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Technology CompaniesAmazonWould an interactive book reader trump a PC with a reader?

Would an interactive book reader trump a PC with a reader?

Here’s a question worthy of all us tech blogger psychics: Would an interactive book reader (think in terms of a Kindle-like form factor with Tablet PC capabilities: ink, handwriting recognition, touch) trump a regular PC (desktop or notebook) that has book reader capabilities?

I think it does. I’ve been wondering what Microsoft thinks about such a head to head competition for awhile. Today I got pretty close to an answer–though I’ll admit their definition of a “book reader” was fashioned more in terms of what’s available today, literally from the Sony or Amazon, versus what is achievable let’s say in the next generation of devices.

In a Q&A session with Craig Mundie and Robbie Bach at Microsoft’s Financial Analysts Meeting, Craig Mundie gives a wait and see answer in terms of whether Microsoft would enter the book reader device market and goes further to explain that book reading might grow as a feature of PCs in the future.

“Clearing reading is going to be an important scenario, whether it’s in education or other environments. Our general view is that at the rate at which the size, weight, battery life are increasing in the mainline PC capability–the netbook phenomena as Steve talked about–is driving the industry to create two classes of computers, one is essentially thin, light, and perhaps not capable of doing the super highest heaving lifting in computing, but the book reader may fall into that category. One of the things we’ve often asked ourselves is as a standalone dedicated device and if it turned out you had a full PC capability whose ergonomics weren’t substantially different than what you get out of the book reader would it essentially flip of and people would say look I’ll just do the book reading on the Tablet version or some super thin flip around version of a PC. So I think one of the reasons we hesitate to
jump in and say that’s a specialty category that makes the same grade as the other three screens where we have a Microsoft SKU strategy. We could support them all today if they emerged using the embedded toolkits and we still have the option of taking those services and putting them full PC. We’re pretty optimistic about the decline in cost, size and improved battery life for the PC itself.”

So it appears that the strategy is to wait and see if the PC itself (or one of its branches) melts into something akin to a book reader-like device–that is one where the ergonomics are similar–let’s say in terms of size, weight and battery life–to a Kindle or Sony Reader. If it does, the theory goes that Microsoft can add book reading as a feature to Windows on this class of PC rather than go out and build a specialized book reader itself.

For Microsoft, this may be a sound strategy. It’s about leveraging Windows rather than fragmenting into the devices market, such as they’ve done with XBox or Zune and the like.

Although I appreciate their view that PCs will continue to subsume more and more capabilities as prices continue to decline and hardware capabilities improve, I think the discussion is missing the value of changing up a form factor and then leveraging its impact to spawn new markets as well as expose further engineering opportunities in the OS itself.

In other words, two designers or engineers can take the same bucket of bolts and parts and come up with two devices that may appear quite similar on a checklist, but are quite different in value for one purpose or another. That’s the key.

My concern here though is with the software. Adding reading to Windows or CE, I’d argue is simply the wrong way to solve this problem. Why? Because the tendency from an engineering perspective would be to do just that: add reading to an existing OS. That’s not going to lead to a great experience. It’s a bit of the same problem that TechCrunch is trying to solve with the CrunchPad or Google is trying to solve with Google Chrome. Both are optimizing for the browser, though for different reasons. In terms of the user, the OS isn’t king. Of course, in engineering terms the OS is as important as ever, but this twist in design, can lead to some interesting tradeoffs that otherwise just wouldn’t happen. That’s why TechCrunch is trying to build it’s own browser reader–because others aren’t doing it at the right price.

I’d also say to Mundie, that if prices continue down the road they are going that we’re not too far from the day when lots of people will have multiple “computing devices.” The key is going to be the right pricing and capabilities. You can see the trend in early adopters right now. Watch how they churn through phones and other devices but don’t switch as quickly from PC to PC. I’d imagine also that’s it’s going to be much more likely to see someone with a notebook and then two or three more specialized companion devices, such as a phone, camera, tv, etc. Connectivity and Internet services are going to continue to facilitate this trend because they are so easy to work together and not such a burden to manage. The PC is a notch up from this.

Robbie Bach’s answer to the question about whether Microsoft would enter the book reader market dealt more with scale. He contrasted it with the potential of the Project Netal where he could see achieving greater scale.

He might be right, though to me at the right price, I could see an interactive book device becoming at least a K-12 standard and that alone would make it a worthy device for consideration. Considering how various companies position themselves, I’m guessing this means Intel would probably be a better candidate for building a concept device like this–probably with their forthcoming or more likely, next-next generation Atom platforms.

Another point I’ve made in the past and I’ll repeat here is that I see a device that’s more book-minded in form factor and design, to be more easily integrated into schools now than a generic PC–in terms of being a fundamental. Even if they provided almost all of the same checklist features and capabilities, I can see something that is book minded fitting more easily into schools–because my assumption would be by design it would provide services and capabilities that require less management–because the device is being used for what it is intended for. It still could have “general purpose extensibility,” but that would be the secondary use. A general purpose PC on the other hand will have so many options, so many permutations…well, you get the point….that management becomes an issue in part because it’s design is constructed around being general purpose. Take the Kindle as an example: You buy it. You get it. It works. A general PC will likely never be like that simply because there are so many permutations of users you need to support. You could try to create a division that tweaks the experience for education let’s say, but then what about the avid readers, or the TechCrunch crowd that’s keen on a great reading device? They’d still be left out with that approach.

Now looking at the iPhone adds an interesting twist to all of this. The iPhone Kindle Reader app as well as other eReader apps on the device have gained a lot of traction. In fact, the iPhone appears to support Mundie’s theory, that people will accept reading services ontop of a more general device. Well, from what I see in the market it appears they accept it if there’s significant cost savings, the general device has enough features or offers more features (color, night reading, etc) than the specialized device, or as an alternative, synched reader. However, now let’s say publishers need interactivity in eBooks. How might this happen on the iPhone or an existing platform? How would it be integrated in? Would it be a premium feature? See the problem? Simply put, the Reader function isn’t designed as part of the DNA of the phone. A PC is going to run into similar issues. Using a reader app on the iPhone is a great feature, but does it trump other designs? I don’t think so.

Anyway, I’m no better than anyone else at seeing the future, so Mundie may be right, that PCs will turn into thin slates anyway, but history being what it is, why do I keep thinking the only way that’s going to happen is if Apple does it first? Eh.

Loren
Lorenhttp://www.lorenheiny.com
Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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14 years ago

Yes.

This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed