When We See What’s Truly Possible

I studied mechanical engineering in college and in my senior year, I took an elective course in plastics.

In the mid-90’s, there was a big push to use plastic for everything–bottles, trash cans, lawn chairs. No one understood well how to design in these new materials and the answer normally was to make “it” thicker or add a gusset here or there for strength and support.

I remember vividly one of the final lectures of the class when the instructor talked about what the evolution of design would be like.

First, we mimic what was done before. We take what was metal and do the same but in plastic. The object looks the same. The object functions the same. And we likely save some money.

The second evolution is when we truly understand the characteristics of the new material. The object’s function remains, but the form is something completely different from what we could have imagined before.

Cool Hunting yesterday highlighted the Foodpod. Think about the evolution of colanders. Only fifteen years later are we getting around to seeing what it truly possible in plastics

You can see the same thing in the touchpad mock-up of The Sports Illustrated that has been circulating. We are almost to the point that we can envision a new form of media that will inherently function better than what existed before.

The Rise of Digital Books

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was interviewed in the New York Times this past weekend.

Q: Of all the books that Amazon sells, what percentage are digital books?

Bezos: For every 100 copies of a physical book we sell, where we have the Kindle edition, we will sell 48 copies of the Kindle edition. It won’t be too long before we’re selling more electronic books than we are physical books. It’s astonishing.

Amazon has been floating that number since October, when the company also offered that in May the ratio was 35 electronic copies for every 100 physical copies.

The number shocked me when I first heard it, but then we got our first royalty statement for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. For every 100 copies of the physical book we sold through Amazon, 20 copies of the electronic version were sold. The statement also showed that Amazon is really the only game in the electronic book town.

Let’s make sure to put these numbers in perspective. Amazon only controls about 10% of the overall book market, which means that 3% of the overall book market has gone digital.

The introduction of more devices like Barnes & Noble’s Nook (which is getting warm to lukewarm reviews today) and more vendors like Smashwords will certainly change the marketplace dynamics. Let’s not also forget that Amazon is losing about two dollars on every book is sells right now.

The adoption of digital books is a very real phenomenon. I keep saying we in the middle of a five year disruptive cycle for book publishing. 2010 will be Year Four of the cycle and this is when we will really start seeing measurable effects in the book market as a whole.

E-readers and The Nonconsumption of Books

I have been read The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth by Clay Christensen and Michael Raynor. This book is the follow-up to The Innovator’s Dilemma.

The authors say that companies need to build products and services that make a job easier for the customer invoking Ted Levitt’s Marketing Myopia. They also say that true growth comes from finding nonconsumption rather than battling for existing consumption.

Given the never-ending e-reader news of the last several weeks, including today’s news of Skiff, the Hearst-backed project, I thought this was a great excerpt to think about. This was written in 2003:

Hundreds of millions have been spent to apply new technologies–the Internet and e-book displays, specifically–to reshape the college textbook industry. Innovators have attempted to develop and sell tablets that can display downloaded e-books. And with many textbooks, you can click on a URL to obtain far more information about the topic than could possibly be included with the limits of a book. Would we expect these investments to generate significant growth? Our guess is that they will not. Although we would like to believe that all undergraduates students are really trying to get done, from our observation, is pass their courses without having to read the textbook at all.

These companies have spent a lot of money helping student do more easily something that they have been trying not to do. It would probably take far less money to create from the same technology a service called “Cram.com”—a utility that would make it easier and cheaper for students to cram more effectively for their exams. This would likely work because cramming is something that students are already trying to do, but with marginal efficacy. There are a lot of textbook-avoiders on campuses—a huge market of nonconsumption. (p94-95)

This got me thinking about what job The Kindle, The Nook, and the host of other devices are really solving. What Amazon is selling in its new commercial is that we need help getting our books faster, that there is a speed problem. For voracious readers, that might be true.

How many of those readers are there though? Forrester Research is forecasting that 900,000 units will be sold during this holiday season and that next year sales will reach 10 million units.

Where is the nonconsumption? Are these devices really going to bring people back to reading books?

See Need, Publish Answer in Three Months

When Twitter’s popularity took a big turn upward at the beginning of the year, OReilly saw an opportunity. Using Powerpoint as the development tool, co-authors Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein created The Twitter Book in a few months. The electronic version came out in April and the print edition followed a month later.

Now, Gina Trapani of Lifehacker fame is doing the same for Google Wave. For this still invite-only product, Trapani with help from Adam Pash has written The Complete Guide to Google Wave. The site went up October 31st, exactly one month after the Google Wave Preview was made available to limited set of users. A preview pdf edition of the guide will be available some time this month and the first edition will be released in print and PDF in January. The Guide has already been covered by The New York Times.

Here are two great examples from both ends of the spectrum–an established (and, yes, progressive) publisher and a self-publication effort–of the short cycles that are now possible with collaborative tools and on-demand production technologies.

Love it.