Print is Not Dead, but Paper May Be


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The usual argument over the question of whether or not print publishing is washed up as a medium usually is focused on magazines, newspapers and the Internet. Many of these arguments center around the effectiveness of print vs. Web advertising because that is what sustains magazines and newspapers. However, there is another issue beginning to bubble to the surface and it certainly includes periodicals, but it is mainly concerned with books. Books traditionally do not carry advertising. You pay a price for the book and take it home as your property. Book sales sustain the author and the publisher. Today, a number of projects are underway to transform printed books into digital media.

One of these is the Google book-scan project, whose dream is to scan and digitize all the world’s books, including ancient and out-of-print books. However, the idea of e-books is not new. What is coming is a new way that they will be read and distributed. As a wearer of bifocals, I definitely do not enjoy the prospect of sitting at my desk or sitting with a laptop on my lap to read War and Peace. I want to sit in my comfy chair and hold a familiar-sized object in my hands and be able to scribble notes in it or highlight text. I want one of these new tablets that are coming out—but I’m going to wait until certain issues are resolved.

Most people have at least heard of the Amazon Kindle, a small, tablet-sized device that can download e-books over 3G wireless and display them as text and gray-scale illustrations with what it calls E-Ink. Over 350,000 books are supposed to be available for the Kindle, but many potential users are still waiting for a color version, which Amazon is currently still struggling to perfect. Now the big boys are starting to get into the act. Microsoft and Apple are both reported to be working on tablet devices that will be capable of displaying e-books.

The Microsoft Courier will open like a book and have a display on each side. So far the leaked information positions it more like a Web-connected touch-screen device with a lot of other functionality beyond books and magazines. The as-yet unnamed tablet from Apple will no doubt have a similar wide range of capabilities, but Apple appears to be more intent on moving print content to this new tablet. In fact, there are reports that Apple aims to actually redefine print. Apple has reportedly been in talks with textbook publishers including McGraw-Hill, and with the New York Times. I’m going to predict that if devices like the Kindle, the Courier and the Apple tablet become widespread and economical, print—far from being dead—will be revived. It is paper that will go largely to the wayside.

Of course, before all this can happen and become a mass market or even a paradigm shift, certain technical and commercial issues must be resolved. The Kindle users I have talked to say they are not too disturbed by the gray-scale graphics and especially appreciate the fact that the E-Ink is not on a backlit screen and does not glow at them. Not everyone will be content with gray scale, however. Far more significant is the issue of standards. Currently, Amazon owns the Kindle standard, which works fairly well for them since there are no competing devices on the market and it allows them to digitize and distribute books and magazines through their Web site. Yet even Amazon has had to move to be a little more inclusive and natively support additional formats like PDF and MP3, and others like DOC and HTML through conversion.

Wait for the day that owners of Microsoft or Apple tablets ask why they can’t download Kindle format (AZW) books to their device when they’re willing to buy them from Amazon. Amazon will come under irresistible pressure to open up the format and even license other publishers to distribute using AZW. If they don’t, they will limit the market. On the other hand, we may see what so often happens in the tech industry—a proliferation of standards and a shakeout with one survivor. Which ever way it happens, there will be a universal standard format for distributing digital publications for electronic print. For once, folks, can’t we agree to take the less painful path? I’m talking to you, Amazon.

The potential being opened up by the Microsoft and Apple tablet developments really will redefine print. In addition to color, it will be possible to have embedded audio and video. Textbooks could have interactive video for demonstrations and homework problems. The one thing I dread is that I might get an uninvited diet soda ad right in the middle of an intense conversation in The Brothers Karamazov. We can only hope there will be ways of avoiding things like that. Yet the possibility of ancillary applications will become very attractive. Some people like to highlight text and scribble notes in the margins. Others, such as scholars, need to be able to copy out and organize highlighted text in the form of notes for research and citation. Moving paper print to digital print will not kill print; it will revitalize it.

And yet, for those of us who are bibliophiles, nothing will really replace the feel of a room of shelves stacked thick with old familiar volumes, and volumes yet inviting our explanation. It’s hard to form a picture of sitting with a pipe and smoking jacket reading a tablet. I’ll try.