We are still in the early stages of a literature revolution, a migration from physical to digital, and it is tremendously exciting to see the number of options that have become available. I still remember when, not too many years ago, people were saying that computers would destroy books and therefore authors and therefore the intellectual foundation of civilization.
Well, the exact opposite has happened — another example of why no one should believe the conventional wisdom. The prophets of techno doom never learn, no matter how many times the market outsmarts them.
The immediate reason for writing this piece concerns a little machine I picked up from a discount Big Lots store on Black Friday. I had seen the ad and couldn’t believe my eyes. For $78, I could buy a 6-inch tablet computer made by Nextbook that can read e-books. It has a backlit screen. With the Android OS, it can do movies, email and weather and has a camera too. It seemed too good to be true. I bought it just as an experiment.
I took it home and was initially impressed. In fact, I’m still impressed that I could pick up for such a low price a machine that would have dazzled the multitudes just five years ago. It does things that would have been miraculous 10 years ago. I can use the machine to make video phone calls to any place on the planet, for goodness sake. It came with pre-loaded e-books. I could use several apps to download more. This darn thing opens up a world of information as never before in human history.
What’s not to like? Well, this is where matters get complicated. You see, normally, I use the iPad. I consider this to be the best of the best of the tablets. I’m in love with the functionality. I bought one in 2011 after having purchased two prior machines made by Sony that specialized in e-book reading. I found both Sony machines, the first and second generations, to be virtually useless. They are still gathering dust.
You can like Sony’s product if you want. I have biases and, just to spell them out, I don’t like what’s called e-ink. Other people think e-ink is fantastic and would never use what I like, which is the backlit screen of the iPad or the desktop computer. Also I like the touch-screen method of navigation. The iPhone spoiled me forever more on the being able to touch the screen and work the machine.
Just based on my own bias here, the early Kindle reader was out of the question. When Amazon came out with it, I publicly dismissed it. I found the hardware primitive and the marketing scheme absurd. I found it preposterous that anyone in a universal digital age would imagine that they can produce the hardware, the firmware, and the products in locked-down proprietary format and expect consumers to go along with such an obvious monopoly scheme.
It turned out, of course, that from the marketing point of view, I was entirely wrong. The Kindle has been an astonishing success, so evidently, you have to take my own market analysis with a grain of salt.
The Kindle Fire was the first product by Amazon with the backlit screen, so it was something I was drawn to. But again, from the perspective of an iPad user, the first generation (which came out last year) struck me as clunky, heavy, and essentially frustrating. I had no interest in it. On the other hand, I had friends who fell in love with it and have never left it. They are dedicated to the Kindle Fire, so there you go: There’s no arguing with taste.
The Nextbook that I picked up seemed easier than the Fire, better than the e-ink Kindle, leagues above the Sony Reader, and — by pre-iPad standards — a stunning and thrilling machine in every way. I probably still feel that way, but I can’t tell for sure. I say that because I immediately ran into problems that reminded me of what it was like to use a Windows desktop in about the year 2000.
The Nextbook came pre-installed with a book app and another one from Barnes & Noble. I knew that the B&N app would take me to the store and want me to spend money. I confirmed that. This is one of several apps on the machine that want me to buy stuff.
But what I really wanted to do was download e-pub files from third-party sources, particularly the ones from the Laissez Faire Club and Project Gutenberg. This I did, and they opened just fine. I was happily reading. Then I closed the book and looked at the bookshelf. The books were not there. The shelf displayed only the pre-installed items.
Solving this puzzle devoured about five hours of my weekend. There was probably an easy workaround, but I never found it. I ended up browsing the machine, renaming some files, and reorienting the file structure so that the bookshelf reflected my entire collection. But there was still a problem. The shelf did not read the metadata from the book itself, so the books were named by their file names, meaning that I couldn’t tell what books I was opening.
The iconography on the tablet itself is opaque and strange and has nothing to do with the human mind. To the Android user, it might be obvious. But to me, there’s a triangle, a half envelope, a stack of dots, a slash, a swirl, and a caret, and there is no way to tell what is what without actually trying them out. Eventually, I found a pathway forward for every operation I wanted to undertake, but doing so consumed an enormous amount of mental and physical energy and time.
At some points in this process, I wanted to throw the machine across the room. The whole experience reminded me of the Windows experience from a decade ago, when to use a computer was also to become an expert in repairing a computer. You spent as much time trying to figure out how to do stuff as actually doing stuff. We lived with it and never knew any difference. And so it shall be for the Nextbook. Anyone who gets one will probably be happy with it because they do not know anything better.
To be sure, this review is deeply unfair. I’m comparing the best on the market (which is the iPad, in my view) with the worst on the market — and what is the fault of the hardware, firmware, and apps is very much mixed up. In any case, this is a dollar-store item sold in stacks at the cash register. There are so many products that are in between. The Google tablet (Nexus) looks just fantastic, is getting great reviews, and is half the price of a an iPad or iPad Mini. Samsung also offers what looks like an outstanding product at half the price. The newer Kindles like the Paperwhite seem effortless (but still won’t read certain file types).
And there will probably be a dozen or more coming on the market in the next months. I’m describing a slice of time, whereas the real market is an ongoing process of change. Nonetheless, consumers don’t buy a process. They enter into a slice of time and demonstrate their preferences.
And so it is a matter of priorities. How important is it to you that you have a machine that works, and works beautifully? It is a sad thing that people just getting interested in e-books will first buy the cheapest item on the market, have a less-than-stellar experience, and never know the difference.
E-books are the future. Tablets are an essential life tool. They are the new home for the vast portion of the information world that has migrated from the physical to the digital realm. Once you realize this, you also realize that it makes sense to put a few more resources toward getting either the best that the market offers or at least going for the midlevel product.
We are, indeed, living in revolutionary times. I admire so much how the market is making a range of products available. But in such times, it makes more sense to me to avoid the dime store specials that just end up wasting precious time. As with most products on the market, it makes sense to avoid the lowest and the highest and get the thing in between.
A quick note about public policy: In the early stages of the end-users desktop industry, government intervened in a huge way to declare what operating systems should contain, what had to be separate, what perfect competition would look like, how much market share a particular company had to have, and so on. Litigation began and went on 10 years, by which time the market had completely changed. Billions were wasted and consumers were no better off. So it would be if the government were to intervene in the tablet market now. Again, the market is a process, and its imperfections must be worked out by letting that process work.
Eventually, in a vibrant market, today’s luxury good becomes tomorrow’s product for everyone. Look at the wristwatch as an example. But the process has to play itself out over time. That time is not here yet. Conclusion for gift getting and gift buying for the holiday season of 2012: Forgo other things and spend more to get quality. For my money, that means the iPad. But for many, it might mean the Kindle Paperwhite or the Samsung or the Nexus. But if you settle for the lowest and cheapest, don’t blame the market for its failures. Praise the market for making miracles available for very low prices.