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Don't Believe the Hype: Good Technology Gone Bad

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Ron Schneiderman looks at some promising technologies that didn't quite deliver, including E-books, WAP, and voice recognition.
This chapter is from the book

In This Chapter

  • The E-Books Story: Not Exactly a Page-Turner

  • The WAP Flap

  • Biting into Bluetooth

  • Calling Big LEO

  • HDTV—Not a Pretty Picture

  • Information Appliances (Or Home on the Digital Range)

  • Home Networks and Home Automation

  • DSL Takes Its Hits

  • Voice Recognition—So Much Talk

  • A Cry for Help

Some technologies and products are announced, get a lot of ink, and still don't come close to meeting expectations—not the vendor's and certainly not the consumer's. They were either oversold to a public that wasn't ready for them and didn't under-stand them, or worse, didn't need or want them in the first place. Or they're simply late to the party. More likely, they're too early. For example:

The E-Books Story: Not Exactly a Page-Turner

The Association of American Publishers, the publishing industry's principal trade organization, thinks the market for electronic book (or e-book) devices and content will grow to several billion dollars by 2004. Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting), which is helping the AAP develop technical standards for e-books, believes there will be 26 million dedicated e-book devices in consumers' hands by the end of 2005.

If recent experience means anything, that's not likely. A survey taken in the fall of 2001 by Ipsos-NPD found that while two-thirds of online consumers in the United States were familiar with e-books, barely 3% said they were "very likely" to buy one. Scott Adams, famous for his syndicated Dilbert cartoon series, self-published an e-book, God's Debris, in 2001. It quickly became the best-selling e-book in the world. But he only sold about 4,500 of them, compared to the more than two million copies of his first book on paper, The Dilbert Principle. Adams got the message, predicting in a guest column in the New York Times that e-books will never exceed more than 5% of the market for pleasure reading until someone invents a way to read them without using a computer screen. "It's like taking a vacation in your cubicle," said the former engineer.

Market futurist George Forrester Colony, who heads Forrester Research, told the New York Times: "The technology industry is driven by thunderstorms. You see poor predictions magnified and enlarged. Asinine ideas like e-books—so much air gets pumped into them."

Book publishers continue to be hopeful, certainly wishful. Simon & Schuster has released Mary Higgins Clark's backlist of books in digital form in hopes of extending her reach. Michael Crichton's best-selling Timeline, published in November 1999, is available as a free e-book from BarnesandNoble.com. Walter Mosley's short stories have been published on AOL Time Warner Book's new e-book site, iPublish.com. McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Thomson Learning have developed e-book marketing plans. Simon & Schuster, Random House, Penguin Putnam, and HarperCollins have all signed on with Yahoo to sell their books directly to readers through the Internet—in the event they ever want to do such a thing. Random House Children's Books has debuted its e-book publishing program, Random View Books, for Microsoft Reader, Adobe eBook Reader, and Palm Reader.

But several publishers have already backtracked. AOL Time Warner, for one, cut back its line of digital books in December 2001, citing a slump in sales. "Perhaps Mr. Gutenberg has the last laugh here," Laurence Kirschbaum, chairman of the books division, told the New York Times. "At some point, reality sets in and one has to be realistic about how much of an uphill climb this is going to be." (Reciprocal, the company that provided many of AOL Time Warner's technology for its digital books, went out of business only a few months earlier.)

The AAP has come around to admitting that the market is small; most of the business press and industry analysts describe it as tiny.

True, this is an entirely new market segment. And like most new consumer electronic products, dedicated e-book devices are priced high ($200 to $1,500), availability of content continues to be limited, and not every title from every publisher can be read on every device. In other words, many of these devices are technically incompatible.

Another problem is that several different types of devices are vying for attention from the few who might actually want to read a book electronically. These range from dedicated e-book devices to Palm-type PDAs and handheld and desktop PCs. There are also different file formats, content formats, digital rights management issues (who owns the rights to the e-book titles), and distribution systems.

E-books also don't take full advantage, at least not yet, of the available technology.

Brian Nadel, the editor of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine, has addressed this problem, pointing out that while he was impressed with the way the type of Maestro, Bob Woodward's look at the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman, Alan Greenspan, mirrored that of the printed book, it would have been nice to view the printed book's 35 photos of Greenspan and five economic charts. "I would have loved to hear—not just read—Greenspan speak in his cryptic way and then be able to link to multiple Web sites about him and the Fed." Assuming they can get past all of these tests, how many consumers will want to spend even an hour reading their favorite novelist, or attempt to absorb something like Keeping Kosher In South Dakota from an eye-blurring electronic display? How long will consumers put up with recharging or buying replacement batteries for these devices? Especially if the batteries die in the middle of a great sex scene.

The AAP standards aim to create a simulated interoperable environment for e-books for the short term that will allow publishers to convert print books into e-books. The AAP's suggested standards focus on numbering and metadata. The numbering standard is based on an existing technique called a Digital Object Identifier, which is used by the scientific, medical, and technical communities for online content. The metadata standard indicates how data books should be represented and includes information about the author, content, and business rules—like the information provided in a card catalog entry.

Book publishers are trying to avoid having to compete with dot-coms and authors themselves who could sell digital files of their most successful titles, just as they are trying to crank up e-book sales. Horror story writer Stephen King skipped around his traditional publishers to sell a new serial novel directly to his readers in a digital format over the Internet. King offered his book, The Plant, a chapter at a time with an easy payment plan, but readers's attention span faded quickly. Worse, less than half of King's subscribers paid for many of the chapters they downloaded (horrors!). Another problem for King was that, because of his huge success as novelist, he was able to garner lots of free publicity nationally about his online miseries. But he was not equipped to generate the publicity and handle the distribution usually provided to authors by traditional book publishers.

John Romanos, president of Simon & Schuster, told the New York Times toward the end of 2000, "The logic of electronic books is pretty hard to refute. We see it as an incremental increase in sales as a new form of books for adults and especially for the next generation of readers." A year later, Simon & Schuster announced that even though the sale of these books was very skimpy, it would open its own online store to sell digital editions of its books directly to consumers. The reason for this change in thinking, the publisher said, was in response to requests from visitors to its Web site to be able to buy books directly. Now, Simon & Schuster said these people can pay for and download electronic files for reading on their computer screens.

Part of book publishers' thinking is that today's high-tech teens will become the early adopters for e-books. At least that's what Scholastic Inc., is hoping. Barbara Marcus, Scholastic's president, told the Jupiter Media Forum in early 2001 that she sees teens as a natural fit for e-books, as long as they're affordable, lightweight, and easy to use.

Whatever happens, the authors (Stephen King notwithstanding) and their agents are making sure they're also covered. In July 2001, in a decision that could put authors and their agents in the position of reselling the digital rights to a previously published work, a federal judge in New York ruled that the term "book" in book contracts with authors does not necessarily include electronic books. Random House, which tried to block Internet startup RosettaBooks from selling digital files with the contents of eight Random House novels, said at the time that it planned to appeal. Random House's view is that an e-book is a book which, it says, means it's theirs. More recently, Random House has backtracked on e-books, essentially killing its AtRandom imprint in recognition of the scant demand. Are there enough e-readers in the world to make this technology a marketing success? The Electronic Book Newsstand Association (EBNA) was formed in January 2001 to boost the awareness of e-reader devices among publishers and consumers. EBNA wants to distribute news, periodicals, and other information via portable reader devices. It says that studies show that American consumers spend far more time reading newspapers and magazines than books. Matthew Benner, director of BarnesandNoble.com's digital book group, told the New York Times, "We expect these devices to become the dominant platform for periodical publishing throughout the 21st Century." In fairness, few people have experienced e-books, but the EBNA's argument seems weak. Checking new headlines, stock market quotes and sports scores from a portable electronic device, yes. News stories and features? Not likely.

If e-books are ever going to have a shot at success, it may be for special applications, such as custom-printed children's books on very cheap (and hopefully rugged) digital devices. Another new wrinkle: publishers are adding author interviews to their e-books and are beginning to offer some bilingual models so readers can switch between, say, English and Spanish. Or technical reference material. Another possibility is local libraries, more of which are making e-books available. Indeed, library associations have been lobbying for the development of inexpensive electronic readers for library use. One drawback, at least, for the moment, is that you have to take what the libraries have loaded into the readers.

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