There's a pretty insightful but controversial column written by David Hepworth in the latest issue of The Word suggesting that in spite of all the hype, the current crop of e-readers ain't all that. And he gives some compelling, human-centred arguments why not.
E-readers are of-course, full of promise – we love new gadgets, and these feel like the text based equivalent of the ipod, a gadget that rapidly became as indispensible as it was ubiquitous. But, says David, if e-readers like the kindle are to mirror the success of the ipod they will have to confront something all too real – the inherent irrationality of reading. Like the fact that we often buy books we don't read (or at least don't read the whole of) and "we do this because we believe even showing the inclination to read a book is a virtuous act, like cooking. It shows a willingness to become absorbed, further prized in an era when most entertainment only asks to be distracted".
Magazines and books are often read on public transport, and in doing so the cover is a form of self-advertising about who we are. A badge, if you like. A subtle, complex, but powerful form of sign language. With books, people have an emotional investment in them in that we value them as much as objects as for their contents. We even decorate our rooms with them. Magazines, he points out, are all about content and context at the same time. Content which is curated, signposted, designed to be appealing, attractive, stimulating, provocative, efficient to read. Both are their own unique and compelling form of content packaging. So, whilst ereaders in their current form may work for some forms of content, it is difficult for them to do justice to the luxuriousness of a glossy colour magazine. "It would", says David,"be like putting velvet behind glass".
Of-course, ereaders will improve, and the rumoured Apple tablet with its prospect of a large color touchscreen, high-end graphics, and a wireless connection may well provide the real leap in user experience so who knows, perhaps it will change the game in the same way that the iphone has changed our experience of the mobile web (although the point at which an iphone or a netbook stops and an ereader starts is likely to be pretty blurry). If it does, it will be an exciting prospect for publishers who are already used to provisioning content specifically for different digital devices.
In his seminal post from last year, Better Than Free, Kevin Kelly argued that the internet was the great copy machine, at its most foundational level copying every action, character and thought we make on it. And it was this ubiquity that so undermined the traditional models built on scarcity. So it was incumbent for those attempting to establish, create and draw value to focus on the intangible generatives – the list of things which can't be copied. There are things in the list which are synonymous with digital functionality – immediacy, personalisation, accessibility, findability. But there are also things which are far more intangible – like the embodiment of content (the packaging, the context of delivery), patronage, authenticity, interpretation, trust. These are the things that provide uniqueness, differentiation, distinctiveness, personality, singularity.
My point is that in the rush toward technological progress, we shouldn't forget about the value of experience. Magazines are a paid-for, self-selecting, inherently tribal medium. Reading a book, and for that matter a magazine, can be an extremely personal and intimate experience. It's one of the reasons why I believe that both mediums will around for some time to come. Don't get me wrong. The way in which people consume content is undoubtedly changing. But it is a mistake to completely dismiss or ignore the value behind some of the more subtle but powerful attributes of consuming media. Convenience doesn't always trump experience.