Can a Widescreen iPod Jump Start the eBook Revolution?

by Chris Seibold Oct 12, 2006

The Bible, put simply, was revolutionary in more ways than one. Today we are interested in the most mundane of the revolutions: the evolution from scrolls to books. Prior to the Bible scrolls were considered more prestigious than books, after all important edicts were handed down in scroll form, books were for the more common (but still comparatively rare) literate masses. That began to change when the Bible was published 1900 years ago. The book form was particularly suited to the Bible, scrolls did not admit page numbers, chapters were separate scrolls and scrolls were bulkier and more difficult to hide. All of these things were of interest to early readers of The Bible and, some might say predictably, utility trumped prestige.

Since the first century, not a lot has changed but the price. Movable type meant books didn’t have to be hand written by cloistered monks, advances in bindings made books less expensive, paper replaced variety of mediums and further reduced the price. The passing centuries continued the downward trend, stereotype plates, high speed presses, pulp paper, electronic editing all contributed to pushing the price of books down to a point where books are not considered luxury items but something more akin to CD’s. That is, something nice to have but not something to get bent out of shape over if you spill beer all over the thing.

While books are cheap and seen as generally disposable there are costs associated with actual texts. The book owner must set aside space to store the books, the book retailer must hire a staff and floor space to sell said books, libraries can either become huge buildings of stacks or satellite libraries that carry a relatively small number of titles. Finally, every spring one is forced to gather all the unread and wish they hadn’t read tomes of pulp and badge them with .25 cent tags for the yearly garage sale. Of course no one ever buys the books but at least the neighbors can learn you’re a secret fan of really cheesy horror novels.*

The above are minor complaints, books have a great many other limitations. Cross-referencing is a nightmare (look at the citation, find another book read the relevant text but miss the tone). Locating specific text is more a test of memory than of well written indexes and finally the font is fixed in size and in type, the reader is expected to conform to the book instead of the other way around.

All these and more represent reasons why companies are constantly betting that there is an ebook revolution is around the corner. Thus far, the revolution has consisted of a meager smattering of titles and an even more paltry selection of ebook reading devices. Likely, the devices aren’t universally terrible but, as the market indicates, they are certainly not as compelling as the ubiquitous paperback.

The reasons why an ebook revolution hasn’t yet occurred are seemingly manifold. People argue that ebooks are cumbersome to read without and ebook reader (users are forced to rely on their computers) and that the best ebook readers lack the tactile enjoyment that readers get from even the most poorly produced paperbacks. Further, they will argue, with an ebook users are stuck with a single format. Sure, they can change the font size but where is the coffee table book with glossy pictures? What of the manga graphic novel chock full of blood and nudity? These, most would say, are niches no ebook device can hope to fill.

Those are valid complaints but they have more to do with the current way books are being published than the appeal of ebooks. Recall the example of the Bible. One can imagine any number of reasons why scrolls were inherently better than books. With scrolls users were forced to enjoy the heft of the scroll, readers were treated to the well-crafted spindles the scrolls resided upon etc. In the end, the reason that the complaints about ereaders have validity isn’t as much about the inherent superiority of books as it is because ereaders, to this point, are trying to convey the same information as a book in the most book-like manner possible. The situation is a lot like tofu trying to pass itself off as a hamburger. Since hamburgerness is defined as being a hamburger the best tofu can ever hope for (assuming tofu hopes, and it is said to be the most optimistic of curds) is to be so similar that people can’t tell the difference between the real thing and a substitute.

Which is where the fabled wide screen iPod comes in (a product racing with Jesus to see who shows up first). Certainly, Apple won’t be pushing the widescreen iPod as an ebook reader, there is simply no money in the proposition. Apple, however, can’t define the way something is used. A clever enough individual will undoubtedly reformat electronic books to work on the widescreen iPod. If the rumored dimensions are correct the format should be ideal for books, the screen will be optimized for movies and, therefore, more than adequate for displaying pictures. Text isn’t a chore to generate, even the Timex Sinclair could manage the task, so battery life should be ample.

If the only thing that happens is tat text is dumped into a widescreen iPod, electronic books will still sit in the back seat, unexciting and requiring a massively expensive ereader. On the other hand, if publishers slash prices on ebooks making then substantially cheaper than their wood fiber based counterparts, iPod adopters might be enticed to pick up a few titles. If the titles are further enhanced for the iPod, allowing users to print illustrations, search for text and link to references directly to use some imaginary and obvious examples, then the ebook format could go from being an oft-failed business experiment to a vibrant and growing niche. Should that occur one can easily envision a world where content is produced for the iPod without regard for adaptability to the traditional book format.

The concept of 100 GBs of reading stored on a widescreen iPod is tempting. Picking up former paperbacks for 3 bucks instead of 8 is an enticing possibility as is the chance to truly mix media in a on the go format. Will the concept take off, is it even a viable business model? Most will be doubtful and even those who think the concept will gain traction can envision instances where a widescreen iPod just wouldn’t cut it. On the other hand, people surely said the same thing about scrolls.

Classic garage sale joke: : “Hey Chris read any good books lately?” Glances at book box “Oh wait, you haven’t.”


  • For a comfortable eBook reader, the screen would have to be at least 4in. wide, but 6in. would be ideal. Suffice to say, that size of LCD does not permit inclusion in a pocket-size dimensions such as an iPod.

    An iPod lineup that fits somewhere in between the Mac mini and the biggest iPod-to-date would have to be conjured up.

    I am still clinging for a hope of the hybrid iPod, of sort. Imagine a coffe table-based iPod with a mini keyboard wirelessly connected to your iTV device. Endless possibilities.

    Robomac had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 846
  • “I am still clinging for a hope of the hybrid iPod, of sort. Imagine a coffe table-based iPod with a mini keyboard wirelessly connected to your iTV device. Endless possibilities.”

    Is the MacBook’s size *really* that problematic, so you can’t use it for the same purpose?

    Sure you can carry an iPod in your pocket, but carry it where? I don’t think even the most avid iTV fan (and I can’t wait for it myself) expects their buddies to all buy one so we can all go to each other’s houses and play movies on each other’s TVs. And even if it happens, what do you need a mini keyboard for?

    neven had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 14
  • I think the main problem with ebooks is the nature of a luminous display with the pixels/pigments embedded within (rather than sitting on the surface).  I don’t get eyestrain and a headache reading a regular book the same way I get one reading off my Apple Cinema Display. 

    When they come up with a display that looks exactly like ink on paper, then ebooks will finally take off.

    tundraboy had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 132
  • Is the MacBook’s size *really* that problematic, so you can’t use it for the same purpose? -nv

    FYI, I have a glossy, white MacBook 13in and it is perfectly suited for eBooks and other fine things.  Yet, I am not only thinking about myself but rather, for the majority of fence-sitters who’d rather spend ~$400 for a mini-clamshell-based iPod (for an inspiration, check out the eMate 300 on Wikipedia).

    That form-factor is a definite winner for an iPod device capable as an adequate eBook reader, movie playback, iChat, iTV interface, etc, etc….

    The real question should be, “Is the current iPod form-factor allows eBooks to be enjoyed?”. The obvious answer, of course, is NO.

    Robomac had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 846
  • tundraboy, what you want is e-Paper, and the product you want to look at it the iLiad iRex .
    You just need to buy one wink I actually am quite hot to get one, yet it’s a tad expensive, the response time of the display is not actually mesmerizing, and it’s 16 grays only.

    And the iPod: Unless it has an e-Paper display, forget about it. Even if text is not “a chore to generate”, it just doesn’t work well with LCDs, especially the low resolution ones in portable devices.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 371
  • An eBook on the iPod is like a game on the iPod.  It’s a cute side thing that works sorta kinda but is not really going to revolutionize anything.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • I blogged about this topic recently - see for my post on this entitled The Trojan Horse :o)

    Personally, I think eBooks feature highly in Apple’s uber-secret product plans…


    RodThePlod had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 2
  • Ten years ago I spent several thousand dollars trying to find a manufacturer for an eBook without luck. Within 12 mths, the first eBook was launched. I always figured I was too late.

    But anyway, I’ve watched with soome cynical pleasure the struggle for eBooks to become accepted. They all are similar in design to mine so I can’t say that inferior design is why they’ve failed so far.

    I have used a Palm as an eBook, my PowerBook (turned side on with page rotated in preview)

    As Chris notes, the book format has been around 1900 years. You don’t change from that overnight.

    Interestingly, except for its bulk, I liked using the PowerBook to read. Which suggests to me it has become almost genetic to want to read something that folds open.

    Maybe eBooks would have more luck if they were like a larger Nintendo DS.

    Also, somethings you just have to grow up with. Maybe the current adult population will never take to eBooks in any form because traditional books are too ingrained. So maybe we should be aiming at kids with eBooks.

    The other factor for ebooks is a big enough screen. They’ve got to be able to display 300 words (one page) at a reasonable/readable point size. And larger novels have upto 400 words per page.

    I’m sure iPods will get ebooks; I’m not sure if the screen will be big enough to make ebooks on iPod all the rage.

    But, really, I want a folding device. Then I get 600 to 800 words in a double page spread.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 12, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • Perhaps the Scroll idea will have a comback 2000 years after it went out of style.  Imagine an iPod with an e-ink screen: big enough for reading 2 full sized paperback pages, but rolls up into a magic marker sized shell…

    check out:

    Stefan Podgrabinski had this to say on Oct 13, 2006 Posts: 1
  • I’ve long been waiting for e-books to become mainstream.  I think there’s 2 particular issues:

    1. Hardware - this used to be cruddy, but the new sony and philips readers are basically what I want in an e-book reader—- good battery life, looks like paper, light, portrait orientation.

    2. Content - this is where the whole market goes screwy.  Basically, the problem is that publishers want the same amount of money for e-books that they want for real books ($8 for paperbacks, etc) even though their production cost is MUCH less.  This is the same problem with iTunes movies.  Price the e-book “paperbacks” at $3 and the publishers will still make good money (since there’s no physical costs), and I won’t feel guilty about buying $8 paperbacks that I’ll only read once, then give/throw away.  I’ll probably buy twice as many books - and it’s almost pure profit for the publisher.

    Once the content pricing is drastically lowered, nobody will care about DRM - I don’t care if I can only read it on one device for $3 paperbacks.

    drduuude! had this to say on Oct 13, 2006 Posts: 2
  • I want an ebook reader, when they are user (and user’s eye) friendly and relatively inexpensive (used a palm for quite awhile), but I think its going to be a while, but its day will come.  Me, I love books, and will continue to buy actual books even if I had an ereader. As for the scroll, I saw a demo online somewhere of a computer screen that rolled up.

    Kaekae had this to say on Oct 13, 2006 Posts: 9
  • I can’t wait for the widepod to come out - it’ll be refreshing not have to squint everything I watch a show/movie

    widepod2006 had this to say on Oct 17, 2006 Posts: 1
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