e-Books: the Future

“Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it… it has no, no texture, no, no context. It’s, it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um… smelly.”, Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 8, “I – Robot, You – Jane”

It’s a beautiful quote, that certainly paints Giles in vivid colors as an English old fashioned person. It was season 1, and there was a need to characterize the main characters. This quote worked wonderfully for that. Has it?

In a slashdot discussion, I see comments like “I like e-Books, but I just bought a bunch of leather-bound books — there’s something that does not quite match”, “there is a magic in turning pages” and others that Giles would absolutely adore.

Let me first make my position abundantly clear — I would throw away all my library in a heart-beat, not thinking twice, if I could have it all fit on a 16GB thumb drive that I could carry everywhere, and read whenever I want to. There are still some hurdles, but it looks like they are going away one by one, and I am hoping to do just that in a few years. My books are still all in my parents’ place in Jerusalem, not my new apartment. I simply do not have place for such a library, and am certainly not in a mood to move all my books there — and it’s a rental, and for all I know I might be out of there in eight months (and moving back my books really seems like a pain). I love reading, and getting more books, and basically there’s a room that’s filled with my library. Getting more books requires finding a place for them, and it’s swiftly becoming non-trivial.

I love books, but paper is just a physical manifestation of them. The real book, the abstract book, is just the series of words, needing some physical medium to be on. An e-book revolution would make the Gutenberg print revolution look like moving to a better form of ink. Publishing costs would be literally zero (e-mail the book to people who want it, put it up on a website or some combination). Gutenberg made copying costs smaller, and fostered a revolution in how people read and write. Making them zero would bring about a revolution ten times the size. But this is the small stuff. The real revolution would be that people could carry their entire library with them, always, all the time. We would always have everything to read.

What’s stopping the revolution?

First of all, there are the mystics. The Gileses, and the wanna-be Gileses on slashdot and the like, who keep harping about some kind of magical mystery to be found in paper. I’m kinda betting that when they stopped hand-copying books, people were worried that books will lose their individuality. When they moved to paper from papyrus, people probably complained that it feels wrong. Those people tend to be steamrolled into submission when the new technology arrives.

Then, there’s technology. Computer screens have too little resolution, and eInk is slow and specialized. These problems look like they’re destined to be solved, one way or another. At worst, the standard laptop would come with a second screen you can pull out of the usual screen and laid on top, which would be eInk. I’m guessing there’ll be something even simpler, like a screen that can move between modes or even some technology with all the advantages of both types. In a few years, when the price point for the cheapest laptops is 75$, and you buy it in supermarkets and grocery stores, everybody will just have that as one of their computers.

And last but not least, there are publishers. The traditional industry certainly has an entrenched interest in keeping the current model. I’m not even saying publishers will be obsolete (although that is a possibility). But even if they are not, these days forming a new publisher is a costly venture, and a lot of it is the expensive contracts with the printers and distributors. With eBooks, every three disgruntled editors thinking they are underpaid could open a publisher. Book stores, of course, will be obsolete. At most, there’ll be free sites linking to where you can paypal the 1-2$ per book and download a copy. Publishers, book stores and everyone involved in the industry will fight tooth and nail against it, including some backhanded methods like fostering DRM methodologies making eBooks less desirable. But like true love, nothing can stop technology. All it can do is delay it for a while…

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7 Responses to e-Books: the Future

  1. Colin M says:

    I owned a Sony Librie (only sold in Japan) for a few months back in 2005. In my opinion there’s something the latest generation of readers really screwed up. The Librie ran on 4 AAA batteries. The new Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle both have internal proprietary battery packs. This presents 2 problems:

    1) If you’re going to be away from power for longer than the battery life, tough luck.
    2) When the battery gets old and starts to lose charge, gotta pay for another one — assuming that they’re even still on the market. If they’re not still on the market, your device is effectively bricked.

    I don’t understand why the trend is for devices to have integrated proprietary batteries. Whenever possible, give me modular, standardized, rechargeable batteries! It’s not like an e-book reader needs a Li-ion battery pack — the Librie ran for at least 20 hours on a set of AAA’s.

    Other reasons why I’ve given up on e-books:

    1) DRM DRM DRM DRM DRM – sad since Amazon’s MP3 store is so much nicer than Apple’s in terms of DRM.
    2) No proprietary book formats. This goes hand-in-hand with DRM… I need to be *sure* that I can still read these books 20 years later. I want to be able to pass well-loved books on to my kids eventually.
    3) Availability of titles – need to have at *least* the last 30 years’ worth of bestsellers in all major fiction and non-fiction genres
    4) e-books should be priced cheaper than a paperback (at least 25% markdown across the board)

    Things that would be nice but not necessary:
    1) Seamless integration with Project Gutenberg of the Internet Archive for easy downloading of public-domain books.
    2) Auto-updating RSS reader.
    3) USB port to plug in keyboard for note-taking or thumbdrive/SD card.

  2. moshez says:

    Thanks for the reports, and the insights!

    These, among other issues, is why it’s not titled “e-Books: the Present” 🙂

  3. Colin M says:

    The other thing I forgot to mention is vendor lock-in… if I commit to a Kindle now, I need the ability to change to FooCorp’s Reader five years down the line if FooCorp comes out with a better reader. This is another reason why my #2 (no proprietary formats) is a necessary precondition for me to buy another e-book reader.

    I won’t consider buying any reader unless it satisfies the “DRM” and “proprietary format” requirements. The “availability of titles” and “cheaper” are not hard constraints, but an e-book reader that possessed both of these qualities would be a definite buy for me.

  4. Colin M says:

    The question is, when will the future be here? 🙂 My guess is >= 10 years, based on the fact that it took about 10 years between the introduction of the first MP3 player (1998) and the time when most major music labels became OK with DRM-free online downloads (2008).

    The thing working in e-books’ favor is that people are now used to carrying around digital entertainment devices, so adoption among the non-geek crowd will be faster. The things working against e-books is that the market for audio players is bigger, and there’s not rampant piracy of books so there is less economic incentive for publishers to play nice with legitimate download services.

    Also, in the US at least, the percentage of people who read for pleasure is declining, especially among teens and young adults (<= 40 years old) — unfortunately these same people are the usual demographic for early technology adopters.

  5. moshez says:

    My guess is not far from yours — but I would guess five years.

    I think your analysis would be valid if ebook readers would follow the progress of mp3 players — geek device, then stanard, then fashion accessory made by apple. This path seems to take 10 years. However, there’s a different path in ebook readers – piggy-backing on the unification of the PDA and the laptop into the cellphone (smartphones currently suck, but the iPhone showed that this is not a fact of life). The XO-1 is here, the classmate is here and the eeePC is here. All they need is some kind of integration with eInk — possibly via some kind of LCD translucency feature so you would “move your laptop to ebook mode” when reading (not just books — even web pages, when you want it to take significantly less power). It seems like in a year or two, there is a good chance you could get such a device costing 200$ (certainly if Pixel Qi plans materialize, but integration of E-Ink technology with eeePC is also a valid path, and now that the eee/XO-1/Classmate broke the market, it will only get further deluged by cheap low-power small laptops). 7” is about as large as your average paperback, so with quality resolution, there’s no reason why it cannot be just as readable.

    1 year later, the price would drop down to 75-100 dollars, which basically means it will be the standard extra laptop. When everyone reads the web, mail and news on that, and with places like Baen (and soon Tor, I believe, based on the Watch the Skies initiative) selling books, people will just opt to buy books this way, rather than increasing their library. This will cause more book piracy, of course — up to now, book piracy is mostly inconvenient. Once this pressure ensues, the online bookstores will need to sell more and more titles electronically if just to compete against the free versions. Of course, you’ll be able to get your O’Reilly safari subscriptions, so technical books will be obvious (everyone else will follow O’Reilly, I’m betting, when there’s a serious market).

    By this time, we’ll still have our huge libraries — but we won’t be adding to them. We’ll be buying books, at 5$ a pop (because any more will fail to compete efficiently against piracy). Once a few established authors jump ship and offer some of their stuff for free download, the battle will be sealed — and we’ll be where we are today, where there are still more CD sales than digital music sales by volume, but there is no title that is *not* available electronically.

    Next, the big hurdle will be the equivalent of ripping. Currently, scanning an entire book is a tiresome manual process. Is it possible to manufacture a scanner which can work with the current format? I don’t know, but when everyone has technology that can actually read ebooks, and when most people have libraries over several hundred books worth, I am betting someone is going to try. I’m just hoping, for purely emotional reasons, that it won’t be as destructive as the technology in Rainbows End (where they shred the books inside a device filled by video cameras and use digital reconstruction).

  6. Colin M says:

    Agreed, it will be hard to have an equivalent to ripping. I think scanning machines will be too expensive for average home use (since it needs significant mechanical parts to do it automatically.)

    Some options that would be nice, but I think all of them are about ~10 years out.

    1) Physical device in a bricks-and-mortar store that scans a book for you for ~$5. Problem: going to a store is somewhat inconvenient; I may have to stand there a while if I want to convert my entire library of several hundred books.
    2) Online service where you ship them a book and get back digitized text. Neat idea here: this service could be offered in exchange for the physical copy of the book. They could make (some of) their money by selling the physical copy of the book to an online used bookstore or something.
    3) Same idea, but the publishers get in on it. Send FooPub a copy of any FooPub work, they send you back the appropriate e-book. Win for the consumer – the original e-book will be higher quality than a scanned PDF (or whatever). Win for the publisher – they could get good PR by offering this service and could also donate the physical books to libraries.

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