Why Mobile Will Win: eReaders are Sustaining, Mobile is Disruptive

In one of the comments to Friday’s speculation post about The Tablet, Scott Lewis sums up one of the most common objections to the viability of smartphone-based reading:

3.5″ screen… 3.5″ screen… 3.5″ screen! Can’t think of anything else to say. It’s too small for serious reading.

And Scott is correct that a 3.5″ screen offers an inferior reading experience compared with a paperback when measured using the attributes that define a quality print reading experience. And that’s precisely what Kindle and other eReader and eInk-based devices attempt to do, which is “help … sustain the rate of historical performance improvement that their customers had come to expect.” This is classic Clay Christensen disruptive vs. sustaining technology, as we watch firms attempt to make a “better book”:

The second pattern is that the purpose of advanced technology development in the industry was always to sustain established trajectories of performance improvement: to reach the higher-performance, higher-margin domain of the upper right of the trajectory map. Many of these technologies were radically new and difficult, but they were not disruptive.

But people who are reading on smartphones are choosing to do so based on new and different attributes. Again from Christensen:

Generally disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream. (Emphasis added)

Attributes like convenience, portability, price, immediacy, and connectivity are more important to these customers than attributes like paper weight, coating, or smell. So it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the quickest growth in smartphone reading outside of established markets. (As another data point, we sell more of our iPhone apps in Australia than in Canada, even though Canada has a significantly larger population, and is a much bigger market for our print books.)

Designing eReaders aimed at converting existing readers (particularly in large English-speaking markets) is a fine strategy if your aim is to achieve better margins through a “better” book and capture more customers from among your current markets. But doing so risks at best missing a much bigger new market, and at worst a complete evaporation of the old one. Mike Masnick offers a very nice summary of this trap over at TechDirt:

Historically, pretty much every disruptive innovation has followed Christensen’s curve, meaning that the eventual outcome really is a better overall solution for the market, and thus makes the market much bigger, even if it doesn’t look that way at first. But, the problem is that it’s difficult to see that. So, when we get industry defenders (whether it’s the recording industry, the movie industry, the newspaper industry or others) insisting that it doesn’t make sense to jump off that cliff and embrace these new offerings, because the market just isn’t big enough (or, as short-sighted Hollywood execs have taken to saying: “turning analog dollars into digital dimes”), we note that they’re absolutely making the management trap described above.

In just the past two years, we’ve seen smartphones get much better at doing things like navigation, video, and even voice recognition. I have little doubt they’ll improve for reading too.

Several of the sessions at next month’s TOC Conference are aimed at helping publishers avoid this strategy trap, as well as better understand these new market opportunities. Space is limited, so sign up today.