Will eBooks kill the printed book?
By Joseph D. Lienjdlien. Tuesday, July 20, 2010 2:22:39 PM
Are eBooks now viable as replacements for printed books? New eBook readers and ways of purchasing eBooks are available - What does the future hold in store for books?
In May 1997, a Popular Science story spelled out how a new display technology called eInk would change the way that we read books. eInk, it was supposed, would allow us to have displays that equaled or bested paper in every way, and that lightweight electronic book readers would soon be available. The possibilities were so exciting -- with this wave of technology, every man, woman, and child on the planet would be able to have a massive library of books available in the palm of their hands, and education and the very nature of human knowledge would forever be changed!
So now, nearly 15 years later, how has this all panned out?
Perhaps I was overly optimistic at the time, but it does appear that finally, the eBook is just now coming of age. Book-reading devices are good enough and cheap enough to become accessible and useful for normal people, and thus, a quiet revolution is occuring in the publishing industry. (Or not so quiet, depending on where you stand).
Although the concept of electronic books is nearly as old as computers with displays, the thought of reading on flickering, blurry and rounded CRTs of yore while sitting at a desk for long periods of time was never pleasant. Modern computers, tablets, and eBook readers have acheived much better reading-friendly form factors and displays, and their capabilities are rapidly improving with each generation.
Probably the major turnpoint of the would-be eBook revolution came in late 2007 with the US release of the Amazon Kindle. Amazon changed the nature of book buying with their online megastore, and they have made great strides in doing it again through a not-cheap but not-too-expensive device that made electronic reading easy on the eyes with its eInk display that requires literally no power to maintain the same image - which makes it great for long periods of reading.
One of the features of the Kindle that was groundbreaking was that it was able to connect to the Internet in a limited capacity for free via cellular telephone networks, and it used this connection to allow customers to purchase a wide selection of books for around $10 each -- a fair bit cheaper than the cover price of most physical books. Interestingly Amazon is now reporting that Kindle books are now outselling hardcover paper books.
Of course, many books are also available for free online either because they are available in the public domain, or because of underground book piracy. This fact could make eBook readers attractive to students on tight budgets. Although it is currently being trialed with varying degrees of success, it can be supposed that eventually electronic versions of nearly any book will be available for much less than the cover price of physical books for the simple reason that it costs much less (i.e. almost nothing) to produce a copy.
Beyond strictly reading books, these devices also typically function as digial audio players, playing audiobooks and music in MP3 and other formats. It isn't hard to imagine that in the near future, most of these devices will also allow some kind of Web browsing (with Opera Mobile, perhaps?) that will round out their functionality as quite useful mobile computing devices, evolving in much the same way that cell phones have.
Since the Kindle, Sony released some very nice readers, and subsequently Barnes & Noble entered the arena with their Nook which introduced some interesting new features, including a small LCD screen below the main eInk display.
Famously among the biggest players in the digital content distribution business, Apple released their iPad tablet which also included the iBooks application, allowing for a quite good eBook reading experience and the purchase of many book titles via the iBook store. Apple took a more general purpose approach, and instead of producing strictly an eBook reader, they produced a more general purpose tablet computer that used an LCD display. Apple's iBook store has been criticised for having far fewer titles than Amazon's available, and many complain that the iPad is a bit heavy for long periods of reading, and the glossy LCD display isn't as effective in direct sunlight, where eInk excels.
Subequently, Apple also enabled iBooks on their iPhones, including the new iPhone 4 with a resolution-doubled "Retina" display. This allows for Apple to extend their eBook ecosystem across a massive number of devices.
Aside from all of these major players, there are a number of other companies now producing eBook readers and/or tablets -- so there are many options, and the numbers are growing.
Beyond the hardware specialized for this purpose, normal laptops and computers can be quite useful for reading as well since there is so much content available on the Web. Google has been a major contributor to the digitization of physical books also, which has ended up being an incredibly legally tricky project for them. Many publishers aren't terribly receptive to the idea of their books being available for free online, which is part of the reason that Google books typically limits reading of online books to several pages at a time.
From my perspective as a technology optimist, I believe that eBooks will be a massive part of the future of education and entertainment. As devices improve in their capabilities, and go down in cost, it only makes sense that eBooks will be a more efficient and economical way to distribute content, and the widespread availability of free and pirated content will no doubt affect the publishing industry in much the same way it has affected the recording industry, which will encourage publishers to provide legitimate and fairly priced channels for purchasing content.
I suspect that there will always be those who collect paper books, and are simply more comfortable with that medium. Much in the way that collectors still cherish their vinyl records when digital media now has every advantage over it. For those, beloved books will likely live on long into the future -- but as luxury items more than as commodities of daily utility.
Take today's poll
(note that I quite ironically didn't make a response for actual eBook readers, like the Kindle et al, so please select tablet if that is what you use, since I cannot edit the poll now).
By the way, if you love reading, you should definitely check out Opera's excellent eBook reader widget!