It's the other stuff that counts: why technology isn't as important as you think

I started using my new toy yesterday. The iRex iLiad is an eBook reader. What makes it special is its use of electronic ink. It’s a reflective display: the screen behaves much like a slightly grey printout from a medium quality laser printer. It’s easy on the eye, high resolution, and you can read it outdoors.

Here’s the eBook version of Sebastian Faulk’s Devil May Care with the hardback on one side and my laptop on the other. Click the image to view it full size. Note the glare from the flash on the laptop’s screen, and its absence on the iLiad.


Here it is again, next to the hardback:


The reader is about the same height and width as a hardback book, but shallower and lighter. Turning a page takes a second or two, but not much longer than turning the page of a real book.

Overall, it’s a fantastic bit of technology. From using it for a day, I’ve drawn the following conclusions:

1) Electronic ink is the next big thing. In the next few years everybody’s going to be using a device like the iLiad

2) But they won’t be using the iRex iLiad

It also illustrates an important point:

3) It’s not hard core technology that counts. Technology can be important, even essential, but it’s the other stuff that’s important.

Let me explain.

eBooks are tomorrow’s big thing. And always will be. After a decade of hype that was the conclusion I’d reached, but when Bill Buxton showed me his iLiad a few months ago I knew I was wrong. The technology is not round the corner: it is here right now. You can go to Borders, or log on to Amazon, and buy an electronic book that is smaller, more convenient and with more capacity  than a traditional book. When I travelled to Boston last year I took the following: a bunch of academic papers about branding, a copy of the Harvard Business Review, The Tipping Point, Slaughterhouse Five and the Golden Compass. By weight, it was about half of my luggage. Next year, when I return, I’ll be carrying twice as many books in a device the weight of small paperback. Within the next few months we’ll have flexible displays too. Forget circuit boards: the electronics will be printed onto polymer sheets using ink-jet printers. Plastic Logic’s factory is being built and will be producing displays this year. By April next year, you’ll be able to buy a flexible, wireless display that you can roll up and carry around in your pocket, probably for well under $100.

Technically, electronic ink is awesome. Creating a reflective, electronic, paper-like display was an enormously difficult problem that has taken decades to crack. Printing electronics onto plastics is an equally hard problem.

But so what?

We don’t buy products because of the clever technology in them, or because they’ve taken decades to reach fruition. We buy products to solve our problems. You won’t buy an eBook reader because the display contains millions of tiny two-tone charged nanoparticles. You’ll buy it because it you’re running out of shelf space at home, or because you don’t want to lug hardback books around on holiday, or because you want to be able to read today’s edition of the Guardian from Kinshasha.

The iRex iLiad is 99% of the way there. They (or rather E Ink Corporation, who manufacture the display component) have done all the hard work. But they’ve neglected the 1% that’s important:

1) The software sucks. If it’s going to compete with a physical book, it’s got to be easy to use. As easy as a book, in fact. But there are too many niggles. The interface is full of icons that are non-intuitive and impossible to discover. The iLiad has wireless networking, but you can’t download books from the Internet. You need to download them to your computer and then transfer them across. You can’t search through eBooks. It has a pen so you can write notes on blank sheets, but you can’t annotate books.

2) The device is too expensive. At $900 this simply isn’t mass market enough. Of course, the technology will rapidly come down in price, but iRex could have subsidised the cost of device through book sales, much like the games console manufacturers do.

3) The content is too expensive. A hardback copy of The Devil May Care costs $14, little of which is profit. The electronic copy costs $17.95, all gravy. Somebody is being greedy.

4) There’s not enough content. People want the content, not the medium.

Sure, all of these problems are hard to solve. But they’re not as hard to solve as figuring out how to build a paper-like electronic display. They are design problems (creating a good interface), commercial problems (reducing the cost of the device) and licensing problems (persuading publishers to make their content available digitally).

Nobody has cracked all of those problems yet. But somebody will. Somebody will produce a device that looks so good that it appeals beyond geeks and that’s as easy to use as a physical book. They’ll persuade publishers to make their content digital, and they’ll work out a commercial business model. Who will do it? My money is on Apple or Amazon.

Take a look at other successful products and companies and you find other examples about how it’s not the technology that matters. It’s the other stuff. Google succeeded not because of their search technology but because, with adwords, they figured out how to make money from search. Microsoft succeeded, initially, not because they had a better operating system, but because they cut a licensing deal with IBM. The Nintendo Wii is a success not just because of the clever accelerometers built into every controller, but because they made a conscious, commercial, decision to target consumers who weren’t hardcore gamers. The iPod succeeded not because of its small hard drives, or its thumb wheel, but because of the way it lets consumers download cheap, legal music of their choice to their MP3 players. Digg is successful not because of a technical innovation, but because of an incremental social innovation – letting people choose the stories they like.

After only a day, I’m hooked on my iLiad. It’s 99% fantastic. But I’ll ditch it the minute somebody looks beyond the narrow technical problem and finishes off that extra 1%.

If you’re a geek, you’ve probably got your head buried in technology. Lift it up out of the sand and look around you. If you’re going to succeed – if you’re going to be Apple and not iRex – then you need to spend less time on the technology and focus on the other stuff.