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The iPad Revolution

John G. Mabanglo/epa/Corbis
Apple CEO Steve Jobs introducing the iPad at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, January 27, 2010

As just about every sentient being knows, Apple Computer launched its “revolutionary,”1 “game changing,”2 “magical”3 tablet computer, the iPad, on April 3. This was after years of rumors, dating back almost a decade,4 but starting in earnest in February 2006,5 when Apple filed a number of patent applications that hinted at its intentions to move into touch computing. Though this turned out to be the prelude to the iPhone, tablet rumors began building again throughout the summer and fall of 2008 and into 2009,6 despite consistent denials from the company. By following the age-old dating protocol—flirt, be coy, don’t call back, flirt some more—Apple successfully turned up the dial on desire: here was a device that, sight unseen, large numbers of people wanted and believed they had to have, even without knowing precisely what it was or what it did.

In October 2009, at about the same time that rumors about the phantom Apple tablet were beginning to swirl, but before they coalesced into a media suck, the bookstore chain Barnes and Noble issued a product announcement of its own. It was getting into the electronic book reader business (again, ten years after its failed RockBook launch) with a small device called the Nook, reminiscent of Amazon’s popular electronic book reader, the Kindle, whose dominance it meant to challenge. Though The Wall Street Journal gamely live-blogged the launch, which took place in a basement conference room at the Chelsea Piers sports complex in Manhattan, and despite an overrun of holiday preorders for the Nook, once Apple revealed, right around Christmas, that it was planning a major product announcement at the beginning of the new year, excitement that another player had entered the e-book arena dulled.

At the Nook event, there was a lot of talk about the book industry and the future of books and the promise of e-books. Stephen Riggio, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, pointed out that publishing was still big business; at $30 billion a year, it was bigger than both the music and film industries.7 He also observed that readers wanted books on demand, which is what the Nook—with its access to the Barnes and Noble catalog, as well as to the more than one million scanned public domain books already on offer through various online sites, and, most likely, to the millions of books promised by the pending Google Books settlement as well—would give them.

Riggio pointed out all the ways that the Nook was different from the Kindle: it was based on Google’s open-source Android operating system, it used the nonproprietary ePub format, it had both wireless and 3G Internet access, it had a dash of color and a rudimentary touch screen, and it could be used to play music. He didn’t have to say that with an estimated three million Kindles in circulation, Barnes and Noble was playing catch-up to Amazon. It didn’t help that, aside from having a small touch screen rather than a keyboard, the Nook looked nearly identical to its rival, or that in its first iteration, the one that landed in the hands of reviewers like The New York Times‘s David Pogue, its underlying software was buggy and slow, or that due to supply issues, the company was unable to put Nooks under the Christmas tree. The machine didn’t actually ship till February, which is to say after Steve Jobs’s exultant iPad unveiling at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco on January 27, but before anyone could get their hands on an iPad, when desire for it was most pronounced. So while the iPad didn’t render the Nook dead on arrival, initial Nook sales, estimated to be around 60,000 units, were not strong enough to test the Kindle’s preeminence, let alone toss a lifeline to the publishing industry, if that’s what trying to capture a share of the growing electronic book market was expected to do.

Stephen Riggio was working with old data when he spoke that day at Chelsea Piers. According to the Association of American Publishers, book sales fell nearly 2 percent last year, to $23.9 billion.8 Educational books and paperbacks took the biggest hit. Their downward trajectory seemed to confirm what Steve Jobs said to The New York Times back in early 2008, when he reflected on, and then dismissed, the newly released Kindle, a device “which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading.” “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” Jobs told the Times. “Forty percent of the people in the US read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”9

Imagine his surprise, just two years later, when the number of book apps—books that can be read on the iPhone and iPod touch—surpassed the number of game apps in Apple’s own App Store, and sales of digital books for machines like the Kindle and the Sony Reader tripled, to over $313 million, with analysts at Goldman Sachs predicting that US sales of e-books would grow to $3.2 billion by 2015, and that Apple would command a third of that pie.^10 Most people may not have been reading, but those who were doing so on digital readers seemed to be reading a lot.

In 2008, visitors to Apple’s iTunes store downloaded one book app for every six game apps. Last year, that ratio was one to four. By the time Steve Jobs took to the Yerba Buena Center stage it was obvious that he had been wrong about readers and reading, and wrong about the Kindle itself. His mea culpa came in the form of a picture of a Kindle, projected on the big screen behind him, and the words: “That’s an e-book reader. Now, Amazon’s done a great job of pioneering this functionality with its Kindle. And we’re going to stand on their shoulders and go a bit further.” With that, he introduced Apple’s own e-book reader in the form of an iPad application called iBook. As he paced the stage, highlighting its “functionality,” the audience periodically broke out in spontaneous applause, even when it became clear that iBooks would be readable only on the iPad, and even when he noted that Apple was working directly with publishers, who would be setting their own prices, which were most likely going to be three or four or five dollars higher than Amazon’s loss-leading, penny-less-than-ten-dollars standard, and their own policies, which might keep new books off the e-book shelf so they wouldn’t compete with hardback sales. Prices and policies, that is, that appeared to favor publishers over consumers in the short run, which many publishers considered to be essential to the health of their industry.

You don’t have to be a technophobe or a Luddite to dismiss out of hand the idea of reading on a machine. Maybe it is muscle memory, but there is something deeply satisfying about a “real” book, a book made of pages bound between hard or soft covers, into which you can slip a bookmark, whose pages you can fan, whose binding you can crack and fold as you move from beginning to end. E-books, by contrast, whatever platform delivers them, are ephemeral. Yes, you can carry thousands of them in your pocket, but what will you have to show for it? What will fill your bookshelves? Then, one day, you find yourself housebound, and Wolf Hall has just won the Booker Prize, and you download a sample onto your iPhone, and just like with a book printed on paper you are pulled into the story and are grateful to be able to keep reading, and your resistance disappears, and you press the “buy” button—it’s so easy!—and that is how it starts.

There are two basic ways, so far, that words are displayed on a small screen, and those different ways offer different reading experiences that may influence whether you find reading on a handheld electronic device satisfying or not. There is “E Ink,” which reflects light rather than emitting it, and looks surprisingly like regular ink, though the page itself is grayer and offers less contrast; and there are liquid crystal displays (LCDs), pixels filled with liquid crystals arrayed in front of a light source that can be dimmed or brightened. The Kindle and the Nook, which are both monochrome readers (though the Nook has that petite color touch screen where it’s possible to see a thumbnail image of a book jacket), use E Ink. The iPhone and iPad are LCDs, and both are backlit. Backlit screens are hard, if not impossible, to read outside or in direct sunlight, and held at certain angles have a mirror effect so that the reader’s face is superimposed on the screen. Reflective E Ink screens, meanwhile, are difficult, if not impossible, to see in low light—forget reading under the covers. One is not better than the other; they are both flawed. New “transreflective” technology11 will bridge this divide, but that’s in the future.

When the Nook was announced, tech pundits wondered aloud if it would be a “Kindle killer.” It wasn’t, because, while it generally improves on Amazon’s model by, for example, being easier to navigate, it’s basically the same thing—a small, lightweight, pocketable, durable, black-and-white book reader. Both are simple to operate. Both allow access to hundreds of thousands of titles, the Kindle through Amazon’s extensive bookstore, the Nook through Barnes and Noble’s. While I prefer the Nook because it connects to the Internet through both Wi-Fi and 3G, unlike the Kindle, which has only 3G connectivity and is not operable without being tethered to a computer to retrieve books in certain geographic regions (like mine) with poor access to 3G, the reading experience is indistinguishable.

True, the Nook has the capacity for listening to music and now, with its most recent software update, for simple Web browsing and playing a couple of games, but these features are, so far, primitive and uninspiring. The real difference between the two machines, and the one that matters, is that the Nook is built around the ePub format, which is open and freely available for any device, unlike the Kindle’s proprietary format, which functions only for Kindle. The ePub format is used by every electronic reader except the Kindle, and promises to be a big selling point for Google Editions, the search firm’s planned Web-based electronic bookstore scheduled to launch this summer, which will allow buyers to read books and much else on any number of devices. (This may include, by year’s end, Google’s own tablet computer.) It’s through ePub that readers have instant access to millions of books in the public domain,12 that electronic publishing has a chance to become standardized, and that writers will have more options when it comes to disseminating and selling their books. As the Jacket Copy blog in the Los Angeles Times pointed out, “Theoretically, an individual author could create an EPub e-book and publish from home.”13 The implications go deep.

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