Early ebooks and why they failed

  1. Ebooks from 1992: not so different from today!
  2. Why did ebooks fail in the 90s?
  3. 2011: breakthrough for ebooks!
  4. Whats’s next?

Amazon started the recent ebook growth in late 2007 with the Kindle e-reader. And Apple put another big booster into ebooks in 2010 with the iPad. In February 2011 another milestone was passed, when ebooks became the biggest format of all kinds of books in the US.

But nothing is new under the sun, ebooks have been around for a long time, with different names and formats and readers. So why are ebooks taking off now?

I see many similarities between today’s disruptive book market and the multimedia business that I worked in during the 90s when my company Ahead Multimedia produced numerous interactive presentations and learning programs on CD-ROM. They had chapters, headlines, body text and illustrations, just like ebooks. we called it “interactive multimedia”. They looked like many of the ebooks you see now, but they also had more interactivity, animations and video than most ebooks have today.

Another similarity was the problems of competing and incompatible hardware and software platforms and varying screen sizes. My company thrived because we produced B2B communication for corporate clients so we could control the delivery platforms.

Here is the first ebook that I bought:

The novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, an ebook on a 1,4 MB floppy disc, introduced in 1992!

This was the first title in the Expanded Books series produced by the famous Voyager Company, these ebooks were designed for the brand new Apple Powerbook computers. I attended the launch at the MacWorld expo in San Francisco in January 1992.

Note that they called it Expanded books, their pitch was that it offered extended functionality compared to printed books. “Electronic text is a dynamic medium that enables you to become a more active reader”

Notice the features such as being able to dog-ear a page or put a paper clip on it, and type in margin notes, search for any words in the book etc.

Notice also the absence of all communication tools, remember this was before internet and email so there was no social media or online communities to share your book experiences with!

Also note that they used real- life metaphors like adding a paper clip or dog ear a page, something that we still have not broken free from, compare with the wooden book shelves in Apple’s latest iBooks application:

I think it is time to move to user interfaces that build on today’s digital possibilities and get rid of these old real-life metaphors! I am glad to see that others are also realizing this, such as Swedish startup Readmill in this post:
When we founded Readmill there were a few things we were fed up with. One was imitations of wooden bookshelves, the other that everyone was building closed ecosystems where no innovation could thrive. We decided to go the other way.

So why did those early ebooks fail?

  1. They only worked on Macs and there were few Macs back then
  2. They were difficult to install, the users had to manually install fonts and manage the application memory etc. (This to some degree remains a problem, just try to buy an ebook in the epub file format online and install it on your computer today…)
  3. Cumbersome distribution on floppies (then CD-ROMs came, but they were just as cumbersome)

But of course the main factors were:

  1. People where not used to consuming media on a computer, and there were no mobiles or tablet computers.
  2. People were not ready to pay for digital media (that problem still persists to some degree, 20 years later…)
  3. There has been a djungle of platforms and formats for ebooks and ereaders introduced in the 90s and 00s, see these enormous charts.

2011 – the breakthrough year for ebooks

Right now it seems that in the US, the Kindle and Nook dedicated ebook readers are leading the pack, while the iPad is totally ruling among the more general-purpose tablet computers. Note that the Kindle ebooks can be read on Kindle ereaders as well as on PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, Android mobiles etc, according to Amazon’s vision “buy once, read anywhere”.

So the ebook took a long time coming, but it finally looks like the time is ripe now and the ebook market is booming, especially in the US and other English-speaking markets. The ebook market is growing everywhere, but in much varying degrees in different countries, here is a report from spring 2011 on the global market in 2010.

What’s next?

We now have computers and mobiles everywhere and wireless connections and much smarter development tools for ebooks than ever before. Most print book publishers are scrambling to get on the ebook bandwagon. It is clear that ebooks are growing everywhere, but there is still lots of confusion on how the market will develop, what kind of ebooks will succeed first etc.
But in my view the product itself is still in its infancy when it comes to exploiting all these opportunities and offering the reader a better experience.
Already in 1992 the main argument for ebooks was “extended functionality”, smart digital features that increase the reading experience. So where are all these new e-features?
More on that in my next post “Where is the e in ebooks?”
This is post #2 in my series on ebook market and development.

Published by

Henrik Ahlén

I am an advisor and project manager in online and mobile services, mainly in eHealth. I manage development projects from needs analysis and idea generation to service design. See my LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/mrhenrikahlen

5 thoughts on “Early ebooks and why they failed”

  1. Bra första artikel! Kul att läsa om de tidiga försöken. Hela frågan är intressant för det rymmer många parametrar som man kan fundera kring. Det är mycket som ska stämma innan det genombrott sker som vi nu ser – på vissa håll i världen.

    Jag håller med om att e-boken lider av sitt “arv” från boken. Främst tror jag dock att e-boken lider av att vi kallar den just för e-bok.

    En bok är en bok. En e-bok är inte en bok. Det är en e-bok. Vad de båda har gemensamt är text och bilder.

    Poängen är att vi gör e-boken en otjänst att kalla den för någonting den inte är. Alltså en bok men prefixet e-. Det ställer till det rent marknadsföringsmässigt. En snabb jämförelse skulla kunna vara att vi drygt hundra hundra år tillbaka i tiden ska marknadsföra bilen och kallar den för urspår-tåg. Både tåg och urspår-tåg har visserligen likheter i att de är motoriserade fordon som kan ta dig från A till Ö bit för bit, men urspår-tåg låter som något som strider mot definitionen på vad det ska vara, vilken i sin tur bidrar till en osäkerhet. Jag tar nog tåget…. Med andra ord, tåg är tåg men urspår-tåg är inte det. Sedan kan man stånga sig blodig med alla argument gällande urspår-tågets fördelar. Och det är väl det branschen har gjort gällande e-bokens fördelar. Det kanske hade varit enklare att kalla den för någonting annat. Nu måste den först bli något vi kan kalla bok, sedan låta den bli vad den egentligen är. En tuff uppgift, rentav orättvist. Ett stålbad.

    1. Är sin egen plattform, självständig och fri. Relationen med boken är både till dess innehåll och fysisk.
    2. Har ett väldigt enkelt gränssnitt, t ex snabb att bläddra i.
    3. Väldigt bra kontrast.
    4. Lätt att ta med sig (beroende på storlek).
    5. Extremt snabbstartad.
    6. Har ett väl fungerande ekosystem.
    7. Har ett inarbetat copyright-system.

    Inte så lätt att matcha. Men det närmar sig. En snabbkoll på läget:

    1. Är underordnad plattformen. Den är beroende av en bra relation med både plattform och e-boken i sig. Först måste vi äga och sedan älska (att läsa på) själva plattformen, t ex surf- och läsplattor, sedan kan vi älska e-boken.
    2. Har först på senare år blivit snabb att bläddra i. Gränsnittet är bra till riktigt bra idag.
    3. Inte lika bra kontrast. Problem i solljus annat än i e-bokläsare.
    4. Lätt att ta med sig – om plattformen är lätt.
    5. Snabbstartad på rätt plattform.
    6. Har ej ett fungerande ekosystem i Sverige. Traditionella förlag verkar ointresserade.
    7. Kämpar med copyright-problem.

    Sammanfattningsvis så får vi vänta länge på att e-boken matchar bokens punkt 1 men gällande övriga punkter så är vi nära. Om vi sedan lägger till e-bokens fördelar, det boken inte har, så skulle åtminstone jag hellre investera i e-boken före mode-investeringen guld.

    hälsar Stefan ^^

  2. Looking forward of having the references a click away, not only the title or ISBN, but the exact section or chapter referred to, to enabling further drilling into the topic. This would of course put extra demand on the authors, but the e-format perhaps would allow new business models for the extra revenue when I accessing excerpts from their references.

  3. Next up? – will all emerging new formats like; epub, issue/folio, native apps, merge to one single format – capable of everything? One format and one interface which can cope with experiences based on text (like traditional books), based on design/layout (like magazines) and interactivity (like apps and web).

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