Are eReader companies and readers talking in different languages?

The Kindle represents a bridge, and a compromise, between kindle owners and Amazon. Pretty much any eReader does.

An eReader company creates an eReader that combines qualities it thinks readers would like (great for reading, simple to use), with qualities that it would like itself (a closed system that guarantees ebook revenue, features that benefit it).

Consider the example of Folders and Custom Screensavers.

Amazon vs Customers on Folders and Custom Screensavers

Consider the conversation around Folders.

  1. Amazon says – Everything is in the Cloud. Why do you need Folders? Just keep a few books on your Kindle.
  2. Kindle owners say – We want all our books on our Kindles. We want an entire library on the Kindle. It makes us feel richer than Kings (stealing this from a past comment).
  3. After two years, Amazon finally gives in and adds Folders. Except the way it adds it, Folders is more like a one-level folder arrangement. Amazon says – Here you go. Your Folders which you shouldn’t really be needing. We added some twists like syncing Folders across Kindles, one book in multiple folders, and books going into the Folders they were in automatically.
  4. Kindle owners say – Thanks. Where are the multi-level folders? Why don’t these work like Folders on Windows, or any other program?

From Amazon’s perspective it saved Kindle owners from confusion for 2 years, and then when they still wouldn’t understand, it added a very good, simple Folders feature. From the perspective of Kindle owners, Amazon took two years to add a basic feature, and then left out the biggest organizational tool i.e. multi-level folders.

The communication is even more disjointed with custom screensavers -

  1. Amazon says – Look, isn’t this nice. The greatest authors. As screensavers on your Kindle.
  2. Kindle owners say – Yes, that’s all well and good. However, for some strange reason, I’d rather look at my kids and grandkids than at Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gazing at the love of my life gives me more joy than wondering why James Joyce is so despondent. 
  3. Amazon says – It’s not a big deal.
  4. Kindle owners say – Yes, it is. Get it done so I can put my own photos as screensavers.

There are multiple hacks out there which let you put custom screensavers on your Kindle. Customers want this feature so badly they’re risking their warranty, going out and making the effort to learn all this technical stuff, and hacking their Kindles.

It’s really difficult for eReader companies to get things right

There’s this interesting conundrum -

  1. Readers can’t tell eReader companies what to make. At some level, they aren’t 100% sure themselves. 
  2. When readers get a finished product, then they’re very good at knowing what they like, and what they don’t like. Also, they’re great at telling eReader companies what else they’d like.
  3. eReader companies have a bunch of goals that clash with readers’ goals. Openness vs eBook Revenue. Profit Vs Value for Money. Simplicity that can Scale Vs Lots of personalization.
  4. eReader companies must have a product out to get good feedback, but they run the risk of releasing something readers don’t like.
  5. There’s a very high cost involved in making changes – hardware changes have to wait till the next release, software changes are very costly.

Because of 5. the ideal model (release quickly, get feedback, iterate and release again, repeat until you get close to perfect) is out of reach.

Because of 3. eReader companies can’t do everything customers are asking them to.

However, there are problems beyond that. Lots of features, including some that are very easy to add, aren’t getting done because eReader companies aren’t talking in the language of their customers.

Should eReader companies and readers carve out their domains of control?

 Perhaps we need eReader companies to just tell readers -

  1. We aren’t going to add a feature that kills eBook revenue. So no library books, no ePub, and no free sharing or reselling. For us to continue to invest money in making eReaders, these features have to be ruled out.
  2. Here are the areas where we can make improvements – features for reading, device design, support features, wireless services. Now, what would you like?

Then readers could pick out the things they like. eReader companies would still have to anticipate things customers would like, and come up with innovations. However, they would have a very good list of basic features customers want, that they could use as their starting point.

If you consider the Nook 1 – It’s feature set was like a list of Kindle owners’ most requested features.

  1. Custom Screensavers.
  2. Memory Card.
  3. Replaceable Battery.
  4. PDF support.
  5. Library Books.
  6. eBook Lending.
  7. ePub support.

If B&N can figure out what the top Kindle owner pain-points are, why can’t Amazon. The only thing on that list Amazon has added is PDF support, and it’s going to add lending soon.

Of course, B&N is guilty of making big mistakes itself. It went so much into ‘beating Amazon’ mode that it forgot its first aim was to cater to readers. It tried to create a new ‘LCD touchscreen+eInk screen’ paradigm, and failed miserably.

It’s also made a huge mess of how it implements ePub, and has killed portability for books bought from Nook Store.

Sony, B&N, and Amazon are all guilty of not really listening to what customers are saying, and pushing too much of what they think customers will like. For the 1st version of a product this makes sense, as customers haven’t played around with a device enough to know exactly what they want. However, now, we have more than enough customer feedback. It’s time to prioritize that over everything else.

Sony’s third generation eReaders not having wireless is a good example. Did Sony just ask existing Sony Reader owners, and play into a confirmation bias? Or did they actually check with 50,000 potential eReader buyers, and figure out that only 10% were interested in wireless downloads?

The latter is perfectly acceptable. The former would be a rather myopic approach.

In the end Customers control everything

eReader companies could suggest a compromise, and cater more to eReader owners without compromising ebook revenue. However, they must realize that the ones doing the buying, of both eReaders and eBooks, are customers.

Customers have total control – If they decide they want an eReader that supports library books, then the eReader supporting library books wins.

At first, we’ll see companies playing up a compromise. Then, we’ll see companies start giving customers more and more control. Finally, we’ll get companies that make EXACTLY what customers ask for. Those companies are going to destroy every other eReader company – perhaps not within a few years, definitely within 5 to 10 years.

There’s more than enough money in selling eReaders – A pure eReader company, which doesn’t give two hoots about ebook revenue, could do very well, and might even become dominant.

Will customers choose a pure eReader company over eReader-eBook-Platform ecosystems?

It’s a tough question to approach -

  1. A best of breed eReader maker will easily beat the restricted eReaders that are being sold currently.
  2. A best of breed ebook store might be able to beat the restricted ebook stores.
  3. There’s a big danger of lowering quality, and introducing complications, when you take an eReader and an eBook store from different companies.
  4. There’s the danger of lowering quality, and the possibility that someone makes more profit than you, if you let anyone do anything with your eReader.
  5. If an ebook store sells to everyone, but doesn’t have a guaranteed slot and a guaranteed channel, it might lose out to the default in-house option.

However, it’s a gamble worth taking.

If a company really does approach it from the perspective of making exactly the eReader that readers/customers are asking for – It’s bound to beat the current eReaders, which make compromises to preserve ebook revenue.

Where it would be at a disadvantage, is that it couldn’t subsidize eReader costs with the promise of future eBook revenue, it couldn’t leverage economies of scale, and it wouldn’t have the branding and brand association of existing eReaders.

Despite all that, an eReader company that listens to what readers are asking for, and talks to them in their language, would have a very good shot at tearing off a big chunk of the eReader market.

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