Why e-books are bound to fail

Electronic books pack bleeding-edge technology, too bad they'll never catch on

E-books, those flat electronic tablets designed for reading downloadable, software-based books, are often packed with advanced displays and other leading-edge technology.

Every time a new e-book comes out, a ripple of chatter spreads through the gadget enthusiast community. Technology news sites cover such product and research announcements like major news, similar to the announcement of a new iPod or smart phone. Engadget and Gizmodo blog them without fail. Even The New York Times tech columnist David Pogue and The Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg have taken the time to test and review e-books.

Companies like Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi and Fujitsu have devoted millions of dollars over the past couple of decades developing what they hope will be a device that replaces the paper book -- the first disruptive shift in the way people read books since the Gutenberg Bible in the 15th century.

Here's a lineup of the major e-books on the market (or almost on the market):

Sony Reader

eRead StarEBook

Jinke Electronics HanLin eBook

iRex iLiad

Panasonic Words Gear

Bookeen Cybook

Hitachi Albirey

Fujitsu Flepia

Unfortunately, these products -- as well as the whole product category -- are destined for failure.

Sure, there will always be tiny, vertical application niche markets for e-books. Wherever space or environmental constraints limit the practicality of paper books, and where lots of information needs to be at hand, e-books are ideal. For example, they're great for pilots or, say, scientists working in the Arctic. E-books that enable maximizing text size are a godsend for visually impaired readers.

E-book makers believe, as do millions of gadget fans, technology pundits, bookworms and journalists, that e-books will soon become a popular alternative to real, paper books for reading novels, nonfiction bestsellers and kiss-and-tell political memoirs. The idea is that once they perfect the display technology and strike the right balance of battery life, sunlight readability and form factor, we'll all start buying these things, and downloading our books.

Not gonna happen.

Why e-books will fail

There are many subtle, minor disadvantages to e-books. For example, they're expensive. The hardware costs hundreds of dollars. Worse, books tend not to be hugely discounted in electronic form. The paperback version of "The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media, and Technology Success of Our Time," by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed, costs $11.20 on Amazon.com. The same book in electronic format on eBooks.com costs $9.95. You save $1.25. The reason is that the value of a book lies mostly in the intellectual property, not the wood pulp that constitutes the physical book. So e-books aren't cheaper.

Another huge barrier to the growth of the e-book market is that everyone already has alternatives. You can read written content on your PC -- in fact, you're doing it right now -- on tablet PCs, laptops, cell phones and PDAs.

These are all real, but minor, hurdles e-book makers would have to clear in order to make e-books a major gadget category. But none of them really matter, because there is one unavoidable and fatal fact that will kill the nascent e-book market in its cradle: People love paper books.

In other words, e-books are not, and cannot be, superior to what they are designed to replace.

People who care enough about books to spend $25 billion on them each year tend to love books and everything about them. They love the look and feel of books. They like touching the paper, and looking at words and illustrations at a resolution no e-book will ever match. They view "curling up with a good book" as an escape from the electronic screens they look at all day. They love to carry them, annotate them, and give them as gifts. Book collecting is one of the biggest hobbies in the world.

So many predictions about the future have failed because futurists tend to overemphasize the possible over the desirable. They give too much weight to technology and not enough to human nature.

Once upon a time, 1950s-era futurists predicted that by the 21st Century (as in right now), food would be made from sawdust, cars would be nuclear-powered, and everything in your house would be waterproof -- you'd clean up by hosing down.

They believed, and they were right, that technology would make all these things possible. But few stopped to think: Do people really want to eat sawdust? Do people want radioactive fallout after every minor car accident? Do people want to sit on plastic furniture?

Likewise, do people want to "curl up" with a battery-operated plastic screen?

The obvious answer is no.

And that's the simple reason why e-books will never even come close to replacing paper books.

The end.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

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