Changing Ereader Landscapes: What Can It Mean?

I don’t usually post unless I have reached a conclusion of some sort–even if it is wrong (I trust my readers to set me straight). Now I’m just puzzled. This started when I was trying to figure out yet another bug in my Kindle Keyboard. For those who don’t know, that’s the older Kindle model with the tiny keyboard on the casing. Sturdy, reliable, GREAT battery life, and here recently, full of bugs. This time it affects bold face type. Sometimes it displays, sometimes it doesn’t. And I found an instance where it partially displays.

That same day Jon Westcot sent me an email about Nook ereaders. I couldn’t suss out what was going on, though was able, as usual, to come up with some wild-ass conspiracy theories. Here is what Jon sent:

Here’s an interesting situation (meant in the truest Chinese curse way):

With most of your journal postings, you talk about formatting issues, and most of the conflicts come from the support of the “standard” that the various device developers produce and maintain.

But I have found yet another layer to this mess that I wanted to tell you about. I am currently working towards freeing my Nook Tablet from the restrictive yoke of Barnes and Noble’s operating system and replacing it with a basically fully implemented version of the Android OS. (It’s a long, geeky process, but it’s been informative, frustrating… and even fun. And yes, I know I have a “unique” idea of fun.) As part of that process, I’m trying out various ePub readers.

Oh my freaking God!

What a mess! I first downloaded the Nook for Android application. It can’t even find my library of books because I choose to keep them on the secondary memory card. I can’t even contact B&N support because what I’m doing with my Nook violates its warranty, even though the question has to do with their non-device software.

So, I turned to the Google Apps Store to look for ePub readers. The first one I grabbed, while having a huge number of downloads and a nearly 5-star rating, decided to display everything with a Chinese font!

The next one was okay — at least, it showed readable text! But the formatting was all wrong. It took a lot of wrangling to finally find the setting that lets the user accept the publisher’s formatting defaults! Preposterous!

So, I’m still looking for a good e-reader. Until then, I won’t fully migrate my Nook Tablet to the Android OS. But this whole process really surprised — and disheartened — me. It just never occurred to me that the independently-developed e-readers would be so… crappy. I would have expected just the opposite.

I guess this means that we have more things to worry about than “just” the way device developers create e-book reading software — now we have to worry about the software developers, too.

To which my mind leapt to one truly dark scenario and one big conspiracy theory.

I’ve suspected all along that much of what goes into programming and creating platforms for ereaders is created by people who have little concern–or perhaps little awareness–of end users. Is there any other industry that works this way? Maybe high fashion dress designers.

The industry WANTS us all to move happily into the land of tablets. Tablets are cool, but for reading, the dedicated ereaders are far superior. From the industry point of view, all the ereaders can do is, you know, books. Tablets offer chance after chance after chance to sell the user something.

So no, I don’t honestly think dedicated ereader device makers give a shit about the quality of the books that end up on them. In fact, the crappier the ebooks look, the higher the chance that users will turn to tablets. Case in point, I spent time this morning trying to figure out bugs in the eink Kindles. These are bugs that showed up in the latest update. Now for the longest time my Kindle was perfectly stable. Ever since the Fire came out, every update–and there seem to be a lot lately–makes the eink readers work worse and worse. There is no good reason for that. None.

On a side note, I think the Nook is dead. It might be a great device, but B&N has given up on it. The new ‘owners’ (Google? Microsoft?) don’t care because content is king and they aren’t making money off the content going onto a Nook. The only way they can cash in is to lure Nook users into buying tablets. A really nasty sneaky way to do that is to ensure that cross-device apps DO NOT WORK. I think B&N is going to collapse, too. When it goes, that is basically going to leave Amazon and Apple.

I love my eink, but I suspect the bugs are going to get worse while the Fire gets better. Kobo might have a few years while it worms its way into the international market, but in the end the only dedicated readers are going to be shoved into the obsolete closet and there they will stay.

What a state of affairs, eh?

To which Jon replied:

The fact that B&N doesn’t want people using the NC or NT for anything other than what they intend. But these devices are hackable, no matter how hard B&N tries to lock them down. And they do try; every new release of the OS has blocked previous exploits. But those who hack these devices are brilliant. They figure out ways to get around everything, it seems. And that is a good thing! These are OUR devices that we bought and paid for, and we should be able to use them as we see fit.

What shocked me was… well, it was really two things. First, I was surprised at the number of ePub reader applications I found. Most of them are free, which leads into my second shock — just how bad these applications are! I guess one really does get what one pays for. I don’t think I could write an ePub reader (but it might be fun to try), so I can’t imagine why someone would so do and not charge for it, even a paltry $0.99.

It saddens me to think that the Nook may be going away. I really like mine, but I must admit I have thought about saving up for a tablet, though I would really hate to give up my Nook. I really like the new, larger device B&N released, but I haven’t seen anything about its hackability. I looked at it in-store when it first came out and really liked most of the improvements they made to the OS. I asked the rep at the store if the OS would be upgraded for the older devices and he looked at me like I’d just shot a flaming porcupine from my butt. “That’s old tech,” he muttered in defence. More like in ignorance; there was no reason these devices couldn’t run at least 99% of the new OS’s features. I could have argued it with him, but there wouldn’t have been much point to it.

I do think the dedicated ereader makers (at least Amazon and B&N) do care about how ebooks look on their devices. If they look like crap, that reflects badly on their devices. In my opinion. 😉

To which I replied:

You’d think Amazon and B&N would be more concerned, but the evidence says otherwise. Apple is fanatical about quality control, but I suspect it has more to do with protecting the integrity of their devices. Making attractive ebooks is a side effect.

The rest seem happy to let the producers and consumers duke it out. Meaning, it’s up to the producers to play catch up (if they can) and for consumers to keep buying newer, better, fancier devices. It’s weird to me, but I’m not a business person and don’t pretend to be one.


So that’s it. Something is going on in the land of ereaders and ebooks, but hell if I have a real clue about what it all might mean. My suspicions are two-fold: One) B&N is circling the drain (my bets are on them showing up in bankruptcy court before the year has ended); Two) Dedicated ereader devices are going the way of the 8-track tape player.

I don’t know for a fact what any of this means for me and thee. I probably wouldn’t even know something was up if I didn’t have three models of Kindles so I could watch as one wildly improves (the Kindle Fire) while the others (eink Paperwhite and Keyboard) slowly degrade with every update. Jon’s experience leads me to suspect that nobody cares enough about the Nook to invest in apps and other support for its users.

Make of this what you will.


17 thoughts on “Changing Ereader Landscapes: What Can It Mean?

  1. Oh, boy. I have a nook color that I love a lot. However, I am asking for a kindle fire for my birthday. Is that a rat leaving a sinking ship? So be it. I’m not the one that steered into an iceberg.

    • I feel the same about my eink Kindles, Margaret. I like the tablet, it has its uses, and the potential such things hold is almost scary. I still prefer reading on a dedicated reader. For sheer comfort it can’t be beat.

      Did you see the news that B&N is giving a Nook ereader away with every purchase of a tablet? That’s not a good sign. I suspect it means they are dumping inventory with no intention of creating more.

  2. What you describe used to be the common practice in the computer industry: lock user’s data in proprietary formats so the company can keep their customers for ever. (Microsoft wasn’t the only company that did, nor the worst, just the most known.) Then the Open Source wars were fought, & computer companies discovered just how far their customers were willing to go to avoid vendor lock-in. While Open Source didn’t win that war — at least outright — a tacit truce was struck where the proprietary formats were limited to existing applications & markets, & the new applications were all open & free.

    I guess no one bothered to explain that to Barnes & Noble or Amazon, so we’ll see that war flare up again. And maybe this time the users will win open & free access to knowledge.

      • Early, early on, at the “birth” of the home computer revolution, every machine that emerged ensured customer loyalty by forcing said loyal customers to purchase upgrades and peripherals that were authorized by (and usually manufactured by) the same company. IBM changed that with their original PC release. The details of the bus architecture were available, and many industries grew (and later disappeared) because of it.

        Then, as S pointed out, data formats became the new battlefield. But, as much as folks loved to hack their hardware, they held an even deeper bond to their data — these were content no one else could create or provide; these were creations of their users, and the users insisted on being able to view and manipulate their data in ways the original software never intended. Again, the end user prevailed.

        What does this mean for the future of ereaders? Who knows? I just know that we are an inquisitive lot, and we seem to have an in-born rebellion to anything we’re told we can’t freely modify. Especially when we’re presented with a great piece of tech that has so much potential but which is artificially hobbled.

  3. I have enough distractions in my life. I read to be distracted from my distractions. I don’t want to be distracted by all the crap on a tablet while I am reading a book. I just wanna read the book. If I want everything else I’ll look at my smart phone or my computer. I think it’s all sales-driven. Making money off advertising and virtual space.

    • You’re right, Julia. Eyeballs are valuable real estate to retailers. Dedicated ereaders are just too “private.” I think Jon’s problems with finding a decent app for his Nook is a two-fold problem. One, B&N’s current flailing in the marketplace and two, Microsoft seeing more profit potential in tablets over dedicated ereaders. I’m hoping Amazon continues to believe it is big enough and stable enough to continue the eink devices.

  4. Jaye, I saw that announcement from B&N, but it seems more to do with applications already downloaded onto the Nook.

    It’s funny — fifteen months ago, when I purchased a Nook Tablet (in theory for my wife), it was mainly to be a purely e-reading device. I had no intention of using it for other purposes. But the ability to do so much with it, away from my desktop computer, won me over. The fact that I can now replace the NT’s hobbled OS with the (nearly) latest Android OS is seducing me deeper and deeper into “tablet” territory.

    Now, if I could just get a decent e-reader to replace the built-in e-reader on the NT, I’d make the switch. 😉

    • I like having both, eink and the tablet. The tablet is good for screwing around in the net and reading blogs and seeing what kind of mischief I can get into with ebook formatting. But for serious reading, it’s eink.
      What I found interesting about the article on TPV was my astonishment that B&N hadn’t been pushing apps. Now they’re scrambling to catch up?

  5. Jon,

    The EPUB reader you are looking for is Bluefire. That’s the only one I would trust on Android.


    If you want to understand what this stuff is all about, you will have to ditch the marketing categories and look at the technical facts.

    1: Forget the concepts of ereaders and tablets. All these things are general purpose computers. Once you realize that, you can start to reason clearly about what’s going on. Although they have a very different form factor, all of these machines are at least as powerful as a PC from 10 years ago (and I did some pretty amazing stuff on PCs 10 years ago).

    2: Remember that general purpose computers are everywhere. They are in your car, your phone, heck, I even have two thermostats with computers that are hooked up to WiFi and a computer in my stand-by generator (hey, I live in Houston, we have hurricanes…). The processor in the Ford Sync is almost exactly the same as the one in Kindle Keyboard. All general purpose computers are hackable. Just wander over to the Mobiread “Kindle Developers Corner” forum. Those guys turn eInk Kindles into full-fledged Linux boxes.

    3: Remember to never assume malice where mere incompetence will suffice as an explanation (especially in software). I’m a software developer. Software sucks. It’s buggy. The more stuff a piece of software can do, the more opportunities for bugs. The further removed a developer is from the consequences of a bug, the less likely that bug is to get fixed. The less revenue a piece of software produces (as a percentage of total corporate revenue), the less likely a company will be to fix the bugs in that software.

    4: Ebooks look like crap because the big publishing companies are full of Luddites. They produce crap ebooks and the device makers deliberately dumb down their software AND violate standards to make those crap ebooks readable. There is not a single major EPUB device or app that actually follows the EPUB standard (either the 2.01 version or the 3.0 version). The EPUB standard says that reading systems must follow the cascade part of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), but none of them do. They don’t because, if they did, too many books would be unreadable.

    5: Here’s how the industry works:

    a. Apple is all about selling you hardware. Everything else they do is designed to get you to buy Apple hardware. Everything. Apple lives off per-unit profit margins that are 10 times what anyone else in the hardware business can make (30 – 40% instead of 3 – 4%).
    b. Amazon wants to sell you lots of stuff, but they prefer to sell digital stuff. For physical goods, Amazon lives off margins that are 10 times smaller than anyone else in the retail business(0.2 – 0.3% instead of 2 – 3%). They make a lot more on the digital stuff.
    c. Microsoft wants you to buy an OS for every device you have and subscribe to Office. When they sell hardware, its only because that’s the only way to get their OS on that category of device.
    d. Google (and every other “internet” company) is selling your attention. You are the product, not the consumer.
    e. B & N has no discernible strategy. They are playing follow the leader.

    • Conspiracy theories are more fun, but incompetence and narrow agendas make more sense. Thanks for the recommend on the Bluefire reader.

      I was in B&N yesterday (indulging a child) and watched a clerk and a customer discussing a Nook. The clerk kept shaking his head and mumbling. The customer looked increasingly confused and finally fled. Yes, fled, the way people do when confronted by card-slappers on the Las Vegas strip. I wish I’d been privy to the sales pitch. It would have been enlightening.

    • These questions are for both William and Jon:

      What is the best way to hack my new Nook Color?
      And will I be able to use my Apple Bluetooth keyboard – son bought it for the iPad he bought DH as a birthday present. I don’t see why not, but it would make rooting the Nook cheaper if I already had a keyboard.

      It irks me not to be able to use Android apps when I actually own an Android tablet in shackles. The stuff available in the Nook app store is pitiful.

      Many thanks – and I don’t care if it voids the warranty – if the company supporting the warranty goes down the drain, what’s the warranty worth, anyway?

      If either of you know where the best instructions for doing the root/hacking are, I would appreciate the link. I could probably follow a good set once (managed to keep my scanner going with SANE when a system upgrade to my Mac made the scanner unusable, and have changed memory and hard drive in my MacBook 1,1 – so I’m not a total newbie), but I would be completely lost if I messed it up halfway. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but am good at following – and debugging – reasonable instructions. Thanks!

      • Hi ABE:

        The site I found helpful was . However, a quick search there just now turned up little on the Nook Color — lots for Nook Tablet, but not Nook Color. They are different beasties under their shells!

        There is also the XDA Developers’ Forum, which is where most of the rooting activity occurs anyhow. I do not currently have a link to the forum, but it can be found at Ray Waldo’s site (above).

        As to whether or not you can use a bluetooth keyboard, I have seen comments that the NC and the NT both have on-board bluetooth hardware; it’s just a matter of time before someone — probably at the XDA site — figures out how to activate it!

        Hope this helps!


      • Hi again, ABE:

        I forgot to mention, try searching on YouTube with “rooting nook color” or “root nook color” and see what you find. Yes, most of the time, YouTube is full of worthless videos, but there are some gems that can be found. It was a YouTube video that I found most helpful in creating a “dual use” version of my Nook Tablet that keeps the NT’s OS intact but frees it to run most other Android applications. It’s not quite the same as going to the full Android OS, but… baby steps. 😉

  6. Thanks for the reply! I will try all three leads.

    Being able to create a dual use version would be perfect – tiptoe past the BN people. I know I’m not the only one with a Nook for Christmas – but knowing there’s a Jaguar under the little VW hood makes me feel someone has been mean to it, hobbling its possibilities.

    And there are lots of Android apps.

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