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Open Letter to Steve Jobs: In Support of an iPod reader

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Back in January, while talking with John Markoff and David Pogue of the New York Times after your Macworld Expo keynote, you expressed skepticism about the Amazon Kindle ebook reader. John Markoff quoted you as saying, "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."

That seems an odd thing to say to a pair of writers whose work is read by millions of people in newspaper and book form. I don't know where you got that 40 percent number, but other statistics would seem to disagree. For instance, the Book Industry Study Group, which has been tracking the U.S. publishing industry for 30 years, estimates that U.S. book sales in 2006 exceeded 3.1 billion copies, generating net revenues for U.S. publishers in excess of $35 billion. That's a 3.2 percent increase in revenues over 2005. The book industry is growing, not shrinking. And if 40 percent of the people in the U.S. are reading one book or less per year, the other 182 million of us must be averaging over 16 books per year.

Reading habits have undoubtedly changed, since we have more entertainment and research options available to us than ever before. Some of those come thanks to Apple products like the iPod and Apple TV, and Apple services like the iTunes Store. But the prime mover, according to an IDC study of consumer online behavior, is that Americans are now spending 32.7 hours per week online, almost twice as much as they spend watching TV (16.4 hours per week) and more than eight times as much as they spend reading newspapers and magazines (3.9 hours). If you want to point to an industry in trouble, look no further than newspapers, where circulation is in a steep decline.

The key point is that time spent online is largely time spent reading (and writing), whether email (57 billion messages sent in 2007 by IDC's estimate), blogs (over 70 million, with 1.5 million posts per day, according to Technorati), or more traditional online news and entertainment sources. People read more than they ever have, thanks to the Internet, and new forms of reading are appearing all the time. Witness the Japanese "cell phone novel," meant to be read in serialized form on the ubiquitous mobile phone. The Economist reports that since appearing in 2001, the genre has grown to become an $82 million business in 2006, with some ebooks receiving over a hundred thousand downloads per day.

I've called out all these numbers in order to encourage Apple to acknowledge that people read vast quantities of text and to focus hardware and software design efforts on making it easier to read on the iPod, iPhone, and future devices. The iPod and iPhone can be used to read some online content now, along with small bits of text synced from a Mac, but the experience could be significantly improved with native support for PDF, better user interface support for stored text documents, and more.

But I, speaking as a reader and a publisher, would really like to see Apple create a larger version of the iPod touch optimized not just for a better video experience, but also for a best-of-breed reading experience. Apple has the hardware design and user interface chops that Amazon lacked when creating the Kindle, plus the knowledge gleaned from the iPhone and the iPod touch in terms of underlying operating system, physical design, and wireless capabilities. Equally important is the iTunes Store, which offers an unparalleled browsing and shopping experience for digital media - it could be extended to support commercial ebooks, subscription-based periodicals, and free blogs in exactly the way it currently supports commercial audiobooks, TV show season passes, and free podcasts.

Such a device would make good business sense for Apple too. iPod sales posted their slowest ever year-over-year growth rate, at only 5 percent, causing some analysts to opine that Apple has saturated the market. Even committed iPod users will purchase replacement iPods only so often. Like the iPhone, a new "iPod reader" in a larger form factor would open up a new market for Apple, but unlike the iPhone, it would be purchased in addition to an iPod nano or iPod shuffle.

John Markoff has speculated that your dismissal of American reading habits is actually a calculated setting of the stage for just such a device. You didn't have kind words for cell phones or the MP3 players that predated the iPod, with justification - they were (and for the most part remain) utterly awful.

So Steve, here's hoping that an upcoming special event will feature an iPod reader, designed to do all the great things we've become accustomed to from an iPod, but with the addition of native support for downloading, managing, and displaying textual documents of all sorts, whether in plain text, PDF, Microsoft Word's .doc, or XML format.

The iPod already gives us access to Beethoven and Bob Dylan, to snapshots of our children, and to The Incredibles and episodes of Lost. Let's add to that The Hobbit and Harry Potter, 1984 and Catch-22, and the complete works of Dr. Seuss. Book publishers have been waiting for a mass-market ebook reader for years, the newspaper companies are dying for a new online business model, and normal people just want to read on the train to work. And of course, I'll be happy to upload to the iTunes Store an entire library of Take Control ebooks that are already popular with tens of thousands of Mac users.

--Adam Engst, TidBITS Publishing Inc.

 

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