In 2007 Amazon released the Kindle. It was never a beautiful device, but it solved a problem with reading on screens–the discomfort that some people feel after looking at a lit screen for a long time. Still, it is a very flawed device. Browsing a Kindle book is tedious. Page refreshes are jerky, and just like in the old days of TV, everything is black and white.
In 2010, Apple released iBooks. At the time, the realistic page curl animation was pretty hot stuff. Apple wasn’t the first to do it, but iBooks popularized it the effect. It felt like the beginning of a digital book renaissance. It was a small step, but surely the innovation would continue with Apple at the lead of the pack?
Something happened though. Since the introduction of the Kindle and iBooks there have been only incremental improvements. A lot of similar software and hardware has come out, but almost no real innovation has made its way from prototype to production.
Maybe the halting pace of innovation is why we are now seeing a resurgence of paper books. Innovation in robotics, virtual reality, and AI are announced almost daily. Yet the technology around something as prevalent and important as books has almost completely stagnated.
A Light in the Dark
There are however, some good examples of people trying to make digital books better.
Check out this concept video from a Korean company called Kaist back in 2012. It’s far better than anything available today but years later, hasn’t made it to market.
Or, this prototype of a phone that turns pages when you bend it:
Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?
I’m not really sure why things are this way. The closest parallel to the stagnation in ebook technology I can think of is PC laptops. Despite the enormous market, there are very few PC laptops that approach the quality of Mac laptops. This might finally be changing over the last couple years, but it’s been a very slow change.
I don’t think we can dismiss digital books by saying that people are happy with the state things are in now. Look at all the attention that the Kindle gets every time they release an update. If it’s a sign of consumer interest, it seems to indicate that a company who came in and really shook up the ebook hardware and software market would potentially do very, very well.