or said, before but John speaks with the experience of someone who once worked on the inside:

I was pitched headfirst into the world of e-books in 2002 when I took a job with Palm Digital Media. The company, originally called Peanut Press, was founded in 1998 with a simple plan: publish books in electronic form

A couple of takeaways stand out, so if you haven’t got time to follow the link, here’s my pick. 

1. A change is a comin’ and the fact that people haven’t understood e-books doesn’t mean they’re a bad idea:

The pace of the e-book market over the past decade has been excruciatingly—and yes, you guessed it, unjustly—slow. My frustration is much like that of the Mac users of old. Here’s an awesome, obvious, inevitable idea, seemingly thwarted at every turn by widespread consumer misunderstanding and an endemic lack of will among the big players.

2. People *can* read text off screens:

‘ll say it again: people will read text off screens. The optical superiority of paper is still very real, but alsoirrelevant. The minimum quality threshold for extended reading was passed a long, long time ago.

3. Change may not happen until enough people die:

But the truth is, these things always turn out the same way. And I have some bad news for the bibliophiles. The beloved, less technically sophisticated information conveyance with the pedigreed history doesn’t win.

Time and again this happens, and it can happen without changing a single person’s mind. To put it bluntly, people die. Indeed, death is arguably the single most important driver for all human progress.

4. Publishers haven’t been interested:

All of this is to say that the publishers effectively sabotaged the e-book market from day one. The DRM, the pricing, the general treatment as second-class citizens, it all added up to an insurmountable drag on a budding industry. Without some minimum level of buy-in from content owners, there was simply no way to break through to the mainstream.

5. Apple, with the ipod, could have been *the* player:

The e-book market was Apple’s for the taking….

All the early e-book companies were at the bottom looking up at the book market, which appeared to them vast and plentiful. Apple, in contrast, was looking down from its perch atop the music market. To Apple, the entire world of print publishing was but a molehill.

6. It’s easy to get frustrated by all of this, but hang in there!!:

Overall, there’s definitely an “all of this has happened before” vibe, perhaps even with a hint of “all of this will happen again,” if I’m feeling pessimistic. It’s almost as if those first attempts to get the e-book market off the ground never happened.


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