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Why eBooks Still Suck

Introduction

The tortured technology saga of eBooks continues, with the latest snub coming from "Harry Potter" sorceress J.K. Rowling, and her publisher, Scholastic. Many trees died for the 10 million unit first run of Rowling's sixth entry in the Harry Potter saga, but Scholastic declined to release the 652-page tome as an eBook, citing the lack of a market. This despite significant efforts to seed the market for eBooks.

You would think that kids would glom on to eBooks, given that all other trends tend to originate with the Unwired Generation. Teens were early adopters of cell phones, iPods, PDAs, Sony PSPs, Blackberries and other gadgets. It would seem a natural extension for them to prefer eBooks to paper. Instead of having to carry five printed books, for example, they could get five books on flash media and simply swap them in and out of a single eBook reader.

But that hasn't happened. Like pen computing a decade ago - anyone else got an Eo gathering dust in a closet? - the eBook is a concept that hasn't reached the potential that marketing types ascribed to it. There are several factors that have conspired to make eBooks fall flat.

The first is relevant for Harry Potter fans: Muggle children don't buy eBook hardware, so there isn't much of an installed base to read the eBook in the first place.

Second, the eBook hardware is always a day late and a pound too heavy when compared to the latest laptops. That, combined with the need to carry a cell phone and an iPod or a PDA, means that eBooks will always come in third or fourth place in the portable electronic gadget race.

Finally, the way most of us read, coupled with the rise of audio books and in-car back-seat CD and tape players, have made eBook technologies less interesting.

Still, when you sum it all up, the primary problem is there isn't any compelling hardware. "I think the major factor is there isn't a device yet that has captured a broad swath of consumers, the way the iPod did that with digital music," says Nicholas Bogaty, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum.