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Back to the Future for E-Books?

Kevin Kelly has a long piece in The New York Times, "Scan This Book!", on the various efforts to digitize the world's book collection. He touches on the issue of how we'll read e-books, writing:

The least important, but most discussed, aspects of digital reading have been these contentious questions: Will we give up the highly evolved technology of ink on paper and instead read on cumbersome machines? Or will we keep reading our paperbacks on the beach? For now, the answer is yes to both. Yes, publishers have lost millions of dollars on the long-prophesied e-book revolution that never occurred, while the number of physical books sold in the world each year continues to grow. At the same time, there are already more than a half a billion PDF documents on the Web that people happily read on computers without printing them out, and still more people now spend hours watching movies on microscopic cellphone screens. The arsenal of our current display technology -- from handheld gizmos to large flat screens -- is already good enough to move books to their next stage of evolution: a full digital scan.
It's true that a variety of efforts to sell e-books (and, in some cases, devices to read them) have fallen flat. Why is this so? I think there have been at least two major contributing reasons:
  • Until the advent of the iTunes Music Store, most consumers didn't feel comfortable buying digital-only content.
  • Consumers have had two choices for reading e-books, both of which they rejected: PCs and dedicated e-book readers. PCs are ubiquitous, but who wants to be tied to a desktop computer to read, or to have to boot up a large, clunky, battery-hungry laptop? E-book readers were more convenient, but still too large and clunky, and consumers were expected to pay for a device to allow them to perform an activity (reading) they could do for free without it.
Will the time soon be right to relaunch the e-book experiment? I think it will be, for two reasons:
  • Having conditioned iPod owners to purchase music online, when Apple launched its video service last year, those same consumers picked it up immediately. Mainstream consumers are now comfortable with the idea of buying bits, as long as they feel they're buying from a vendor they can trust.
  • Consumers are now carrying around small, convenient, dedicated media playback devices by the millions. Sadly, the current iPod design is unsuitable for reading books, but a hypothetical widescreen iPod might be acceptable.
If Apple were to ship a widescreen iPod this year, and if its display size and quality made it suitable for comfortable e-book reading, could Apple successfully launch an e-book purchase service on the iTunes Music Store (which, by the way, I predict will soon be renamed the iTunes Media Store)? I think the answer is yes, Apple could. Would it be successful? My hunch is that it would, but in any case, I don't see any other company able to assemble the components of a successful e-book strategy as easily as Apple. If anyone can make e-books work in the short term, it's Apple. I'll be curious to see if they try.


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