The future of books

We must have a ton of paper in our house in the form of books. Some great literature, my wife’s degree materials, the libraries for my hobbies such as SCUBA diving and wine, a mountain of travel books and so on. Pulped trees are an enormously inefficient method to store and transport all this information. If it was transferred to silicon or to rotating memory I could carry the whole lot around in my pocket.

Which brings us to the current explosion in the use of electronic books. Most notably the Amazon Kindle (which holds 1,500 or 3,500 books) and the Sony Reader (which can store up to 13,000 books). These devices rely upon ultra low energy electronics, especially in their “paper” displays which only use a tiny fraction of the power of a traditional LCD display. And they work just like books, the content is the same and it is presented in the same manner. So they are making the old fashioned books made from trees obsolete.

These electronic books are an interim technology. Soon we are moving, en masse, to having electronic tablet devices in our lives. These tablets are a combination of netbook and smartphone. They are “always on” devices and they are Swiss army knife devices, designed to do as many tasks as possible that we might need in our lives. Watch television or a movie, surf the interweb, do some office or school work, talk to a friend, shoot some video, listen to some music and so much more.

Electronic tablets are only possible because of the introduction of new OLED display technology that uses very little power and which put the source of the display very near the front surface of the screen. So they can be made to work just like the “paper” in the current electronic books. So being a book reader will be yet another task that tablets will be used for.

Of course once people are using tablets for books a whole new world of possibilities opens up. A revolution in fact. Books can become interactive, non linear and connected. In fact books can start to take on many of the characteristics of a video game. And this will inevitably happen, slowly at first, but the possibilities are too great for it not to. It is just more of the ongoing convergence between new media and old media. And what applies to books applies to magazines and newspapers too, in fact anything that was historically printed on pulped trees.


  1. I have three Kindle 2’s and one DX…the DX is mine…the 2’s were mine UNTIL my wife and kids hold of them…I think they’re the greatest thing since “miracle whip”…they’re all hooked to one main account so everyone has access to everything…in addition to books, I ‘ve stored reams of notes, various instruction manuals, sheet music, etc, etc, etc…and — blush — software available online allows me to checkout books from my library and never have to return them…heck, it has practically caused a revolution in information flow around my house…Ipods???…don’t make me laugh…

  2. Hmm, an interesting perspective, but probably expected given that you’re a games person. Using the Swiss Army knife example however, it’s clear that we aren’t going to see the end of old media. There are applications in which a Swiss Army knife could be used, but the actual tool is still applied. In addition, the constraint required by the SAK limits the functionality of the integrated tool.

    In the same way, we are seeing more integrated devices, but there is still a use for the single function devices as they can be more powerful, easier to use, etc. Only if we increase the power of devices far beyond the needs of the human will we see obsolescence. Given the theoretical and technical challenges related, I’m not yet convinced this will happen. We have become extremely good at using increased system specifications.

  3. This is the Second Coming of ebooks: are there any new factors besides epaper that increases their chances this time?

    The Governor of California is pushing for schools to use ebooks instead of traditional textbooks. He thinks it will save money. I foresee the blossoming of a whole new industry in ebook repair as kids drop their ebooks in the pool or accidentally use them for 3rd base.

    I like the permanent feel of paper books. Data just seems too transient. I doubt the paper format book will ever be replaced for people who just like to read. Maybe they will be used where mandated – in corporations and schools.

  4. IAHed: Paper books are not permanent, they routinely become obsolete and need to be replaced – this is expensive and bad for the environment (although admittedly manufacturing an ebook isn’t going to be great for the environment).

    If an eBook costs $200 and lasts for four years then it would be a significant saving over buying paper books for high-school provided that the content became cheap enough.

    One big advantage that I see in eBooks for school use is that they will drive the development of free text books. I’ve written more about this topic at the above URL.

    Then there is the issue of school bag weight. According to my calculations at the above URL the current text books are heavy enough to put year 12 girls who are at or below the 25th percentile of body mass at risk of back injuries. Therefore reducing the weight by using eBook readers or laptops would be a health benefit for children.

  5. But Amazon have control over your Kindle. They are allowed to delete resources from it at their sole discretion – and they have done, as many readers will know. That is unacceptable. I do not like the way multimedia is going; if the industry keeps moving in the direction it is, the publishers will eventually have iron fist rule over their media and that is completely and absolutely unacceptable. When I purchase music, movies (or more accurately, a license to listen to it), I should have the right to keep them in as many formats as I wish, on as many devices as I wish, and the media should be available uncompressed so I can make an original copy of the disc if I want to, because *I* am paying the publisher, NOT the other way around. Yes, publishers also have the right to protect their property, but it is not nice at all to have content designed for people who don’t pay for their multimedia over a paying customer like myself. When was the last time you bought a boxed game on a disc, and were able to copy the disc and use the backup to play, so the original doesn’t get scratched? Because I should have the right to do that, even if the publishers disagree.

    It also really doesn’t help that consumers don’t even care.

    When there are less draconian restrictions on multimedia – when I have the option to download music and movies from online stores uncompressed and with no DRM, when content producers and publishers and device manufacturers have no control over what I put on MY device – then I will be all for replacing physical discs and books with digital downloads. But unfortunately I am part of a decreasing minority of consumers who care about their rights and I don’t see this being fixed any time soon.

  6. I too enjoy the look, feel, and ‘permanent’ nature of a paper book…future generations may not be as closely connected to them and feel differently. I think Russell and IAHed have both made good points regarding ebooks in schools and it may very go that way in the near future, but $200.00 as an example is not realistic. First, there is the repair/replacement component IAHed mentioned (kids and teens…remember?) then, if school districts contract to buy these in bulk, I think you would see the price doubling or tripling – suppliers see governemts, schools and hospitals coming a long way off, and raise their prices accordingly. Remember the old myth of the $500 hammer? Perhaps not completely true, but not far off the mark sometimes. Regardless, it will probably go that way.

  7. Docred: Are you from the US? The US government is lobbied heavily to prevent them from seeking good deals, every company that sells products to the government asks their congressman to get them the best price. Other countries do things differently and actually get discounts on government orders.

    I believe that the main problem in getting good prices for the Australian government is the size of the orders. Orders above a certain size can only be fulfilled by the major companies, so once competition from smaller companies is eliminated the prices can stay high. Other governments probably have other problems.

    Personguy: The publishers are losing power to Amazon and Google. Remember that Amazon has never been a publisher, they are just a retail seller.

    I don’t think that a battle for power between publishers and companies such as Amazon that dominate retail sales is good for the end-user. It would be good if we could have a case taken to the US supreme court about the purpose of copyright being “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and it should be “for limited Times”.

    One thing that we should ask our governments to do is to only use Open Source software for all government systems and only use open protocols for interacting with the rest of the world.


    Cory Doctorow has an interesting article at the above URL. One point he makes is “I’m the contrarian – I don’t think print is dying out at all. I’m a Kindle skeptic and ebook reader skeptic. My hypothesis is that it’s harder to do one thing at a time with a computer. It’s hard to consume a novel in 5 minute snippets punctuated by RSS checking. And ebook readers will have those functions. I don’t think that supports novel reading.”

    That’s an interesting point, I’ve found it difficult to read novels on my computer. But I expect that habits will change and people will adapt. Of course novels are only one segment of the market, for non-fiction books there is a more random access pattern that is better suited to electronic storage.

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