Why social reading apps are doomed to fail

I’ve been testing out some social reading apps on the iPad in recent weeks, and while I hope to post something more in-depth in the near future, I read some items today that corroborate a general disappointment I’ve been feeling.

Too many restrictions

About a week ago, a study about ebook buying and reading habits reported that teens find current ebook platforms too limited when it comes to social sharing:

The E-Book Market for 13- to 17-Year-Olds

  • Teens lag behind all other age groups in e-book adoption. Sixty-six percent of 13- to 17-year olds say they prefer print books to e-books, 26 percent say they have no preference and only 8 percent prefer e-books.
  • One reason for this resistance: Teens like using social technology to discuss and share things with their friends, and e-books at this point are not a social technology. An increasing number of teens surveyed says there are too many restrictions on using e-books: 14 percent said so in 2011, compared to 6 percent in 2010.

That’s been my overall takeaway, too, while test-driving these various social reading apps recently. There are just too many restrictions to make the experience enjoyable.

But “too many restrictions” is a pretty general complaint. What about some details? Okay, here are two fatal flaws I see in the social reading experience right now:

1. The ebook landscape is too fragmented.

From retailers to technology companies to publishers, every company involved in ebooks today is spending a massive amount of resources trying to simultaneously lock in customers, block competition, and thwart piracy. None of these goals serves the needs of the customer. In fact, progress in any of them makes it increasingly harder for an individual to use his ebooks freely.

2. DRM ruins everything.

I know, it’s always so easy to bash DRM, and how else will you prevent customers from making copies etc? But when it comes to social media, DRM truly is a lethal additive. Social sharing requires a frictionless environment to work–think Instagram or Pinterest–and DRM is almost pure friction.

Imagine the ghostland that Instagram would have become if you had to authorize and unlock each photo, then sideload it into the Instagram app before uploading.

See the restrictions in action

My favorite social reading app of the moment is Subtext, and yet unless those two issues are resolved soon, I fear Subtext is a non-starter, along with every other social reading attempt currently being tested or developed.

Why? Because right now, to use Subtext you have to:

  1. Own an iPad.
  2. Buy your ebooks from an exclusive subset of retailers such as Kobo and Google Books.

Let’s look at the fragmentation problem: You can’t use Subtext on your smartphone or on an Android tablet. You can’t use Kindle or iBooks or Nook or library ebooks with it. You can’t even review your notes and highlights on the web, for instance from a regular computer or laptop. And about that pesky DRM: If you do buy ebooks that work with Subtext, they won’t work on any Kindle devices or apps, and your notes won’t carry over to Kobo or Nook or Overdrive.

Why would a teenager go through so many hoops, and deal with such an unnecessarily hamstrung “solution” just to talk to her friends about a book? For that matter, why would an adult? Why would anyone? Life’s too short for that sort of nonsense.

I still think social reading apps point out an interesting future for, say, book clubs and classrooms, but until the industry kills DRM for good and stops trying to carve up exclusive little corporate fiefdoms, it’s going to be too much trouble to bother with.

(Photo: niallkennedy)

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