Hardware step change and the reinvention of normal

easier for some than others.

With Christmas approaching and the tablet war currently in full swing, Amazon’s television campaign is pushing its products and services using the claim that it has ‘reinvented normal’. But as well as the online services that gradually seep into day-to-day habits, significant changes in media consumption produce significant emotions.  Manufacturers and vendors need to make us feel safe in our spending.

It was with a guilty, pit-of-the-stomach feeling of regret that I found myself preferring another new technology over an  established, romantic, tangible medium.  What happened was a realignment of plates, a penny-drop of understanding, a kind of surrender.

After reading a number of books on a Kindle and enjoying the experience before flitting back to a new hardback, the uneasiness kicked in.   Hmmm, nice new hardback , what’s not to like?  And yet two hands were once again required while reading, it was SO large, an effort to pack and transport, difficult to read while eating and also a little disappointing to read, which probably didn’t help matters.

Naturally I do prefer books ‘as objects’.  What sane person wouldn’t?  Who would choose to furnish their home with shelves of e-readers?  Their spines are a little thin and bland, and when it comes to that evocative pungent smell of age or newness, they have nothing.

But as a straightforward, one-handed, pure reading experience, e-readers are much less hassle and effort.  I am a champion of less hassle and effort.  I don’t even mind having to press the page turn button quite often.  In fact, I like it.  It somehow feels more like progress than taking a few sticky-fingered attempts to turn a page; it’s more rewarding.  Sure, navigation issues make it less easy to browse through and find a specific passage, but these are more than balanced out.  Customised font sizes mean you can’t be put off that classic tome by a weird typeface or crammed tiny text.

I can get over the object, not having the smell or the newness.

More confused emotion towards old technology sprung up when my mum asked me to look over a large drawer of my old music cassette tapes, and throw out any I didn’t want.  Now I’m 99 per cent sure I will never play any of them ever again.  With Spotify I have access to most of the music whenever I want.  Yet in their materiality these cassettes had so much more: personalised and romanticised by handwriting on the labels, mostly mine, some my brother’s, some forgotten school-mates and early crushes; those awkward plastic cases which sometimes inexplicably wouldn’t shut; messy tippex on sleeves where tapes were re-recorded.

With music the switch from cassettes to CDs to MP3s (briefly via minidiscs) and then almost exclusively Spotify, seemed a more gentle and gradual conversion, with more overlapping.  With books there was appears to be a lurching moment of decision in pledging allegiance to the digital form.  Perhaps that’s due to early education when it’s drummed into children to RESPECT BOOKS, so the change in a deified medium feels more profound.

It’s not a change that comes without complexities.  There are opaque commercial issues around ownership of e-books, outlined in a couple of recent cases including this one, offering a reminder about how we have little control over digital media we purchase and supposedly own.  Fewer such ambiguities exist with hard, tangible objects.  We buy them, we own them.  Unless we lend them to someone and never get them back again.

There are also wide-reaching implications for the volatile publishing industry, with specialist publishers going bust and market consolidation occurring to stave off, or help embrace the digital world.

One thing struggling ‘old school’ publishers could be finding is that many consumers are no longer bothered about full ownership after consuming media.  I know I’m not.  Spotify has had a hand in changing that behaviour.  I’ll listen to a fantastic new album for around 3 months before we begin to slowly drift apart, returning for only very occasional flings.

Tablet consumption of news content is another driver.  Today our promiscuous relationship with media runs on the marriage of digital media and devices.  There’s the small factor of the connectivity supplier, but we don’t really care about them until something stops working, or we get the bill.  As mentioned by a speaker from Deloitte at the Mobile Data Association’s recent Meet The Analyst Event, the truth is that people love hardware.  There is a clear appetite, as suggested in the last blog post here about the absence of technology convergence.  Analysts have proved it’s the hardware brand and its reliability that consumers buy into, not really the cost.  Maybe not even the actual media itself.

However, that feeling of nervousness at the change remains quite frightening.  For a lot of people it’s a big deal to start reading on an e-reader or begin taking your news on a tablet, and this is echoed in the e-reader advertising slogan of “Brave New World” in Waterstones.

This also means it’s wise for Amazon’s television advertisements feel like a warm hug while watching a tropical sunset.  We need to feel safe, before investing a few hundred pounds in a new tablet device we’re not quite sure how to use.  Once we have, it’ll take at least two weeks before we forget the old ways altogether.

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