Friday, November 30, 2007

Kith 'n Kindle

By now you’re probably heard or read about Amazon’s new e-book reader, Kindle. In its current incarnation, while it has many attractive features, it also has some unattractive ones, notably its price. Let’s assume, though, that given Amazon’s marketing clout and the tight integration with Amazon’s core business of books, the Kindle is an ugly duckling on its way to being a swan.

Does this finally augur the end of the printed book? I hardly think so.

Over on one of the tech writing lists, there’s a current thread about how end-user software documentation is delivered. Several participants in the thread note that it’s been quite a while since their employers sprung for a bound book. One person said the last time she had to get a manual printed was 1997. The last one I sent to a printer was in 1993.

What does this mean? First of all, understand the motivation. Software companies recognize revenue when they ship product, and they want to ship product about five minutes after QA certifies the release. That means they don’t want to wait for the doc team to catch up with the final changes in the product, proofread the pages, and send it out for printing. It also means they want to shift the cost of printing to the customer, even though the cost of printing it out on the customer’s office laser printer is about six times the unit cost (SWAG) of the manufacturer having it printed and bound commercially.

But from our point of view, the real question is whether customers accept the situation as it is. And the answer is that customers do accept soft delivery of documentation for the most part. They can look stuff up with a search field instead of thumbing through what is typically a very bad index if there’s an index at all. (Tech writers who index generally do it automatically rather than manually, resulting in something that resembles a concordance more than an index.)

In addition, a lot of software manufacturers have long since moved past a PDF of a manual they were too cheap to print and on to HTML help systems. Now the more progressive companies are going straight to XML-based systems, with content stored in a database and automatically transformed into appropriate output formats to meet customer needs. Customers seem to have accommodated to this paperless, artless, design-free, Kindle-friendly regime well enough.

The discussions about whether the book is doomed seem misplaced. It makes more sense to look at content, audience, payment model, and delivery medium as axes in an analytical space and then determine the optimal vehicle for any given work rather than assuming a one-fate-fits-all future for the printed book.

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