Why I Feel Sorry for Jeff Bezos (not!)

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So, as I have been reading in the press lately, evidently there is some sort of tablet/mobile reader war going on. Okay that’s a bit of an understatement; allow me to lay out the major battles as I understand them.

As is well-known, Amazon came out with the Kindle about 30 months ago. With the power and name of Amazon behind it the Kindle became an instant winner, numbering in the millions. It became the must have device for mobile reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it mobile computing or for that matter even mobile learning. Yes, one could read books and therefore learn but the device was clearly aimed at downloading traditional reading materials (books, magazines, etc.) and reading them. As an aside, just recently I read an article where two universities that had test driven the Kindle to replace buying traditional books have stopped their trials. They have already come to the conclusion that the Kindle just doesn’t cut it as far as allowing students to easily and effectively take their books with them (via the Kindle). This after only 9 months of trial (and evidently a lot of error).

Then, much more recently, Sony came out with their E-Reader and Barnes and Noble came out with their Nook. Now each of those Kindle competitors would claim that they are the best but really all three still serve a primary purpose: reading books, magazines and newspapers in electronic print format. They each have their pluses and minuses but at their core they are clearly electronic readers.

Then along comes the iPad. And the three e-reader makers (Amazon, Sony and Barnes) gulped. Apple sold over 2 million iPads in the first 60 days and users downloaded over 1.5 million books in less than 30 days. They had thought this day would be coming but how do you fight the competition when all you have heard for so long is whispers, seen glimpses and read unsubstantiated rumors on the Web? To paraphrase Sun Tzu in the Art of War (downloaded to my Kindle and my Android), first, one must know the enemy’s weaknesses and attack at those points. But what were the iPad’s weaknesses when Apple’s famous veil of secrecy had blocked out the sun?

And so on January 27, 2010, Apple announced the iPad and the enemy was known. The companies selling e-readers scrambled to find the iPad’s weaknesses. Sure there probably were many, but let’s be honest, any attempt to highlight these weaknesses was simply drowned out by the choruses sung by choirs of angels singing the praises of the iPad: a device that was not only an ebook reader but a movie player, an internet connected device and could clearly do computing. Finally, the iPad was gorgeous and some books that had been specifically repurposed to the iPad were just fantastic. Don’t take my word for that last statement, check out Alice in Wonderland.

So obviously we should all feel sorry for Jeff Bezos right? Well maybe not.

The story of how he started Amazon is well documented and has reached folklore status. The boy wonder was widely praised for starting Amazon as a book selling enterprise. Then Amazon began to sell other things and people scoffed and yet his empire just kept growing. As a recent article in Fortune described, don’t worry about Jeff, he isn’t sweating, at least publicly. Last year, Amazon accounted for about 80% of all electronic book sales. Amazon has many good things going for it, but this battle is different. Two such legends, two huge icons as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are staring each other down. Which billionaire is going to blink first?

Relevance to Mobile Learning

So what does all of this mean to mobile learning?  Well, right now the technologies, capabilities and price points for these devices are all very different which means that companies,  educational institutions, students and consumers all must decide where to invest their effort, time and money.  There are obviously investment questions related to the actual hardware itself (Kindle vs. iPad vs. something else), but possibly more important for companies and educational institutions are the decisions related to content development.  Developing content for an iPad, for example, is much different than for a Kindle or a Windows-based tablet.  Support also requires a different set of skills and technologies.

Answering these questions ultimately comes down to two elements: pedagogy and patience.

Pedagogy relates to the instructional methods used in teaching and learning.  The methods used for instruction are driven by the material and the specific learning objectives.  For example, a college student majoring in English Literature, will obviously spend a significant amount of time reading and reflecting.  For this type of learning the Kindle may be an ideal device given the ability to put the Kindle reader on several devices and sync notes and highlights across all of them.  In this manner, the student could take their Kindle to the park, read for a while all the time taking notes and highlighting certain passages.  Later in the day they could do the same thing on their iPhone (using the Kindle for iPhone app) while standing in line at the grocery store.  Then, the next day in class all of these notes and highlights will be available on the student’s laptop using the PC version of the Kindle reader.

An astronomy professor doing research for a soon-to-be-published book, however, may find the iPad a much more suitable device given the WiFi capabilities and convenient access to the internet.   An automobile manufacturer looking to deliver service training on a mobile device may be best served waiting for the Android based tablets to be released where Flash animations can be incorporated into the learning.

This last point highlights the second element when considering tablet/e-reader decisions: patience. The technologies and players in this space are all in a major state of flux right now.  Expect many changes in this arena over the next 12 to 24 months.  So if there is no immediate need, wait for a little while.  See how things shake out and then make some decisions.

The key point is that the tool should not drive the learning, the learning should drive the tool, and the tools are changing rapidly.

So as time marches on, it will be fun to watch these two titans of industry and the future have a bit of a smackdown, won’t it? Ultimately, we will all be winners, just be careful where you place any big bets until the tablet/e-reader dust settles a bit more.

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