The CITE, a blog published by the National Association of College Stores, takes a look at the intersection of education and technology, highlighting issues that range from course materials to learning delivery to the student experience. Comments, discussion, feedback, and ideas are welcome.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A question...

I had a conversation recently which bothered me on several levels. One of those levels will be the punchline to a talk I am giving later this week for ICBA. But at the moment, I am thinking about another question that has been rolling around in that apparently empty head of mine... I was recently asked if ebooks are a marketing solution to a problem for which there is no demand?

After giving this quite a bit of thought, I think this is in fact the wrong question. I think the question should be more something along the lines of "are current e-book solutions a poor substitute for what is really wanted?" After Henry Ford created the automobile, he reportedly quipped that if he had asked people what they really wanted, they would have said faster horses. There is another quote, who's author I do not know, that goes something like, lightbulbs did not result from the continuous improvement of candles. In other words, sometimes breakthrough advances or radical changes in a space result in new technologies that are so different from what we remember, that they are hard to predict. But, when the right technology comes onto the scene, there can be a more or less rapid transition from the old technology to the new.

People may be skeptical of e-books, arguing that there is no market demand for such content or devices, yet look at the success of Stanza -- an e-reader application for the iPhone. At the TOC conference last week they reported that in less than seven months after their creation they had over 1.3 million downloads of their reader across 60 countries and had downloaded more than 5 million books in twelve languages. Not bad for a platform where the CEO of the company said not long ago that no one reads anymore. Maybe reading the "old way" has become like using candles before the lightbulb.

Any thoughts?


Dr. Mark R. Nelson said...

Sorry -- I should have noted in the second paragraph that sometimes people think they want one thing, but only because they cannot imagine a new radical technology.

I saw a presentation last week where an article in the NY Times back in the 1800s thought this new invention (the phone) would be the end of society because no one would go outdoors any more, etc. A year later, when the phonograph emerged, they said that the estimates of the phone had been overstated, but that the phonograph would be the end of society, and that no one would go out anymore to the theater, etc.

So the point I was trying to make was more along the lines of people do not always know what they want. So how does that change the question -- or what is the right question to ask?

Jeff Stannard said...

I'm a news junkie. I love breaking headlines, almost to the point of productivity detriment.

I have found Twitter (using tweetdeck + twitscoop) to be the absolute fastest means of receiving/discovering news trends and memes. I was a hold out on twitter until 2 weeks ago and I changed.

Here is a current technology that replaces the dissemination speed of cable teevee news, internet news sites, and breaking news email blasts. Twitter is so important to communication infrastructures in the future, its actually rather difficult to quantify its impact as we live today through this historic shift and user adoption rate.

Twitter is standardized. Its a system with a learning curve that is easily mastered.

E-books are daunting because a variety of formats and legalese confuse users. Can a book I buy for Kindle be viewable on my phone? Do I own this copy, or am I only renting it? Maybe I could even add to it? Can I re-sell it? Only PDF's, or something else? If something else, why?


Bob Martinengo said...


This is one of those funny questions that seems to keep getting asked backwards (ahem).

Think of 'print on paper' technology as a spectrum. This amazingly flexible technology ranges from single page fliers stapled to telephone poles to big, glossy coffee table books, to phone directories, textbooks, etc. etc. Its all 'print', but the message always mandates the medium (memed Mr. McLuhan).

The point is, the container is shaped by the content, but content is also produced to fill containers (newspaper columns, magazines, romance novels).

The 'e-book' readers sold so far are crap- the spectrum goes from bad to really bad. The slickest personal tech devices today are cell phones and game consoles, and that is where content is flourishing. There is simply no compelling reason to buy a dedicated e-book device yet (which doesn't mean people wont buy, just for less obvious reasons).

Now, as for textbooks, they are clearly part of an eco-system. You take the class, buy the book, skim the text, take the test. If there is a 'consumer demand', its that students want to pass the class with minimum effort - the book is strictly a means to an end. When ebooks do this better than print, they will take over.

So, back to my first point, which is that information will seek out the presentation medium that suits it best. What marketers need to do is always think in terms of how their target audience is consuming information, and aim for the sweet spot.

rgm2007 said...

When I said 'think in terms of how their target audience is consuming information,', I should have said, 'think in terms of WHY their target audience is consuming information'. Seconds thoughts are often best.