Remember the Walkman

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

At The Millions, Lizzie Skurnick looks at how The Atlantic has stayed ahead of the rest of the online crowd by paying attention to how its readers read, and this means continuing to offer their fiction supplement in addition to the news in formats new and old:

When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon.

Skurnick argues that The Atlantic has thrived in both print and online forms because it continues to produce content in various formats to fit the various ways readers read, instead of trying to force it to fit a particular device.  This is why Amazon has been so successful, she says.  They sell print books, of course, but the Kindle extends these sales to people who want the convenience of an e-book reader.  The Kindle's trick has been to offer that convenience in a package that is nearly book-like, not just some new gadget that we have to learn how to use.

Skurnick doesn't extend those same benefits to the iPad, however, because of what she sees as Apple's motivations:

An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.

She had me up to this point.  Not to sound like an Apple apologist, but none of those arguments really holds water.  The bathroom argument is tired. There's no reason a Kindle is any more toilet-friendly than an iPad. Yes, the selection in Apple's iBooks store can't match the Kindle, but the iPad also has a Kindle app made by, yes, Amazon, that can display any Kindle book, plus robust apps and an unparalleled web browser that can display any piece of text available online.

I do buy her final argument, however.  Apple's motivations are different:in the end, they are a hardware and software company.  That's not to say they won't capitalize on content given the chance (see iTunes).  Ultimately though, I think Apple is mostly interested in creating the perfect vessel for consuming content, whether it originated online or in print.  In that regard, there's no reason it can't accommodate the quirky, bidet-centric habits of avid readers. It's actually more accommodating than the current incarnation of the Kindle.

I still think the evolution of the music industry is instructive to those following e-books.  The original Sony Walkman didn't spawn special "Walkman cartridges" that can only be played on Sony devices.  What the Walkman did was give us the idea of piece of personal electronics that can play exactly what music we want, wherever we go.  In turn, this led to portable CD players and MP3 devices made by every electronics company under the sun. Yes, Apple makes the most popular one right now, but there are no technological barriers to some other company beating them.

We may think of the Kindle when we think of e-books now, but that's only because Amazon made the first good device.  In time, other companies will create competing vessels for those books and the book itself (or short story, or poem, or essay) will go back to being a standard representation of text, not a Kindle-specific unit of measurement.  Our focus will be less on the device and more on the content, as it should be.