TOPICS > Nation

E-Books with Walter Mossberg

April 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: You’ve been looking at e-books for a while. What do you think of them?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, I think they’re at an early stage, Terry. I believe we will have e-books, but a lot of things have to happen, and one of them is, that is crucial, is we have to have a really good device for reading books, and we really don’t quite have that yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Have you read a book on an electronic screen?

WALTER MOSSBERG: When I was doing my review, I read “Angela’s Ashes” entirely on [an] e-book.

TERENCE SMITH: What was the experience like?

WALTER MOSSBERG: You know, it was okay. I don’t think it’s quite there yet. But I do have to say that after about 50 pages, I sort of forgot I was reading it on a machine, and I really didn’t think about, “Oh, I’m missing the feel of the paper,” and all that sort of thing.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think you enjoyed it more or less, or was the experience different?

WALTER MOSSBERG: I may have enjoyed it a little less just because I was working. I was reviewing the e-book, and therefore I was paying a lot of attention to the experience, which didn’t let it be as natural as it might have been. But I can imagine that with the right technology — which I repeat, we don’t have yet — it could be quite a natural thing.

TERENCE SMITH: Was it tiring to you?

WALTER MOSSBERG: No; it was not.

TERENCE SMITH: Tiring to your eyes?

WALTER MOSSBERG: No. You know, I’m a middle-aged guy, so I cranked up the font pretty, pretty large, and it worked okay.

TERENCE SMITH: One of the arguments for e-books is the portability of several volumes in one. Does that make sense to you?

WALTER MOSSBERG: It does, Terry, but I think it’s a weak argument. I think, and I want to stress that, even without respect to the technology, the big argument for it will be if these books are cheaper than paper books, and if you’re able with a click of the button, not only to order it, like you can do today on Amazon, but to actually obtain the book within seconds. Those will be the big deal. The idea that you can carry multiple books on the device is fine, but today’s situation, I don’t think it’s enough to make this a big deal yet.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any sense of when the technology might reach the point you’re talking about?

WALTER MOSSBERG: It’s always dangerous to predict, but I think we’re about five years away from something that would really be a big breakthrough, which has to do with screen technology and, actually, the ability to get a truly vivid, gorgeous-looking rendition with long battery life, and a screen that you might even be able to fold. That sounds a little science fictionesque, but there’s a company called E-Ink, and some others, that are working on this very thing. TERENCE SMITH: Is this related to, and connected to, in your mind, the development of a so-called tablet computer?

WALTER MOSSBERG: A little bit. That’s another approach. A number of companies have actually made tablet computers. Microsoft is making a lot of noise about working on one now. It’s related to it, in a way. Microsoft certainly sees that as a way to way to read books. But I would point out that the tablet computers, as opposed to the e-books, are really full-fledged PCs, so you have a lot of weight, you have a lot of overhead, you have Windows, and all that stuff, that I think gets in the way of creating a device that’s holistically, from start to finish, meant for reading books.

TERENCE SMITH: M.J. Rose, the author who has done perhaps more than anybody else with the e-book, feels that they won’t really be viable until they are not only improved technology, but down to a price of a Walkman, for example.

WALTER MOSSBERG: I agree with that but I think the books themselves have to be cheaper. It’s very much like what we’re seeing in music with the whole Napster controversy. I think all media types–music, movies, books, maybe television and even print journalism — will come up to this point where there’s going to be a tremendous drive to distribute it in a whole new way.

Books actually are easier to trade around on the Internet. One Beatles’ song is a file which is large enough to encompass, probably, all the books on the New York Times bestseller list. But there isn’t a Napster for books, and the reason there isn’t a Napster for books, in my opinion, is the PC’s a lousy device for reading books. I think the tablet PC may not be that great a device for reading books.

We need a dedicated, separate device that has tactile and visual and battery life characteristics, and screen characteristics that would really work, and that, as M.J. Rose says, costs a fairly low price, and at that point it’s no problem to move the files around, and I think the thing will, will explode. …

TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. So Mr. Gutenberg can sleep peacefully?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Yeah, I think he can sleep peacefully for a while, but I do think it’s coming. I’ll probably live to regret saying this, but, in five years or so, we may see something dramatically different, a screen which you can have with you, which, on the fly, over some wireless Internet connection, could change into another book. You could also, frankly, have magazines and newspapers that way.

TERENCE SMITH: Can you explain the tremendous focus and absorption of the publishing industry on these devices and the future that they represent?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, I think that it is a disruptive technology, as they say, which means it changes the business model or potentially could for those guys, and they certainly are seeing what’s happening to their brethren in the record industry, and so they’re paying a lot of attention.

It does potentially change the balance of power, just as it does in music, so that artists, authors, or in the case of music, recording artists might–and I stress might–have a little more power over the publishers.

But I think the book publishers are nowhere near being on the spot like the record companies are, because there isn’t the device yet that really deeply threatens them. One way you can tell is, Terry, to download so-called e-books, which you can download today and read on your computer or read on the e-book here, they charge about as much as they do for hardcover books.

If they were really serious about making it a business, they would say, “Hmm, we’ve sunk our costs into the print edition, the marginal cost of moving electrons” — remember, it’s not atoms, it’s not paper, it’s not dead trees, they’re moving electrons – “the marginal cost is so low, we can sell the next Grisham book for a dollar or five dollars,” with, I stress, everyone getting paid, but proportionately less on the theory that you move a large number and your costs are very low. It’s a fairly simple theory of capitalism.

They’re not serious about it, because even though some of them are investors in some of these companies, and are very seriously looking at it, they’re not trying to move a lot of books in that format yet or they would be charging a lot less for them.