The Future of E-Books

wee-book

An article by Mike Elgan in Computer World Magazine, laying the boot into e-books, has sparked a surprisingly intelligent discussion on Digg. According to Elgan, e-books are bound to fail because..

  1. They aren’t cheaper – both the hardware and content are more expensive
  2. Content is available on other platforms (e.g.: PC)
  3. People love paper books

Throughout his article Elgan conflates the e-book format and electronic book devices, in a way that confuses the issue of uptake. Perhaps the reason he fails to differentiate between medium and it’s media, is that there are so many kinds of things that can be described as a e-book. Wikipedia for example, lists twenty five e-book formats, including both document types and readers.

Elgan’s article might have been written twenty ago, about digital music..

‘Companies like Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi and Fujitsu have devoted millions of dollars over the past couple of decades developing what they hope will be a device that replaces the..’ [Record player]
‘The hardware costs hundreds of dollars’ [CD Player]
‘everyone already has alternatives’ [Vinal, Tape, 8 Track]
‘do people want to “curl up” with a battery-operated..’ [iPod]

For a new format or device to succeed, what matters is not how much people like an existing product, but how much they would enjoy an alternative with greater function. Currently e-book readers (like all digital display technologies), are in their infancy. We know this because their development is occurring so rapidly. The best digital display available in 1987 was a 16 inch VGA CRT, boasting 256 colors at a 320×200 pixel resolution. Twenty years later, digital images can be displayed on a variety of output media from 63 inch flat screen HDTV’s at 1920 × 1080 pixel resolution, in 281 trillion colors; to high contrast, monochromatic 800*600 e-ink ‘powerless displays’.

We each carry a variety of devices capable of displaying digital books; from laptops, to MP3 players, to mobile phones. Digital displays are becoming ever more versatile, ubiquitous and cheap, with increasing contrast, fidelity and resolution. Fujitsu have recently announced the first prosumer colour e-ink display. So why haven’t e-books already taken off?

Existing efforts are crippled by Digital Restrictions Malware, and available in a bewildering variety of incompatible proprietary formats, from Adobe, Sony, Microsoft, Mobipocket, eReader and others. Publishers fear they will experience the same growth in copyright infringement that the record industry claims has negatively effected sales. It may already be too late. In the absence of reasonably priced, DRM free alternatives, consumers are turning to unlicensed downloads, just as happened with music and film. A quick search of isoHunt, a top bittorrent index, for the term ‘DVD’ returns over 26,000 active downloads. A similar search for ‘Book’, returns over 4,000.

A great majority of these files are posted without their authors consent, but some publishers and authors are embracing digital distribution. Blogger and award winning science fiction author Cory Doctorow, has distributed all his novels online for free; releasing digital versions simultaneously with their paper equivalents. A few publishers, like Baen Books, have adapted to the new marketplace, making available older content for free, and selling reasonably priced, DRM free, multi-format e-books, with subscription options. Initiatives like Project Gutenberg, seek to make digital copies of public domain books universally available. Whether publishers eventually embrace consumer friendly formats, or continue to ignore them, digital e-book content will continue to grow in availability.

With e-book readers, the costs of adoption are still high, as dedicated devices or high resolution PDA’s still cost hundreds of euro. Similarly, while common devices like iPod’s can technically display e-books, such uses often require a degree of technical knowledge, and force users to struggle with unfriendly user interfaces. This should soon change, as devices like Apple’s iPhone usher in a new generation of high resolution, high contrast digital display devices. While Apple seems likely to restrict the iPhone’s use, their competitors will be more than happy to capitalise on more open platforms, whilst learning from Apple’s user interface innovations.

Digital books provide a variety of predictable advantages, as well as many which will not emerge until they become more evolved. Right now groups like The Institute for the future of the book, are hard at work ‘inventing new forms of discourse for the network age’, and their efforts provide an insight into just some of the potential benefits of e-books..

  1. Collaborative writing / revision / comment / annotation
  2. Effectively free wireless distribution
  3. Smaller form factor – potentially infinite books in one networked device
  4. Environmentally friendly
  5. Text search
  6. Updateable
  7. Rapid universal publication
  8. Dynamic user interfaces
  9. Flexibility of format
  10. Interactivity

Whether e-book’s are ultimately consumed on laptops, dedicated palmtop devices with flexible screens, enhanced newsprint, heads up displays, or by all these and other means, is impossible to predict. Right now paper books are far more durable, resilient, and user friendly than any of their alternatives; but as an analogue medium, their development is slow and expensive. E-book’s by contrast, benefit fully from the brakeneck pace of accelerating technological change, and offer so many potential advantages in cost, portability and capability that their adoption is all but inevitable. Witness the publication and consumption of scientific articles, which though nominally tied to peer reviewed magazines, increasingly occurs initially online – increasing the speed, penetration, and availability of research.

Digital consumption will affect the format of books, as it has already affected the format of articles published on the web. There will always be a market for traditional ‘dead tree’ editions; but ‘the book’ will likely morph and splinter into a variety of forms, and the nature of authorship will change with it. This is as an evolution of discourse as significant the creation of written language, or the invention of the printing press. It’s an exciting time to be a reader, and an even more exciting time to be a writer.

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