"It is August, 1927, and Al Jolson is industriously, unwittingly, engaged in the destruction of one great art form and the creation of another...In four short years, the 'talkie' will completely subsume the silent movie." - from The Speed of Sound by Scott Eyman
Web content, video games, iPhone apps, Facebook sessions, YouTube videos, iTunes libraries, and Hulu media programming drive significant portions of our clickstream activity throughout the day.
Talking on the phone, emailing, and other forms of messaging sop up huge chunks of our free time, too.
As a consequence, book sales are stagnating, and have been for some time (this coincides with declines in all forms of print media - news and magazines included).
In big box retail land, Borders, the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble, is on life support. The independent bookstore is a shrinking breed, with less than 10% of the market.
Meanwhile, Amazon is the book industry's boogeyman, given their market share and proximity to the customer's wallet (the all important "billing relationship"). And the Kindle e-Book reader has the potential to entirely dis-intermediate the book publisher or, minimally, exert even stronger pricing power over them.
More terrifying, the book industry has no idea how to effectively market a book in a world devoid of bookstores, save for the hail-mary of an Oprah recommendation.
"Media doesn't matter, reviews don't matter, blurbs don't matter," says one powerful agent. "Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them."
And owing to a decades-old "consigment logic," unsold inventory is "remaindered." This is a euphemism for the practice of shredding unsold books and magazines. Not exactly green-friendly.
Rebooting the Book
Is it heretical to speak of re-inventing the book? Hardly. Consider that before the advent of the printing press, books were made by hand. No two were alike.
After the advent of the printing press, information fell on the same pages in each book, and page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common.
Authorship materially gained in importance, and the end-product was a democratization of knowledge, not to mention a revolution in science.
To me this hearkens back to lessons learned from the way that sound transformed the motion picture industry; namely, it changed how movies were made AND changed what movies were.
In "The Future of Publishing," Sean Cranbury and Hugh McGuire do a beautiful job of getting to the it of what makes a book, a book.
They say that the primary thing a book has to do is "fulfill its promise as a transmitter/inspirer of ideas, art, thoughts, story, entertainment."
Holding this "transmitter/inspirer" construct high, I would argue that Apple's forthcoming Tablet computing device (the "iPad") is the ideal vehicle to achieve these aims.
Specifically, I would assert that, in a rebooted book marketplace, an iPad could be a best-of-breed solution for:
- Interactive Learning Device
- Chemistry and Physics Lab
- Story-Telling Narrative Vehicle
- Information and Reference Guide
More on the what in a bit, but let me delve into the why (Apple) first.
Reading from the Book of Job(s)
My thesis is two-fold. One, Apple has built a market position that enables them to simultaneously capture a broader swath of the media pie (namely, books and print media in general) AND delight consumers and book makers in the process.
Two, their history suggests that pursuing this path is strategic to them.
They have done this by delivering a very dynamic platform (read: integrated hardware-software-services-tools) for end-to-end content creation, application development, distribution, and global reach, supported by deep application and media libraries, and a robust runtime space.
Equally impressive, their success is measured by having created a durable billing relationship with consumers to the tune of 100M credit cards on file (iTunes + App Store, Mobile Me).
Moreover, when you put their strategy under the microscope, a big part of it is predicated on harnessing the goodness of leverage. iPod and iTunes begat iPhone, the iPhone Platform and the App Store (read my post Holy S--t! Apple's Halo Effect).
Therefore, as they move into derivative form factors, they will strive to cultivate software, services, and tools leverage across iPod Nano, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad Tablet, Macbook, and Apple TV. I have blogged about what I think this will look like here.
The second part of my thesis is that "learning" gets to the ken of what drives Steve Jobs, and the book is the best, most universal, vessel for an improved learning culture/experience.
After reading what follows, and perceiving Steve Jobs as unlikely to have changed his vision, it's hard NOT to conclude that Apple is readying a focused assault on the e-book segment.
In the future, Mr. Jobs says, sophisticated computer simulations will allow students to walk through Athens with Plato, experience life in 17th-century France or perform biochemistry experiments normally requiring a $5 million laboratory.
''People learn best by being in a learning environment, which means that ideally, you'd offer a physics student a personal linear accelerator, or a ride on a train going the speed of light,'' Mr. Jobs said. ''You'd take a biochemistry student and let him experiment in a $5 million DNA wetlab. You'd send a student of 17th century history back to the time of Louis XIV.''
As to the role that Next will play in realizing this vision, The Times notes:
Next itself will not write education programs for physics or history. It will provide software tools to allow a professor, even one without computer programming skills, to write his or her own ''courseware.'' The software allows teachers to point to and modify objects used in simulations.
The Tao of Book: Physics, Social Connections and Persistent Context
Flashing forward to the present, I see Apple coming up with tools that allow prosumers, long-tail media, and publishing houses to create world-class e-books that take advantage of the native capabilities of the iPhone Platform.
Apple, after all, is a firm that re-invents segments (music, telephone, mobile computing) with conviction and without a drop of fear, or the weight of past precedent acting as an anchor on what can be done.
And, remember that Jobs' other gig was a company called Pixar that did pretty well in reinventing the animated film.
In other words, Apple and Jobs are big game hunters, and they have the trophy case to prove it.
By native capabilities, I mean e-book formats and runtime layers that support touch, tilt, movies, pictures, sound, computation, graphics, compass, direction, and connectivity, not to mention very deep media and apps libraries.
One small example, as Dave Morin pointed out in a discussion on this topic at Foo Camp, is that an e-book could differentiate on being responsive to and reflexive of physics-based actions (testing out how gravity works, running chemistry experiments), a proverbial Virtual Lab in book.
In terms of the aforementioned Apple leverage play, a larger handheld device could readily handle execution and playback of HD-quality content on iPads and Apple TV- powered big screens, yet still be backwards compatible to iPhones and iPod Touches (and iPod Nanos, for that matter).
Most basically, this explains Apple's creation of Cocktail/iTunes LP, a simple, HTML 5-friendly extender for the physical album and DVD, and iTunes LP's concurrent support for higher resolution viewing modes than supported by iPhone/iPod Touch.
One plausible theory floating out on the web is that iTunes LP is proof of Apple's aspiration to make it easy for the UGC crowd (user-generated content) to become publishers. Why not books (and magazines) then?
Either way, as the breakout success of game makers on the iPhone and iPod Touch proves, Apple's platform approach is congruent with both big and small publishers. It's not inherently zero-sum.
I close this piece with four different use cases that capture the promise of an improved user experience around a reboot of the book:
In terms of social leverage, if Apple built such a re-invisioned book market, virtual book clubs will form around this ecosystem, plugging into LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to extend the conversation around the persistent media layer that is enabled by the new Book.
Do people even read anymore? With Apple's iPad Tablet device, my sense is that they will.
- Touch Traveler: London, Paris and only an iPod Touch
- Apple iPad Tablet Computing Device
- The Library of the Commons: Rise of the Infodex
- Old Media, New Media and Where the Rubber Meets the Road
- iPhone, the 'Personal' Computer: The Future of the Mobile Web