As ebooks continue to grow in popularity, there is little question that they will continue to exist as a media technology for the foreseeable future. Like any other technology with staying power, ebooks will continue to develop and change to better suit the needs of future users. Ebook technology is already improving rapidly and the usage of ebooks is becoming more and more commonplace and mainstream, causing changes in the way literature is published and distributed. This post will illustrate the possibilities for ebooks in the future in terms of their technology and possible effects on the publishing industry.
Back to the Beginning
Ebooks as a technology can be traced very far back to the invention of printed literature. In the 1400’s, a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern printing press, which allowed for the first mass production of print materials. The press contained hand set, movable type which could be set to print any type of literature at a high rate. Gutenberg’s press had enormous implications on society and its
historical development. It allowed for print materials to be produced cheaply and relatively quickly. This in turn allowed for the first large scale distribution of written works and the first real interconnectedness between people of the world. The initial effects of the press were evident as the distribution of literature allowed revolutionary ideas to circulate, acting as a catalyst for revolution and reform in Europe. Besides creating the concepts of typography and mass distribution of literature, Gutenberg’s press also marked the beginnings of the publishing industry.
“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.” –Wendell Phillips
The printed book made possible by Gutenberg’s press remained the largely unchanged standard for centuries. In 1971, a group called Project Gutenberg began making official electronic copies of works of social and cultural significance, starting with The Declaration of Independence- the first ebook. Since then, the ebook has taken various forms. Ebooks in relation to the internet began as highly specialized materials such as online product manuals and instruction sheets. Later, some authors began posting their work online in electronic form when they were turned down by publishing companies. Many online ebooks were unauthorized or unofficial copies of published print works. Today, purpose built devices such as the Amazon Kindle have made ebooks a mainstream medium for distribution of literature. The popularity of ebooks has changed the existing publishing industry, and created a new “e-publishing industry as publishing companies adopt and adapt to the new ways consumers want to consume literature.
“Nearly 60 million consumers will pay more than $2.8 billion for eBooks in 2015 — up from 17.6 million people spending $966 million this year.”-Forrester Research
Ebooks and Publishing
Like most mainstream technology, ereaders are projected to become less expensive and simple to use, which may help to further their widespread usage throughout many demographics. As they become more ubiquitous, ebooks will affect society and the way information travels through it by causing changes in the publishing industry.
Ebooks have already begun forcing changes in the publishing industry, but what will the it look like in the future when ebooks become a (or the) standard literature format?
One interesting possibility is that the literature publishing industry will experience changes similar to the current music industry. Services such as iTunes allow virtually anyone to make their music available to the public without assistance from record labels or distribution companies. This ability has changed the way people access and pay for audio content. Similar services may allow people to publish their written work for sale or free download from an ebook hosting service, allowing anyone to create available literature. Like in the music industry, a good chunk of the potential buyers
of mainstream ebooks by well known authors may gravitate to amateur or independent writers. This may further segment the publishing industry’s audience and cause large publishing companies to find new ways to distribute products or risk going out of business with the rise of independent literature.
Another possible evolution of the publishing industry in relation to ebooks is that “e-publishing” companies may become more successful than those that also distribute print books. Once ebooks become more common than print books, it is likely that the profitability of printing and distributing print books will decline drastically. By avoiding the costly process of manufacturing physical books, “e-publishing” companies already enjoy the benefits of streamlined distribution. The advantage of popularity still currently rests with companies that distribute both ebooks and print books, but as ebooks become more popular, companies will either cease to exist or switch to publishing only electronic books. This will in turn speed up the demise of the print book as less and less are being produced in the first place. Again relating to the current music industry, some bands and companies are finding it simpler and more profitable to release albums only as electronic downloads as apposed to physical CD’s, which will eventually decrease the profitability of producing CD’s and cause more bands to only offer electronic downloads.
Since the technology of ebooks is relatively young, ereaders have the advantage of being invented at a time in which mobile device technology already improves constantly and rapidly. I expect ereader technology to continue to follow and perfect current trends in display and interface design to bring about highly refined and intuitive products.
A major aspect of ebook technology that is already rapidly changing is the display. A current trend in ereader technology is comfort in reading. E ink was developed to emulate the look of physical ink on paper which is considered much more
comfortable to read over time than LCD screens. As e ink becomes the standard for dedicated ereader devices, it faces a few shortcomings including the inability to be backlit, and incompatibility with touchscreen technology. I believe that future display technology will continue with many of the trends of today’s ereaders. As ebooks become more common than print books (ebooks are already selling more than paperback books annually), and more and more literature consumption is done on ereaders, comfort in reading will be a priority. Displays will continue to emulate the look print books so that consumers can comfortably use ereaders as an important media device throughout their day. Future technology will allow e ink-type displays to be backlit, as well as conducive to a touch screen interface.
Many experts and companies expect that future ereaders will have a flexible display so that they can be handled and stored similarly to newspapers and magazines. Some say this will be important as cheaper ereaders make their way into schools, where flexible displays will be less likely to break in the hands of school children. Companies
including LG and Bridgestone (yes, the tire company) are already knee deep in efforts to bring out flexible ereaders in the near future. The technology to produce flexible displays already exists, but again, the ability to incorporate the all-important touchscreen interface is still forthcoming.
“The display panel itself is only a small part of the battle. All the ancillary electronics, the power, transistors and circuitry are all things today that are not yet fully flexible at large scales.”-Nicholas Colaneri, director of the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University
It seems that nearly every type of modern mobile device is making the switch to incorporating a touch screen interface in the place of physical buttons. I expect ereaders to continue this trend in the future. The main reason that some ereaders (including Amazon’s Kindle) don’t currently use touch screen technology is that e ink cannot be used with touch screens at this time. This problem will most likely be addressed in the future, allowing for the design of ereaders with comfortable displays controlled by fully touch screen interfaces.
A Questionable Future?
One interesting consideration in discussing the future of ebooks and ereaders is the possibility that dedicated ereader devices may cease to exist in the future. With “do-all” technology such as smart phones and tablets, a type of “device convergence” is occurring which may affect the future of the ereader. Devices such as the Apple iPad, which bridges the gap between ereader, tablet, and laptop, may become the common standard. It is possible that future consumers will want to own fewer devices and still accomplish all the tasks that today’s consumers do with combinations of phones, computers, mp3 players, ereaders, ect. Dedicated ereaders may disappear as more ebook compatible devices equipped with an array of other functions are produced.
“Interest in dedicated eReaders will diminish after 2011 as light readers become interested in eBooks. They’ll want a multipurpose device — and will have lots of options as manufacturers flood stores with tablets similar to the iPad.” -Forrester Researcher James McQuivey
Ebooks will most likely eventually become the standard media for distribution of written works. As this happens, the technology of ebooks and ereaders will be forced to develop and adapt to new demands from future consumers. Increases in ereader technology will make ebooks more common and accessible among consumers of a wide range of demographics, and reformed distribution and publishing of ebooks will make them the standard format for literature publishing. Like Gutenberg’s press, the further development of ebooks and e-publishing will increase the speed and efficiency with which information and ideas travel through society. The concept of the ebook is relatively young, and I look forward to seeing how far it goes and how much it changes as years pass. Check in later for further updates on the evolution of ebooks.