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The iPad Solves the E-reader's Design Problems

The iPad might not save newspapers, but it is going to save the e-reader. Years ago, I took a tour of a tech company's "house of...

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The iPad might not save newspapers, but it is going to save the e-reader.Years ago, I took a tour of a tech company's "house of the future" (which was actually a few rooms in the ground floor corner of a low-rise office park). Humble interior design was furnished by IKEA but no matter-the main attraction was what was hidden rather than what was seen: the technology itself. Some of it might have proven useful-a centralized control system for security, heating and cooling, and home entertainment, for example-but on my tour I remember thinking mostly about what might go wrong: imagine your frustration when your laptop crashes; how would you feel if your house died? Among all the bells and whistles, the feature I can't forget was the most sublimely ridiculous. "We've created," explained my breathless guide, "a remote that allows you turn the oven on from your backyard."What?Fortunately (for fire departments everywhere) a backyard-oven-remote-craze has not swept the country. But the idea itself is emblematic of a pernicious trend: too often we turn to high technology to address problems that might well be solved by simpler means (or in the case of the oven remote, problems that aren't problems at all).Take the Kindle, or any of the myriad e-readers now hitting the marketplace, many of which launched earlier this month in Las Vegas, Nevada at the shiny Consumer Electronics Show: the Nook, the Que, the Skiff, the EnTourage, the Blio, the Cybook Opus, the BeBook, the EGriver, the Sony Reader. While several gadgets in the last decade have deservedly become objects of affection-remember those silver-backed first-generation iPods, which one could lovingly engrave like a family heirloom?-others hardly merit the adoring press that attends to their release. I've spent some time with the Kindle, and the device-unwieldy and unhandsome-engenders no love or loyalty. It's functional, yes, but promoting the Kindle for its functionality is like praising the "great personality" of a blind date. There's just not quite enough there there.And let me ask, are you having trouble gaining access to the written word? Do you wake each morning wondering how you will learn of the day's news or find the new Joshua Ferris novel? I'm guessing no. All of this exists right now on the device you already possess-your computer or Smartphone (let us not speak of your dying bookstore). Yet these many competing companies, convinced that technology is a balm for all that ails, continue to spend millions of dollars and massive amounts of brainpower so that you might read an assemblage of letters on yet another glittering new surface.With few exceptions, makers of e-readers are still failing to address the bigger problem, which remains the creation, distribution, and monetization of content. When it arrived, the iPod was more than a music player; it revolutionized music sales. Similarly, a successful e-reader will need to be more than a compelling interface (which the Kindle severely lacks); it will need to introduce a whole new way of thinking about what's onscreen and how it will get there. The questions haven't changed: Who will pay for content? How much are people willing to pay for it? Will advertising continue to be the core of content business models? Will some sort of pay wall work? How will content be shared or restricted?The many E-reader creators who continue to think in oven-remote terms-building shiny toys that don't solve core problems-do so at their own peril, while those who, in the future, manage to merge a greatly designed thing with a smartly designed system stand to earn a handsome profit. Take it from a kid whose dad bought a Betamax. In the meantime, while we wait on bended knee for the new Holy Grail-the recently announced, hitherto-cloaked-in-secrecy Apple iPad-you might want to grab a few quarters, pick up a coffee, and read the newspaper the old-fashioned way: one unwieldy, ink-stained page at a time.Ah, I was about to write, "at press time", before remembering what a rare occurrence press time has become. So, literally, as I sit here typing, Steve Jobs has just stepped offstage after launching the iPad (I am not the first to point out that Apple needs a few women in its naming department). Is it a gorgeous gadget? Of course. Does it signal the end of the road for the Kindle and its kin? Probably, and for a lot of reasons: You can use the iPad as a computer, you can send email, draw, take notes, watch movies, play games, and use all of your beloved apps. For $499. And, though surely they could have introduced a device years ago whose design would far outstrip the inelegant Kindle, Apple waited until it could solve real design problems. Will it save the newspapers and networks and magazines and book publishers? That's a task too large even for Apple, but it does seem that Jobs & Co. have shown a particular sensitivity to the importance of paid content, offering more equitable royalty deals to authors and publishers than Amazon, for example, and helping to define potential business models for struggling entities like The New York Times. It's a worthy first step.Allison Arieff is the Pepsi Refresh Project Ambassador for Food and Shelter. Learn more about the Pepsi Refresh Project here, and submit your own idea for how to move the world forward here.


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