A few predictions

I don’t think I’m going to say anything new in this post, but I find I have to unload after reading a bunch of blogs enthusing about the darn things. The various cheers are for the Kindle, and for both the upcoming Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers.

The short statement to all three is: not yet and possibly never.

Let’s start with the Kindle – and ebooks in general. I got to play with one of the ‘new’ Kindles – the one with a nice large screen – yesterday. (Yay, friends.) I got to play with it long enough to be comfortable with it. I liked it a lot. I’d love to have one. It convinced me that for the foreseeable future ebooks won’t replace print books. Huh?

Look, I’m a bibliophile – a bookworm. I get a lot of books from the library and still buy them. If I bought all I read I’d have spent over a thousand dollars so far this year if I stuck to paperback for everything, and three times that for all hardback. Thing is, if I’d had to buy them all I wouldn’t have read most of them. Easily 2/3 and possibly as much as 80% of what I read was one-time material that wasn’t good enough for me to want to read it again. Yay Libraries, but I digress. I’ve got a used book place where I could recover maybe a quarter of the original price, but basically I Could Not Afford them all.

Now, any of the readers is going to cost me $300 – and if it’s good (like the later Kindles or the Sony equivalents) I’m pushing $500 or more at this time. If I’d purchased all the books I’ve read so far electronically I’d probably have saved $400 or so. On the surface, I’ve just made the case for the ebook readers. If you spend a thousand dollars or more on books in a year, then buying a reader and getting the books electronically makes sense to the budget.

Except. Except first, how many people who like to read spend over a thousand dollars on books in a year? Yes, there is a slice that buys, only. But libraries do a solid business as well. There is a significant slice that spends a lot less than a thousand dollars on books. Some only read a handful of books, some read a lot from the libraries buy only buy the ones they Really Like.

Here’s the thing to recognize: While the ‘under a thousand’ group spends less per individual, as an aggregate they’re at least as large as the ‘over a thousand’ group. In fact, Baen Books (a MAJOR pusher of ebooks) says that they sell between 6 and 8 print for each electronic book sold. Now, publishers make higher profit on ebooks (far less material costs) but the margin isn’t that much greater. There’s the cost of editors and copy editors and typesetters and sales staff and… (waitaminute, typesetters? for Ebooks? Yes.) Bottom line, as long as a significant profit can be made by print despite the costs, publishers are going to print. And as long as readers don’t save more than they spend overall by going electronic, they’re going to stay print.

This will change eventually. I suspect it’ll follow the same model as cell phones. The first cell phone network was built in 1979 (in Japan). Portable phones that didn’t need a vehicle for antenna and power – that could be carried about (more or less) were also being made in the 1970s. Pocketable cell phones didn’t happen till the 1990s. And yet we didn’t have a RUSH TO BUY from everyone till, well… jokes and complaints about people driving and living with the darn thing stuck in their ears are a fairly recent phenomenon of only the last decade. Subjectively it seemed like we went from the cellphone being unusual to NOT having a cellphone being unusual over the space of a couple of years. In reality it was closer to five years (and it happened from 1995-2000). Either way, the model holds – at some point we’ll go from ebooks being uncommon to them being common.

Allow me to emphasize a point above. I did not say “ebook READERS” in the last sentence, I said “ebooks”. I strongly believe the dedicated ebook readers are evolutionary dead ends. Heck, the Kindle comes just short of being a tablet laptop PC already, and from what I can tell the Sony reader isn’t too far behind. They’re specialized netbooks (compact laptops) with a black and white screen that happens to be very easy on the reader’s eyes (expect that to migrate to computer screens – especially if either succeeds in their rumored color R&D efforts). They’re neat, but they are not where we’ll wind up.

Let’s put it this way for a final nail in the coffin. The Kindle 2’s screen is 6 inches (diagonal), the newest model (DX) is about 9.5 inches. An iPhone’s screen is just about 5 inches on the diagonal. Neither of the Kindles will fit in a pocket, and if we’re going THERE we can look at netbook tablets to get more function for the price. (Still, however, with a screen that’s not as easy on the eyes, though it’s color.)

As I said, ebook fans aren’t the only ones at which I’m annoyed. There are also the upcoming game console controllers that are being hyped.

Let’s kill the microsoft controller – Project Natal – first. You have to stand up to use it fully. I really shouldn’t have to expand that, but I will. First, most people aren’t going to want to stand (or move around rather awkwardly) for extended periods of time – the Wii demonstrated that. Add to this the comfort of vision. That is, we tend to place our item to be viewed (in this case the television) where it’s comfortable – we don’t have to tilt our heads much up or down to see it. So here, we’ve got a TV set for seated viewing. Stand up and look down – not comfortable.

It’s neat. And if/when some other things roll around (comfortable virtual reality displays, personal or room, for example) they’ll fit right in. But as a controller for the Xbox 360 (or anything else) they won’t last beyond being a niche item.

The PS3 wands are a bit better. They’re not my independent joysticks but instead are a physical representation of the object on the screen. If you’re using a sword you swing the wand like a sword (and the other thing sorta matches a shield, if you held a shield like a buckler. But most people don’t know that.) If a gun, you point the wand (just as the Wii-mote). You can ‘write’ with it/them. In fact, in a lot of ways they’re more sensitive wii-motes, without a connecting wire between left and right hand. The major innovation they’ve managed is that they can detect motion toward and away from the screen and translate that onscreen as well.

So, sit in a chair – one you use for playing a game. Now start swinging at the monster you’re fighting. Pound, pound, pound… why are you only going overhead? What about sides? Thrusts? Oh, your chair gets in the way?… yeah. Let’s get back to pounding our monster. Pound, pound, pound… Hey, you’re getting slower. What, your arm is getting sore and tired? But this is still the easy early monster, the boss fight is yet to come…

So once more you’ve a device that works best if the user stands, and the user’s got to use quite a bit of physical effort. At least you CAN sit down. To be fair, I think the wands are a lot closer to usable. And I think both the items – the wands and Natal – are steps toward a new controller that works even for the couch potato. They’re necessary, and they’ll have fans who prefer them. But the controller for the couch potato will still be necessary for most folk.

So, three neat things, three ‘not quite’ awards.

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