Xandra Gregory

The Passion of a Thousand Burning Suns

The Ereader That Wins Is…

…the one that can render PDFs with annotation capability without making the eyes bleed.

It seems we’ve been thinking about ereaders all wrong. Along with thinking about ebooks all wrong. Actually, I shouldn’t say “all wrong” since we’ve had a lot of “right” in there, collectively speaking (and any new ventures are built on the mounds of failed attempts). But let’s start with the ebooks, and move on to the ereaders, and why the past, as much if not more than, the future, will drive the ereader.

Follow me below the fold, along with a hat-tip to Jane at Dear Author’s Sunday EBook News article, which prompted me to ask Mr. Xandra, “why don’t we use the Kindle more?” To which he replied, “Because I read PDFs, and it sucks at rendering PDFs.”


We think of ebooks in terms that reference paperback books, hardback books, reading on a screen versus on a page, and we price accordingly (and inaccurately, because let’s face it, the perception of the cost of printing a book is far higher than it actually is, and that indicates there’s still an unconscious value placed on the physical object that is the paper and pasteboard and ink of a book). What we don’t do enough, is think of ebooks in terms of Electronic Media for Entertainment Purposes. Paper books compete with other physical media, and have an unique set of environmental factors that works both for and against them. Ebooks, on the other hand, compete with other electronic entertainment, and have a completely different set of environmental factors working for and against them and in relation to the other competing electronic entertainment.


Ereaders are physical devices, first and foremost. This presents its own unique set of environmental factors affecting them. Among them are price, portability, and usability (and the restrictions thereon). Not the least of influencing factors, however, is Purpose.

A smartphone fulfills a utility purpose–it calls other phones and receives calls from other phones. It provides a link to others on a mobile basis. It has a primary use that is considered on some scale of necessity–it is a utility. The apps and crap are just cake around the primary utility.

An mp3 player is an entertainment device that fulfills an entertainment purpose. It plays music for the listener to enjoy. Podcasts and such have grown up around it, sure, but it’s primary function is that of an entertainment device.

Customarily, you pay more for a phone than a music player, but which one are you more apt to ensure that you take along? Which one do you find more use–utility–for?

Now consider the Ereader. Its entertainment purpose exists in competition with other entertainment devices that are priced WAAAAY lower–and do WAAAAY more–for the money. The answer here is not to load up the ereader with more stuff to do on it–then it becomes a jack of all trades, but master of none, and people will choose the device that has an intended purpose over one that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.

The answer, then, is to find a UTILITY for the device. People shell out 400 bucks for an iPhone not because of the apps–but because of the phone. IT CALLS PEOPLE (and yes, they also shell out because the applebot religion requires them to pilgrimage to the Shrine of Jobs, but that’s entirely beside the point). It is a utility.

E-reader Utility

The Ereader, too, has a utility–but it’s not been accurately glommed onto yet. This is one of those chicken-and-egg things, and we’re in a period of transition–the demand has to drive the supply, and the supply is geared towards early adopters, which usually means there’s more entertainment than utility (early PC development went this way–one of the first things people replied when asked the question of “What do you do with it?” was “You could play games with it.”) We’re human beings, and we play to discover and create–that’s not a bad thing, just something that doesn’t get as much props as it ought. Our earliest learning is through play, and that doesn’t go away when we learn to feed ourselves and walk upright and sass our parents.

But the turning point is approaching. There are enough adopters to allow the technology to seep into collective consciousness. E-reading has become something more people now understand than don’t. At this point, utility steps in, for the alert thinker.

Once upon a time, the internet was the playground of military and gubmint workers, and academicans (and it looked like it, too. Webpages were default battleship gray). But when enough civilians opened it up, the internet became useful to more than just a handful of contractors or students with access to university technology. It changed the way the private sector did business. It changed the way business did business. Nowadays, you won’t find a company that isn’t somehow connected to the internet and using it for some aspect of its business. And those businesses employ tools whose first utility is accessing the internet.

Think about a parallel to ereading. Reading on a screen is becoming an acceptable way to read (it was before, too, but now more people are recognizing it as such). It is becoming acceptable enough, to enough people, that the ereader now has a potential UTILITY in industry. If it does the right thing to make itself useful.

The iPad is a 500-buck toy right now. The ereader that will win will not be the ereader that can shop at a store, or even two stores, anywhere. It will be the ereader that can render the quatra-quinta-sexta-septa-octabytes of legacy information now in print, but ready to move to digital by a quick scan-and-PDF.

It will be the ereader that can connect to the company intranet and download the last week’s TPS reports (or last decade’s) which are still formatted for 8.5×11 or A4 paper, not the one that can act like a Jump to Conclusions mat game.

It will be the ereader that can take scanned chapters of texts, documents, and legacy tomes that only now exist in paper format, but will be digitized by scan-and-PDF because it’s faster and cheaper to do than to scan and convert something that may be layout-dependent.

It will be the ereader that can interact with the form that still needs a paper copy in existence somewhere.

But Why Focus On the Past? Digital is the Future!

One simple reason. There’s still a hell of a lot of paper out there. Sure, much of it is probably useless crap office memos. Much of it is old tax forms or legacy documentation for equipment no longer in existence. But a lot more of it is just in printed form because it was the best form at the time. Millions of books, documents, papers, letters, libraries full of paper communication. Most of it will not be suitable for translation into a digital-native format (and it also limits the utility of digital-native formats if they have to adhere to print-legacy standards–why not just split the two formats and let digital be digital, but let print be print, archived digitally?). PDF effectively bridges that gap.

Yeah, But Aren’t You the Queen of Open-Source? Isn’t PDF Adobe’s Product?

Yeah, I get that. But as it exists now, PDFs can be created with other products besides Adobe products. PDF readers other than Adobe’s can render PDF documents. The horse is out of the barn and jumped the walled garden to the fields outside. There are legalities to consider, but they go beyond the scope of this already-sprawling post.

An ereader that can read the past, is the one that’ll win out in the future.

About The Author

When she's not buried in a WIP, Xandra runs the joint and blogs about whatever settles in her brain.


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