Thursday, August 07, 2008

Digitizing the last chapter in the analog world

Seems like just a few years ago paper was considered the lesser of the two evils at your local grocery store. From paper or plastic, the battle’s now down to paper or celluloid. Paper is fast becoming the culprit, as its electronic version begins to replace it: from e-mails to e-bills to now the e-book. Yesterday McGraw Hill launched its free e-book, becoming the first major publisher to offer a book entirely electronically and entirely free. Fittingly the book is about the future of free digital distribution.

While I certainly appreciate not having the clutter of paper statements staring ominously from my coffee table, the thought of loading up my favorite book on a little electronic tablet and getting on a plane gives me shivers. And I am no traditionalist. I often pass up the paper version of an article to use the “find>edit” option on the computer screen, and prefer my desktop calendar to post-its. My Webster’s New World College Dictionary is gathering dust on my book shelf because is not only physically closer to the document I’m typing, but also lets me move horizontally from one word list to another allowing a limitless array of words at my disposal.

In fact all this had left me pondering the limits of my digitized brain until I realized I could not read Dan Gillmor’s 200-page We The Media on google books. Believe me, I was almost relieved to find there was a limit to my digital consumption.

It’s hard to imagine that any avid book reader could ever give up the book. A book is not merely about the content; it comes with the feel, touch and smell of paper, the ability to highlight key passages or doodle on the side, the option of folding up a corner to indicate progress and of occasionally staining it with much-needed caffeine.

But the technology is catching on; the guys over at Techcrunch have estimated that 240,000 units of the Amazon Kindle have been sold since its launch in the fall of last year, and the numbers are only expected to grow. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon says that technology is bound to overtake all forms of media. If the recent history of newspapers, magazines, radio and television are anything to go by, he’s probably right.

The one argument all us traditionalists have against the e-book is that no form of electronic device can master long-term reading. But that’s where E Ink technology comes in, which makes your electronic paper feel like real paper. The interface almost matches paper, allowing extended periods of reading. It uses the same coloring agents as normal ink, and the display is crisper than an LCD screen and about as bright as paper. In addition the electronic highlighter can mark your favorite passages and the attached keyboard lets you make notes on the side.

And it does things the traditional book can’t do, which paper-lovers will have to make their peace with; the e-book can hold about 200 books, and several hundred more on a memory card, font sizes change to suit your preference, search options allow you to look for words and phrases. It takes one-touch, and less than a minute to have a book load on the Kindle from Amazon’s vast collection. Add wireless connectivity to that mix, which allows you to access the Web and you have a virtual library in a 10-ounce device that you simply have to embrace.

In an age of distributed everything, such democratization of literature just makes sense. Anyone can become a published author because distribution of an e-book online is virtually free of cost, excepting access to the Internet. The lower overhead would of course result in cheaper prices. This combined with the ease of Internet marketing would mean greater sales and hence higher royalty fees for authors. However, much like anything else that uses the Internet, e-books have the illusion of being more democratic than they are: obviously authors with access to prominent media establishments will be able to promote their books more easily than the average joe, so will marquee writers.

The BBC warns that the technology will be limited by the availability of books in digital versions, and also the incompatibility of formats and software used in different models. So it is probably going to be a while before it gains the same prominence as say, an iPod.

Phew! A few more years then to dogear my paperback, while I get ready for something that doesn’t bend as easily. After all, it took me a couple years to outgrow the pen and paper and begin typing on Microsoft Word. Chances are, I’ll eventually come around to the book’s electronic cousin.