eBooks and the Web: A Comparison

I recently finished reading Clayton Christensen’s classic work The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms To Fail, which I read on my Android phone using the Amazon Kindle app. I will probably post a review separately, but this post is about a problem I had with the book.

I do a lot of reading on my phone, because I always have it with me. That makes it incredibly convenient to pull out the phone when waiting somewhere, and these days, we all find ourselves waiting frequently. And in general I find it quite reasonable to read on a phone. My Galaxy Nexus has a large screen and I can change the font size if necessary. In the last year or so I have probably read 15 books on my phone, and all of it using those moments otherwise wasted. So I am a great supporter of eBooks and mobile reading.

The problem in this case was that Christensen’s book comes with a number of graphs, and they are kind of important. And on my phone they are tiny and unreadable. When I first encountered one, I did what I think many of you would have done. I tried the two-finger stretch to make it bigger. And got nowhere. Apparently the publisher did not think it was worth the trouble to make the graphs re-sizable. Perhaps they were right economically, since the book is one that was published in 1997 and no doubt the level of sales is not as high as the newest best seller (though it looks to me like a consistent seller on Amazon). Would a new book get better treatment from the publisher? I don’t know. I think they may still be living in world where physical print is everything and eBooks are these strange and dangerous innovations that might just kill them all.

But it struck me that what I was seeing was a repeat of something I had seen before, and had to do with the Web. When the Web was first being developed, the pages were spartan and purely text with links. Images were rare, and page layout was a disaster. The pioneers were putting some information online, but initially it was nothing much to look at. And you definitely did notsee URLs on every billboard, TV show, and magazine. Nobody really knew what a dot.com was.

Then you hit the first turning point, when major companies decided that they needed to be on this new, strange medium. And what they tended to do was take whatever print materials they had and put them on a page. The worst were the ones that just took a PDF of their print brochure and threw that up, but even the better ones were not much better. They may have laid out an actual page with text and images, probably using invisible tables (because that is how we did page layout in those days), but it was still a purely static page. And it was all developed with the mindset of one-way communication.

Web 2.0, a term coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004, was the beginning of a recognition that the first attempts at Web sites were significantly failing to deliver on the potential of the Web. I think the change represented by Web 2.0 is of two kinds, technological and social, and that it required both to happen at the same time. The technological change was the development of two-way interactions, so that the web site could change in response to the user. And the social change was to see the need for two-way communication in the first place. A milestone in the social change I am talking about was the publication of The Cluetrain Manifesto” by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger. They made the point that markets are conversations, and that companies that only regarded customers as a mass to be sold to would fail in the marketplace of the networked world. This book is still prophetic, and arguably the SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA controversies arose because neither the content industries nor the policy makers ever understood what this means.

So what does all of this have to do with eBooks, you ask? I think eBooks are tracing a somewhat similar trajectory. Step one is to take the print material, and just run a conversion program to turn it into an eBook. I suspect that is what happened with the Christensen book. That is equivalent to the “shovel-ware” in the early days of the Web. Thankfully, most material has avoided the PDF format, but it is still static text. And that means they have ignored the technical potential of the medium, as well as the social imperative of having a conversation. Will eBooks take the equivalent step to Web 2.0? Almost certainly they will, but it may require a substantial replacement of personnel at the publishing houses. As scientists have noted, no new theory can succeed until all the old faculty are dead.

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