The Riverbed Blog (testing)

A blog in search of a tagline

Kindles, iPads, and future mobile digital content

Posted by riverbedtest on February 1, 2011

I am often asked about long-term IT trends affecting Riverbed. Two of the key trends that we track and respond to are the movement toward mobile devices and the movement toward cloud computing.  I often make the point to people that these are related issues, and that it’s unwise to think about them separately: effectively, today’s enterprise clients are lightening up and becoming mobile, while today’s enterprise servers are virtualizing and moving from corporate data centers to cloud provider data centers. 

These trends have prompted us to develop Steelhead variants that can be deployed in more places (like Steelhead Mobile for Mac, Virtual Steelhead, and Cloud Steelhead) while still supporting fully flexible interoperation for optimization.  The net effect for the customer is increased flexibility and agility.  And we fully expect that we will continue to explore new ways to support performance in the evolving IT universe.

But now I’m going to disregard my own advice about considering both the mobile devices and the cloud, and instead share some thoughts about mobile devices and mobile content without making much reference to the servers or services supporting them.  In particular, is it better to have a Kindle or an iPad? 

Having had both for a few weeks, I now think the premise of the question is wrong.  Similarly, when I read commentary from old-school book-lovers about the dangers of e-books, I find myself thinking “no, you just don’t understand.”

A former marketing VP explained the situation nicely when he told me that the press loves conflict. (In fairness to the media, this is mostly a reflection of the fact their readership loves conflict).  It’s an easily grasped story to talk about a battle, who’s ahead, who will win.  So even situations that don’t really have a duel-to-the-death quality get cast into that framework.

The reality, at least as I experience it, is quite different.  First off, Kindles and iPads are in no way substitutable for each other. Yes, you can run reading apps on the iPad.  And yes, there is a half-hearted browser lurking in the “experimental” section of the Kindle.  And, importantly, both are primarily devices for consumption rather than production of content. There’s also the relatively uninteresting point that they are both tablet formats. But that pretty much exhausts the similarities. 

A Kindle is a very interesting take on what published text can be in a digital networked age.  It’s either weak or totally useless for anything that isn’t published text. Meanwhile, the iPad is a very interesting take on how to rethink the full multimedia experience (well… the full multimedia experience except Flash, I guess). It’s OK for text as well, but it’s not a very well-engineered solution if published text is your primary interest.  The Kindle is so much lighter, cheaper, and better designed for page-turning that the iPad looks clunky.  The interesting exceptions are where magazines are being published specifically for the iPad, which is a better match for a certain style of “eye candy” magazines.

So I think the defenders of “old-style” books against e-books and reading devices have their battle lines drawn incorrectly.  When I started writing this item, I was thinking of Jason Epstein’s various pieces in the New York Review of Books, where he has made a number of acute comments about digitization while rarely hiding his sympathies for the codex — stacked pages between covers — format.  But re-reading his articles from July 2001, March 2010, and February 2011, I realize that he’s actually much more sophisticated in his analysis than I remembered.  Nevertheless, I do run into people whose basic reaction to digital books is to think that they’re awful.

The Kindle seems like an ally to books – it lets you take books to places you couldn’t have taken them before.  Over Christmas I took a vacation with my family travelling around Vietnam, and during breaks I could read Harold McGee’s magisterial On Food and Cooking.  There is no way I could have taken the 896-page hardcover book with me, nor would I have been able to read it at the breakfast table.  But it was amazing to have not only that book but about a dozen others, as well as subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, in a tiny package that hardly required any power.  It’s become trivial for me to slip it into my coat pocket or my briefcase, almost no matter where I’m going.  Whenever I travel there’s a high degree of uncertainty about when I will have “dead time” and how long it will be – the Kindle makes it much easier (and easier on my back) to be prepared for long stretches that nevertheless might not be workable for laptop-based activities.

Now, as much as I like the Kindle there are still some notable drawbacks.  The conversion process from book to e-book is not always smooth, and so McGee’s book (for example) has some broken table layouts as well as mostly-useless cross references given in terms of the hardcover page numbers.  The 3G delivery of newspapers is brilliant but Amazon wants to charge me $5 per week to support it outside the US and (adding insult to injury) won’t deliver any graphics even if I’m paying that fee.  It’s cool that I could fall back on using my laptop’s better browser and WiFi to grab an issue of the WSJ and then transfer it to the Kindle via USB – but it wasn’t cool that I had to open up the Kindle’s directory structure and figure out that the file belonged in the “Documents” directory.  (That was another one of those things that was pretty obvious to me but wouldn’t have been at all obvious to the non-computer-focused people in my life).

Returning to fear of e-books, I think it’s more reasonable for a book-lover to be concerned about iPads, because there we have both the current demonstration of new interface models and the tantalizing hints of future hybrid content – the iPad makes it easy to envision a future further convergence of elements of the Web, movies, gaming, and music.  It seems likely that iPad content will be a lot more exciting overall than Kindle content.  But excitement isn’t everything. 

An element of what scholars don’t like about e-books is the threat to their habits and methods.  But from my perspective that battle was lost a long time ago.  I already have the odd experience that when I cite something that’s not available on the web, people tend to be skeptical.  Just 15 years ago it was flaky to use a URL as a citation instead of a published journal or book, now it’s the other way around – because (implicitly) who finds information by a technique other than the Web these days?  And if I can’t immediately follow your link to check it out for myself, who’s to say you didn’t just make it up?  It was very strange when there was a nice article about Riverbed printed only in my local (Boston) version of the Wall Street Journal – not available online, and not printed in the San Francisco edition where the HQ folks would see it.  I wound up clipping and scanning it to share with others.

Everyone seems to understand that an iPad is a rotten substitute for an iPod – why would you want a honkin’ big device if all you cared about was music, and you could get a tiny cheap easier-to-use device instead of the bigger expensive multi-purpose thing?  But for some reason people seem to have more trouble with applying the same reasoning to published text, and thus some of the iPad vs. Kindle nonsense.

 I have been intrigued that the place I really have found an iPad to be valuable is in managing my personal (non-work) email and other tasks, such as visiting social networking sites. I can’t really justify this assessment, it’s more of an observation at this stage.  I suspect that some kind of future MacBook will do better at combining the laptop productivity that I need at work with the touchscreen gestures that I find congenial for non-work… and perhaps one of the Windows tablets could do that for me today.  But I definitely find that I’m doing a better job of keeping up with my personal email since I started handling it mostly via iPad.  

 Of course, it’s possible that the “iPad vs. Kindle” pseudo-contest is really just a reflection of the Apple cult at work… perhaps the real problem with the Kindle for some analysts is that it doesn’t come from Apple. Perhaps we can look forward to a Kindle-like device from Apple (the iRead?  iText? iBook?) before too long.

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4 Responses to “Kindles, iPads, and future mobile digital content”

  1. nice post a feature by feature comparison of kindle and ipad..

  2. Matt said

    Great post Mark! Does Riverbed have any plans to develop a Steelhead client for mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc)? If so, when can we expect that to hit the market?

  3. Nice blog.. & good information given in it…

  4. Thank you for sharing this interesting article, mobile digital content has gone a long way.

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