Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Reading eBooks on a cell phone

You know you’re getting old when you have CSS disease. Evidently your eye sight is the first (or maybe second) thing to go. If you are squinting at the newspaper, frowning over your computer screen or cussing because you can’t see the incoming calls on the cell phone, you know you have it (CSS).

So it was a big blow to me to find out that the sale of eBooks for mobile phones reached $58 million last year in Japan. I can’t even see mine without serious tilting and maneuvering. I guess I am officially old.

Last year a representative from Mobipocket told me that in Europe they sell more eBooks for Nokia phones than for any other single Platform. I just laughed and said I wouldn’t be doing that anytime soon. But it looks like I am rapidly become a minority.

Think about it. The Japanese bought 3x more eBooks for their cell phones than the entire amount of books sold in the US on all platforms. Here is irrefutable evidence that yes, I am getting old. Or there are an awful lot of young people in Japan and Europe.

It seems like a whole lot of people, everywhere except in the US are reading eBooks on their cell phones. Not iPhones, but everyday Nokia, Samsung and Motorola cell phones. So I have been puzzling this out all weekend. Why are phones such popular reading devices everywhere but here?

Is it about eBook price? Probably not -- eBooks are not that much cheaper than paper books these days. Maybe it’s a space thing? After all, most people in the world live in much smaller quarters than we Americans and they may not have the room to store a lot of print books. Seems pretty far fetched.

What I keep coming back to is that this has to be some sort of cultural thing—an attitude about functionality. Do other societies place a high value on using what you have as fully as you can, even if it isn’t perfect? Perhaps people in these other countries see multiple devices an unnecessary or unattainable luxury. They just accept the idea that there are many possible ways to use a device and do not expect something new or different to make things easier.

This is a very different mind set than what we Americans have developed in modern times. We are the nation who believes that “he who has the most toys wins.” Americans are the ultimate specialized society -- we expect to have different devices and tools for different functions. What an embarrassment of riches!

I love what one American economic analyst says, "I am pessimistic that [reading books] will generate significant revenue on mobile phones. . . If that content is available in other mediums, those experiences will be much better just because the [mobile phone] screen is small and the functionality is clumsy."

Implicit in this statement in the idea that since content is available in other mediums that people will, of course, spend the money to purchase them. He is probably right. I know quite a few people (myself included) who own a laptop, a PDA, a cell phone, an Ipod and/or another MP3 player. And now Sony, Amazon and Hewlett Packard (to name a few) want us all to add an eBook reader to the mix.

Of course it could be a much simpler explanation -- cell phone technology and acceptance is much more advanced in Eurpoe and Japan than it is here. Which means people are more accustomed to using thier cell phones for everything. Who knows!

No matter the reason, I will be interested to see what happens if the trend for cultures to become more “Americanized” continues. In the meantime, of course, day now I will be adding a new eBook reader to my collection of electronic gadgets. All in the pursuit of a remedy for my CSS.

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