The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

iRex Iliad – In The Wild

Posted by Deliverator on July 26th, 2006

iRex Iliad

Well, after many delays, it is finally possible to purchase the iRex Iliad…kinda. iRex started fullfilling large business orders earlier this month, but just recently opened its e-store to individual/small quantity orders. The catch is that the website indicates a 3-5 week ship time, which really makes this a press-release “paper” launch. Still, it is now possible to at least order the Iliad for delivery, hopefully with package arrival prior to September. Even after all these delays, the Iliad is not as Delayed as Sony’s e-ink based reader, which now appears to be on track for a winter holiday release. It is possible to purchase an Iliad reader for immediate delivery. They are being resold by at least one of those business customers I mentioned earlier. A company called Arinc has slapped a bunch of aviation documents on the Iliad and is selling it as the eFlybook. Buying an Iliad now in the form of an eFlybook will cost you an additional $90 or so for the priviledge, adding to the Iliad’s already exhorbitant $810 price, although the eFlybook also comes with a 512 MB SD card to store all those aviation document.

The Sony reader, while lacking some of the Iliad’s neat features, like a pen digitizer for drawing and marking up documents, is expected to retail at a much more palateable $350-400. I am still waiting for a sincere public apology from Sony for the arrogant, contemptful behavior of intentionally rootkitting their customer’s computers with DRM laden music CDs. In my mind, Sony’s actions were downright criminal. Until I hear Sony changing their tune, I don’t intend to purchase another Sony product.

I can understand iRex’s desire to be first to market with their product, but it seems like their software is rather incomplete at this point and that many bleeding edge purchasers (they don’t call it the bleeding edge for nothing) are in for a very disappointing user experience. The software significantly under-delivers on oft repeated specifications including supported document formats, note taking/document markup abilities, page turn rates, document navigation abilities, etc. For instance, the Iliad currently lacks the simple ability to bookmark the last page you were on in a document! This, coupled with the lack of a quick way to navigate within a document will make it intolerable to try and work with long documents or read a book over multiple sessions. The poor document navigation is coupled with rediculously long page flip times. I have seen several videos that seem to indicate an average page transition time of six seconds!

iRex has long claimed that the hardware is capable of displaying a new page in around a second. This has slipped to two seconds in the final stated specs, but doesn’t take into account software overhead. From what I can gather, when viewing a PDF, the Iliad does no prerendering of upcoming pages (much less prerender them all to begin with), which means that the Iliad waits until you hit the next page button to even start calculating a bitmap with which to refresh the diplay. From what I can see, the hardware is very well designed, but the software needs significant fleshing out before this product will become interesting at any price. iRex has promised to add many features to be released as software updates, but this is coming from a company whose product slipped several release dates due apparently to software development issues and shipped with significantly less functionality than announced (including some truely basic functions). In addition, iRex is going to be facing some very stiff competition from Sony in a few months. Early adopters represent a very small portion of the potential market for something like this, and vertical market companies that deal with a lot of documents (lawyers, medical, etc.) are definitely going to evaluate functionality before placing their orders. I suspect that Iliad has at most a few months to straighten out their product or risk becoming a footnote as established brands release more polished products. I can’t help but feel that iRex would have a lot to gain from opening up the specs/software interface. Passionate user communities can add a lot to the value of a product, but only if you foster your relationship with those communities quickly enough to make a difference in the marketplace.

A perfect example of this is the iRiver series of audio players. The iRiver H120 is considered by many audiophiles to be the best hard disk based mp3 player ever made, due largely to the excellent 3rd party Rockbox firmware. The problem is that Rockbox took a long time to mature, largely because hardware documentation was poor to non-existant and the developers had to reverse engineer virtually everything. The H120 hardware was far superior to anything released by Apple at the time. The H300 series, similarly, beat Apple to market with a hard disk player with a beautiful color screen. iRiver was doing photos and videos long before Steve Job announced a photo ipod, much less one that could play videos. I would argue that both of these products failed to make a splash due to lack of real community building from iRiver, and these days that means supporting outside developers.

Don’t just build a product to meet the needs of just those consumers which you can pigeonhole into your narrow-minded imagination. Release your product openly and let the world, in all its diversity, come up with those 1001 uses of which you could never imagine. Time and again the computer world has been reinvigorated by off the wall ideas cooked up by individuals or small groups of people:

-mp3s
-blogging
-podcasting
-p2p networking
-social networking

Many of these ideas started out quite small and yet have generated many billions of dollars. Especially when reaching out into a new and largely unexplored market, there is huge value in building strong community relationships and letting the community point the way. E-ink is a new medium and can only be succesful if it lets the customers decide the message. If the e-ink companies continue with the “It’s a $800 device for reading a small selection of nominally marked down best-sellers from 2 years ago” then e-ink will die a quick death like all the other failed ebook initiatives. If, however the companies approach it as “E-ink is an amazing display technology which we have attractively packaged into this neat device, which out of the box can do x, y, z, but we would love to see what you can make it do” then I think e-ink will have a place in the market for a long time to come and I will happily shell out $800 of my hard-earned.