01.23.06 | 3 Comments

I’ve been doing a lot of research over the past few weeks about e-books and where we are with that technology. The answer seems to be that the future is almost here.

Digital ink is a technology that has been in the works for a number of years, and we’re finally seeing the first commercial products. The Sony Reader is clearly a first-generation device, but it seems to be the first in a new breed of handheld devices that will give us portability, readability, and long battery life. It’ll mean a change for the RPG e-book world, since the industry has standardized on PDF and that is a format that is not at all friendly to small screens.

Fortunately, we still have some time to learn. Right now the e-book community is fragmented by a series of proprietary formats like those from Microsoft, Palm, Adobe, etc. A new open-source format is on the horizon–one that mainly uses xml, CSS, and some other document languages I’m not yet familiar with. However, that format is still in the works. Once the format is finalized, someone (or several someones) will create reader software that can understand it. Once there’s software, manufacturers can create handheld devices that supports it. As I said, while the time will come, we publishers do still have time to prepare.

Why am I so sure all this will happen? Several reasons. For starters, we are rearing a generation who integrates technology into their lives like fish in water. They won’t just adopt it. They expect it. Also, the technology is here: longer battery life, screens that can display text with much less eye strain and at low power, screens that can roll up or bend, and a markup language capable of rendering a book in a variety of formats based on user preference. Finally, with the home-run success of the iPod, manufacturers are looking for the next big thing. That’s not speculation, but a fact. Some are banking on the fact that e-books will become as popular as MP3s. Well, maybe not that popular. But what if you could use your e-book reader to subcribe to those RSS feeds you’re reading every morning?

PolymerVision's READIUSMy ideal device is an e-book reader that can do everything the iPod can do, and browse the web using WiFi. Then I’d have a device that I can use to search for, buy, and download an e-book–then listen to music while I’m reading it. I’d also be able to use it to subscribe to all my RSS news feeds, so it could serve as a “newspaper” of sorts. With the push of a button it would flip from portrait to landscape mode, depending on my reading preferance. Ideally, it would be some sort of clamshell (or dare I say “book”) design that can expand to display more area or reduced for easy storage. Of course, bendable e-ink displays offer another solution. Hence, Polymer Vision’s READIUS is a neat idea. (The READIUS is the picture shown in this post. Click on the image for a larger version.) How ironic would it be if we all went back to reading scrolls? A book that telescopes out to double its width has a lot of potential.

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Comment by Steve Peterson
2006-01-24 02:15:43

Yah, the e-Books look to be verging sometime in the not too distant future, especially the flexible displays.

My suspicion is that the college textbook industry might drive a bunch of sales on this — since textbooks change on a regular basis and the books needed for upper division and grad classes probably aren’t printed in large numbers, making getting away from paper really popular for publishers.

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Comment by Prest0
2006-01-24 08:08:01

Howdy Steve,

Welcome to Flametoad! My day job is at a university, so I know first hand what you’re talking about. Many academic publishers are already offering textbooks in digital format (usually in addition to print, not instead of) as an incentive for educators to adopt their books over someone else’s. Some publishers are going a step further and offering web-based versions of the same kind of practice quizes you see in books. For the web-savvy professor, this gives their students more opportunities to practice before the big test. Universities are typically slow to change, but over the next 10-15 years we’re going to see technology-mediated instruction become much more the norm.

Of course, the hold-up is the professors, not the students. The students want it NOW. Every new freshman class is more tech-literate than the one before.

E-books won’t ever entirely replace print books, but over the next 5-10 years we are going to see the promise of the format finally made good.

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Comment by Jerry
2006-01-24 10:26:02

I can hardly wait. Less clutter on the book shelves will definitely please the wife!!!

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