Alert! This was meant to have been a happy post. Your Correspondent is, after all, one of South Africa’s ebook boosters in chief. Got the Kindle. Got the iPad. Read more than half of my books on ‘em. Love to see what’s next down the line in terms of devices and applications that offer text-based narrative experience.
But then, in the space of about ten days, three e-reader apps debuted that have shaken my confidence in the direction that digital publishing is taking. Namely: Amazon Kindle for the Web, the much-ballyhooed Blio e-reader and Kalahari.net‘s custom hack for PDFs, epubs and Adobe DRM-locked ebooks.
Truly, I have peered into vats of boiling fail.
The applications are problematic for different reasons, mind you. Let’s start with Blio, because that’s the one that was meant to have been the standard-setter. Everyone in digital tiptoed around Blio, whispering of its greatness, nay, of its total-game-changingness. (Killer Startups gave it plenty of love.) I downloaded version 2.0.5425, the first publicly-available edition, as soon as it came online – but, to my distress, hit three or four hitches right after clicking “run”.
The problems with Blio are many, but they can be summed up with the aid of their own online help manual, which, as of this posting, looks like this:
To date, I haven’t been able to get the software – which is essentially a frontend for a large, closed ebooks store – to work. Period. Here, for instance, is what happens when I try to browse free Blio ebooks:
I get that: Every. Single. Time. Joy!
Turns out, I was not alone in my disappointment: Wired magazine was less than enthusiastic about Blio, too; and, most memorably, Singularity Hub gave it a big stick:
Overall the Blio platform seems behind the times and out of place in today’s mobile, connected, social world. The future of e-books is on mobile devices with touch screens and specialized buttons. E-books should offer rich digital features for sharing with anyone, anywhere, and they should be tightly integrated with the cloud. Blio does not seem to “get” this future. K-NFB plans to push its Blio platform to ipads and other devices eventually, and they will surely add more digital capabilities over time. But these days the industry moves super fast – thanks to exponentially accelerating technologies. Blio’s competitors, including Kindle, iPad, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook are innovating quickly and expanding their reach every day. By the time Blio finally delivers all that it should, it may be too little too late.
So the verdict on Blio is: I’ll probably never click on the desktop icon again, and will eventually allow the nifty Windows “clean up the unused icons on your desktop” function to sweep it away.
Let’s turn to Amazon’s new “Kindle for the Web” application, which allows you to read ebooks directly within your browser. It’s quite an elegant means of giving book previews online – and, best of all, there appears to be no Flash involved. You can flip through pages easily and even embed the book preview into your own website, like this:
As you can see, all the buttons work; the user experience of the specific embed isn’t half bad.
The problem, then, is trying to find Kindle-for-the-Web ready books on Amazon.com. In Your Correspondent’s experience, there aren’t any, except for the one above.
Of course, there are some. There must be some. But where on God’s green Earth are they? Amazon says: “Simply click the ‘Read first chapter FREE’ button on selected Amazon book overview pages and a new browser window will open containing the book sample”. But show me an Amazon book with a “Read first chapter FREE” button anywhere near it and I’ll show you a web consumer who has frittered away far too many hours of his life looking for it. Mind you, there are plenty of “Try it free” buttons around, which send samples of books to one’s Kindle or iPad – these are sprinkled all over the place. But they don’t activate Kindle for the Web. And I want Kindle for the Web, dagnabbit.
So the verdict on Kindle for the Web is: it’s a veritable will-o-the-e-reading-wisp!
Last, we turn to Kalahari.net’s new ebook application, called the Kalahari Reader. It’s in “public – beta” mode and can be downloaded from Kalahari.net’s ebooks page. I called Kalahari to ask a few questions related to the application’s underlying architecture, as well as its uptake from the public, but didn’t hear back, so I’m going to speculate: the architecture comes straight from Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) – making the app something of an exercise in rebranding – and the uptake, on the “I’m using it” front if not on the “I’ve downloaded it” front, has been slow.
The reason, if I’m right, is because the app is a clunker. This is what it looks like:
For one, the look of ADE is much slicker – you feel like, using it, you’re in for a contemporary reading experience, rather than the perusing of text that has been beamed to your desktop from the era of the Powerbook 100. For another, from a usability perspective, the Kalahari app requires a lot of fiddling around with, before you come to a point where you understand where you are, at any given moment, when inside it. It’s just not easy to navigate around.
The verdict for the Kalahari Reader, then, comes in the form of a query: why bother, when ADE is free and better, unless the sole aim is to push the Kalahari brand under the noses of readers, until they implicitly associate Kalahari with ebooks? If that is indeed the answer, then the strategy might backfire, for the association might be negative rather than positive: I can’t see many readers being turned on by this app, or getting excited about buying an ebook for it.
In sum, then, upon nipping into the brave new world of the latest e-reader applications, I took serious fright, and ran quickly back to my e-reader devices, which offer experiences so vastly better than the apps that it will be some time before I peek into that world again.