I want to be able to read electronic books on the train. More importantly, I want everyone else to be able to do the same. “But, but, but, you can already do that! Sony’s Reader does it! And Franklin’s eBookman! And loads of others!” No, no they don’t. They let people like me (and doubtless you, gentle reader) read books on the train. They’re computers. Computers are not useful and not fun. People don’t want to read books on a screen, they don’t want to read one on a computer, they don’t want to think about computers when they’re reading. I mean, look at the Sony Reader. That doesn’t look like a book. That’s a PDA. Someone looking at that isn’t going to think, “I am reading a book”. They’ll think “I am reading a book on a computer“, and then they’ll hate it. What they want, I believe (based on asking quite a few people about it, and discussing it with a friend in the publishing industry) is what I’m about to describe.
What the thing looks like
Imagine something that looks like a book. It’s about the same weight as a book, it’s about the same thickness as a (thinnish) book. And there’s text on it that is the same as a book; you can read it in bad lighting conditions, it’s not lit up, it’s well formatted. This is already possible with E-Ink‘s technology; it’s what the Sony Reader uses, for example. An E-Ink “screen” looks like words printed on paper, doesn’t need a backlight, and lasts for ages on one battery. It’s like a printed piece of paper, in fact. The difficult technology bit of this is done. What’s missing is how people actually read books. The device I propose would allow you to read books. Any book you can get onto it. It folds in half, so when it’s folded it’s about half the size of a book (and will go into your pocket or handbag or briefcase); when it’s folded it’s not running, and when you unfold it it’s instantly working again. (This is the advantage with the E-Ink stuff; it doesn’t use any power to maintain the screen.) To turn the page, you press on the bottom right corner (or bottom left corner to turn back a page). The “screen” is the whole width of it; there’s no plastic border around the screen at all (so it doesn’t look like a PDA).
How to use it
The way you get books onto it is that there’s basically a mobile phone built into it. You press a “stop reading this book” button and it shows you a list of all the books, ever. Choose a book to read and enter your credit card number (somehow: I’ve got some UI ideas for this), and it gets the book for you and you can read it. The way you get books off it onto some other device is: you can’t. There are no ports on it. None. The only thing you can plug into it is its power supply, and that only needs plugging in about once a fortnight (because it’s very low-power, as mentioned). It has nothing to do with your computer. You never plug it into your computer, or bring it near your computer. This neatly avoids the whole DRM-for-books thing, because it is not possible to take the book off your reader and put it on the internet. The device can’t browse around the internet; it can’t play Tetris; you can’t balance your checkbook on it. It reads books, and that’s all it does. It doesn’t ask you where to connect to, because it only ever connects to one place.
Who buys it
The market for it is all the people who read books on the train. They get the same experience from this that they do at the moment, but it can be all the books you’ve ever wanted, and you never have to go near Waterstones or any other bookshop. You don’t have to worry about where to find a book; they’re all available. You could even let people read the first chapter for free or something. It costs less than a hundred pounds.
You may be thinking: there are some problems with this. I sort of agree with you. One of them is: how do you get every book in the world onto it? Well, I’m prepared to say that it’s limited to those books that can already be bought in electronic form, somehow. I’m not 100% clear on the legality of my proposal here, but here it is: when someone says “get me, say, Thud, the latest Discworld book”, the server charges them \$7.99, then connects to (say) http://ebooks.palm.com/product/detail/20229?book=Thud_, downloads the ebook from there (paying the \$7.99 that the punter paid), and sends the ebook down to the device. We don’t touch the ebook; you’re just buying it and then reselling it without ever reading it. That’s certainly allowed in the US (under the first sale doctrine) and it’s likely to be fine everywhere else, because every time someone with my reader buys Thud we go and buy another copy of the ebook. We don’t buy one copy and sell it more than once. After you’ve been doing that for a while, when lots of people have the device, then you approach the publishers direct and say “why not make your books available to this market, who will buy them, and it avoids all the existing problems with ebooks”. You don’t approach them beforehand because they’ll say no, or worse they’ll say yes if and only if you agree to sell only their books. That’s a dreadful idea; people who read don’t care who publishes the book. A second problem is: how do you put a mobile phone in it without charging a monthly subscription? Well, you build 2 years worth of mobile phone subscription into the original purchase price, and then you eat the cost after that, basically. The subscription should be pretty cheap anyway, because it’s incredibly low bandwidth; pagers are subscriptionless too in (I suspect) the same way. The device only has to download 300K or so of book once every few weeks. Make it GSM rather than GPRS, make it as cheap and intermittent as you want, really.
So make it happen
I think this is doable, based on how all the technology exists. I think it’d be a roaring success in the market, based on talking to lots of people about why they’re not interested in reading on a PDA. I also think that I have neither the capital nor the time to do it myself, as is usual with these things. So, go for it. Make a million. If you do make it, bung me one for free. And one for Tim, the chap who helped me cook up this idea over a few very late nights and early mornings.