Friday, January 29, 2010

Why I See The iPad As An Epic Ereader Fail

My ereader is a tablet computing device that's 9 3/4" x 8 3/8", with a full-color touchscreen that measures 6 3/4" x 5 1/8". It's 3/4" thick and weighs about 2 pounds. It carries an on-board, removable stylus, like a Nintendo DS.

It came standard with 2 USB ports, a built-in microphone, jacks for an external microphone and headphones, built-in compact flash card reader, 9-pin connector (for connecting to printers, external hard drives and other devices), internal wireless adapter, built-in network card reader, onboard speaker and A/C adapter/charger. It can surf the web, play games and music, run a mobile edition of MS Office and other programs.

With μBook (a freeware ereader program) installed it reads ebooks in multiple formats, and allows the user to customize all of the following when reading an ebook: page orientation, page background color/texture, font, font size, font color, font style (e.g., bold/italic), character and line spacing, bookmarks, indent spacing and more. It also has search, touch page-turning and 'jump to page' functionality. Other freeware ereader programs I could install include dictionary and markup/notes capability, but since those aren't functions I feel I need, I'm content with μBook.

None of this would seem particularly impressive, were it not for the fact that MY EREADER IS TEN FREAKIN' YEARS OLD!!

It's not as sexy as the iPad or the Kindle, and it doesn't have an e-ink display---neither does the iPad. But considering that it's TEN FREAKIN' YEARS OLD I'm more than a little disappointed that when the wizards at Apple finally decided to come out with an ereader, they couldn't beat my dinosaur device (ten years may as well be an epoch in terms of advances in technology) in either functionality or price.

My device is about the same size, and just slightly heavier than, an iPad. While the iPad's processor speed is faster than my device's, and its screen is larger and higher-resolution than that on my device, I'd have thought that with ten years to build on what I've had since 2000 it would've been no problem for a bunch of hardware and software engineers to improve my device's processing speed and screen to match the iPad's specs. Also, while my Ereader-saurus Rex's (largely useless today) wireless infrared adapter would be replaced with a wireless bluetooth adapter in a device built more recently, my device can still connect to the internet or a wireless network via a wireless network card.

Where are the iPad's USB ports? There's just one, on the available-for-separate-purchase docking device. Where is the iPad's microphone jack, where's its flash card reader, where's its input/output connector port? My ereader has had all of these for a decade, yet Apple couldn't find a way to get them into the iPad.

My device is an ePods: a tablet computing device that was originally intended to be used as a portable computer for email, simple productivity applications (e.g., stripped-down word processor and spreadsheet), playing music files and simple games, and for surfing the web via connection to a dedicated Internet Service Provider (ISP). When the ISP folded, there were suddenly a bunch of these ePods devices out in the world with no network to support them. It wasn't long before someone took a look at the device's form factor and available functionality and thought to himself, "Hey, this thing would make a terrific ereader!"

Soon, that someone figured out how to bypass the device's automatic attempt to connect to its now-defunct network every time it was turned on, and how to get the device to load a simple desktop like any other computer. With the simple desktop in place and USB connection to another computer, getting programs like μBook loaded onto the ePods is easy. With the ePods connected to a computer via USB, transferring files in either direction is a simple, drag-and-drop operation.

The ePods' compact flash card reader (which would be an SD card reader on a device built more recently) makes concerns about storage limitations moot: need more storage? Get more memory cards. The iPad, on the other hand, is like an iPod: you're limited to the on-board storage that comes pre-loaded on the device. Need more storage? Buy a better iPad.

I can buy books for my ereader from many different vendors, I'm not locked into a specific vendor's store. I can comparison-shop. I can read ebooks offered in various formats. I'm not chained to a specific vendor for my ebook purchases, nor am I married to a 'preferred' vendor which will allow me to buy ebooks from other sources but will make it a royal pain to get them loaded on the device.

I pay no monthly fees to use my device, and I actually own my copies of the books I've bought (or downloaded from public-domain repositories like Project Gutenberg). I will never turn on my device to find that this or that book's licensing term has "expired", or that some of my content has disappeared because the vendor who sold it to me had to pull it back due to questionable content licensing.

I paid about $60 for my ePods when I bought it on eBay. As of this writing, the lowest-capacity iPad costs $499 and the Kindle DX costs $489. After comparing the feature sets, it's clear to me that buying either device would be an expensive step backward for me in terms of ereader functionality. Sure, I'd like to have an e-ink display, but with my preferred font style, color and size selections made, my ereader isn't particularly hard on the eyes. And since ebook files are small (in terms of file size) and comprised primarily of text, I don't need any more processing power than my ePods has for reading ebooks. I don't use my ePods to run programs, access email, surf the 'net or subscribe to newspapers, magazines or RSS feeds. I just use it to read ebooks. And in terms of that functionality, it easily holds its own against the Kindle, Kindle DX, and the iPad.

I look forward to the day when a device with all the functionality and connectivity of my ePods comes along, with an added full-color e-ink display, enough processing power and screen resolution to run enhanced ebook "apps" that have full-motion video and interactive features, high-quality audio for text-to-speech and audiobooks, all at a reasonable price. But that day hasn't come yet, and I have no idea why. And it's kind of annoying.

In the meantime, if you want an ereader with all the functionality and connectivity of my ePods and a Kindle (minus the e-ink display) and a Sony Reader, but with a speedier processor, full-color display and more power to run programs and surf the web, here's what you need to do. Get yourself a netbook and load it up with the free Kindle reader software for Kindle books (and Kindle Store connectivity), free Sony Reader software for Sony Reader books (and Sony Reader Store connectivity), and one of the many freeware ereader programs for all other ebook formats. Voila! You've got a small, light, portable ereader with all the functionality of a Kindle, a Sony Reader and my ePods rolled into one device, with more computing power than any of those devices, more connectivity and storage flexibility than an iPad, and all at a pricetag of around $300.

On the other hand, if you'd rather just have $500 worth of cool, sexy and impress-your-friends, get an iPad.


Anonymous said...

LOL I kind of want $500 of cool and sexy. :D But iPad isn't meant primarily as an e-reader. It's more like a laptop. Still don't know what I want to buy as my dedicated e-reader when I get there though. I'm waiting for the right sporty, sexy little ereader to seduce my e-virginity away.

April L. Hamilton said...

That's the thing, Zoe. Apple's trying to position it as this all-in-one device, but it can't possibly be that.

It doesn't have enough storage capacity, computing power or onboard connectivity/devices (e.g., webcam, ports, DVD/Blu-Ray drives) to replace a Macbook or laptop. It doesn't have a phone or webcam so it can't replace an iPhone.

Apple has touted its gorgeous display for viewing HD movies, but its skimpy storage capacity doesn't allow room for the device to hold very many of those and its screen resolution is less than the 1080p full-HD standard. So it can't beat a portable DVD or Blu-Ray player, or a netbook being used as such.

It can't beat my ancient device's ereader capabilities, either. And sure, it can be used as a digital photo frame when it's docked, but is that really worth a minimum of $500 + the price of the dock?

So, for whom is this device intended, and what device(s) is it supposed to replace? And shouldn't it beat at least *one* of those devices in terms of functionality and power?

Anonymous said...

As an ebook reader it's a total fail. But I don't think that was ever the point. Maybe as a testing point.

Buying a netbook gives about the same size screen (albeit not portrait). With a better keyboard, unless you pay the extra $70 for the keyboard. You lose half your screen with the touch screen keyboard.

Pretty sure you can't read/install any other programs other than the stuff you buy from apple.

A giant useless gadget for people who like Apple gadgets.

Seems more like a test project to see what people will use it for then they might try to tone it down to a few less functions.

Like Zoe I'm waiting for the right ereader before I spend a good portion of my expendable income.

April L. Hamilton said...

@ comingalive:

Oh, so it's like the Newton all over again? ;')

Mockingbird said...

I'm afraid I see the iPad as pretty pointless. Kindle is better as a reader (I bought one and I love it!), I have a netbook for email and processing and I have a mobile. If iPad replaced all of those in functionality and value for money, great, I'd be the first in the queue to buy one. But it doesn't even come close. In fact, my little collection of goodies, together with my camera, camcorder and tripod, and my DSi, all fit neatly into one rucksack for a complete mobile office. iPad is just unnecessary, and Kindle looks better too!

PV Lundqvist said...

Don't forget, Apple's first all-in-one, the Newton, was a handy ereader and ran dozens of apps.

Then they abandoned the platform.

John Kostrzewski said...

I was torn when I first heard about the iPad as well, but when I looked more into it, I began to see what they were trying to do. Now I think I understand, and I like it.

First, it would be stupid of them to try replace the iPhone or the laptop computer. Why would they try to replace either one of their main markets? They were trying to find something in between, which is what Steve Jobs tells you the keynote when they first released the iPad.

Second, I was really confused when I found out there weren't any adapters (such as a single USB adapter), but then I realized you really didn't need any. Everything you would need transferred can be done so when you connect it to your computer via the adapter that comes with it or wirelessly via WiFi or 3G.

Doing things that way, you wouldn't need to include an entire library of movies on your iPad. You sync the movies you want to watch and go from there. Yes it would take a little bit of foresight on the customers part to know how many movies they want to take with them at one time, but when would you really need a ton of movies on your device before you sync? Trips? The average movie on the iTunes store is about 1.5GB in size; about double that for HD. That means a simple 16GB iPad would be able to hold around 10 standard movies or 5 HD movies at one time. That sounds like plenty to me.

As for reading on the iPad, it uses the standard ePub format so I would assume you can add your already owned books into iTunes as you do your music and transfer them over to the iPad. The Apple iBook store is really just a convenient place for you to purchase eBooks. As a benefit, this store will allow authors to sell their eBooks at a price they set, not the price that the store sets (which is what Amazon does).

I was once torn when it came to what the iPad would be good for, but then I realized it is a good in between device. It won't let you do as much as a laptop would, but it does more things or does things better than what the iPhone does.

That's why the iPad isn't a fail in most any category to me.

April L. Hamilton said...

John -
I keep my entire music, audiobook and music video library on my iPod and my entire ebook library on my ereader; I don't like having to frequently sync, and decide what I might feel like listening to or reading on a given day. I think a portable device is most useful when it contains *all* your content, not as some kind of electronic analog to temporarily checking out a book or movie from a library.

Also, I don't buy anything in HD from iTunes because HD stuff very quickly eats up my hard drive. It also take *forever* to download from iTunes, even on my super-speedy Fios connection. You say the 16G iPad could store 10 HD movies, but once it's holding that many movies, what else can it hold? I mean, isn't it supposed to hold movies, music, apps, ebooks, and also run productivity apps from a cloud? Its onboard memory is already too small to contain both my music and ebook library; actually, it's too small just to contain what's on my iPod.

As for the wireless 3G connection, that's something only available at an extra charge, both upfront and on a monthly basis. So is the dock. The dock price hasn't been released yet, but I'll be amazed if it costs anything less than $70. These two items, without which the device can't be used to its full potential, tack an additional $200 onto the 16G iPad's $499 pricetag.

You say the iBook store "will allow authors to sell their eBooks at a price they set, not the price that the store sets (which is what Amazon does)," but I haven't heard or read anything that indicates Apple intends to allow authors to self-publish to the iBook store. So far, they're only working with major publishers and I doubt the authors have any say in where those publishers set their price points. As for me, I set the prices for my Kindle books and can change them anytime I want to, so I don't know why you're under the impression authors can't set their own prices in the Kindle store.

You may think the iPad is a cool adjunct to all the computing and portable media power you've already got, and that's fine. But that also relegates it to the category of an expensive "nice to have", not a device that fulfills a pre-existing market need, nor a device that offers totally new functionality (as the iPod did).

It can only do a little bit of what each of a number of pre-existing devices can do, it can't replace a single one of those devices entirely, and it certainly can't replace a group of them. And if I'm going to invest $700 or more on a new device, I want it to match or beat the functionality of at least one device I've already got---or provide new functionality none of my existing devices have. Judged by that yardstick, the iPad is a fail.

John Kostrzewski said...

I understand where you are coming from, and for you the Ipad would be a fail.

My work grounds me to my computer so I know I will always be coming back to it. Syncing it wouldn't be a problem for me. I agree, it would be nice having everything with me all the time, but I don't want, nor do I need, that option.

Yes, on a 16GB iPad you would be able to hold 10 standard definition movies or 5 HD, and it wouldn't leave you room for much, or any, more data. That's why they make a 32 or 64GB version.

As for the dock, that is a separate accessory; however, every Apple product--iPod, iPhone, whatever--comes with a cord to sync and charge it from your computer. That's what I was writing of.

Yes, the 3G connection is available at an additional cost, but it comes standard with a WiFi connection at no additional cost on all the units.

I miswrote when I when I wrote about authors; I meant publishers.

Yes, I do believe the iPad is a cool looking device. I don't believe it is as revolutionary as Apple wants us to believe, but I don't believe it's as much of a fail as everybody likes to write.

It all comes down to what each individual wants from it and can use it for, and this is where we are divided.

I'm fine with syncing my movies, apps, books, music, etc. to it every day (if needed) because I'm grounded to my computer; I'll always be there. You want everything with you, so you would probably find it more of a hassle than anything, and considering you already have a device that does all that, there's no point.

I still don't understand why everyone commenting is calling it a fail as an ereader, though. Even this post is titled "Why I See The iPad As An Epic Ereader Fail". If being an ereader is all the iPad did, it would be simply a color ereader and a good one at that. Apple decided to give you much more on top of that. That makes it better than any other commercially available ereader out there in terms of functionality.

Regardless, this is all a moot point. It comes down to what the individual will use it for, and for that, we are of two different worlds.

April L. Hamilton said...

John -
I call it an ereader fail because, in terms of ereader functionality and flexibility, it can't beat a device I've had since 2000. It also can't beat a netbook loaded with free ereader software.

I wanted the iPad to beat my device and the Kindle both, and I genuinely thought it would. I'm very, very disappointed.

Unknown said...

Have you used an iPod Touch? I'd say iPod is a far superior eReader than the 10 year-old device, netbooks, and other designs stuck in old thinking. The beauty in iPad is it's user interface and it's App design goal to simplify common tasks.

The iPad is not a computer replacement. It's not an all-in-one device. It's an extension to your desktop. Skimpy storage? It syncs. Take only movies you want now.

With simple App design, we will see new forms of storytelling, better reading experiences, and a new vision of simpler software design helping users get things done.

The iPad is a step in the direction of good software and hardware design. Better devices will come embracing these same goals.

Far from an "epic" fail.
-David G Shrock

April L. Hamilton said...

"With simple App design, we will see new forms of storytelling, better reading experiences, and a new vision of simpler software design helping users get things done."

Yes, but none of this is dependent upon the iPad. Surely you've heard of the Vook? If the iPad continues not to support Flash, publishers will have to develop entirely new ways of presenting multimedia just for this one device, and unless it becomes dominant in the marketplace, I don't see that happening.

Nick said...

Now that you've probably actually gotten your hands on an iPad, has your opinion softened? You have to admit that the iPad does certainly fill a niche. And unlike your Epic-Win Antiquated eReader, when I want something to read, I don't want to jump through hoops to get it into my device.

No USB? No problem. Dropbox.

Everytime I hear someone complain about "it doesn't have this, it doesn't have that", I look at their age. Inevitably, they're over 25 years old. You have to let go of your old technology. USBs are fine for what they are, but they're not going to be around forever.

iPad's price point and flexibility were right on target. That explains why they're sold out around the US.