I suspect more words are being published about the e-book phenomenon in print than have actually been placed into e-books so far. But the prospects for digital books and e-book readers are beginning to capture the public imagination. Much of the discussion seems to be about whether, and if so when, e-books will replace traditional print-on-paper books, and a great deal of the debate is infused with sentimental appeals to reading on the beach or in the bath, the joys of finely printed books, and of browsing in good bookstores.
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There's considerable speculation about how digital books may restructure the balance of power between authors and publishers, largely based on Stephen King's experiments, but little mass-media discussion of how digital books are really likely to change the world for the consumer or for society as a whole. What's really happening is much more complex than the emergence of a new kind of consumer electronics device, or a new marketing channel for books enabled by these appliances.
A whole group of disparate, long-simmering issues are converging around e-books, which serve as a sort of shorthand, or symbol, for the larger questions.
The sentimentally framed questions about digital books and electronic devices replacing printed books are largely irrelevant, an artificial and distracting controversy. Both can and undoubtedly will co-exist for a long time to come and will find their appropriate audiences and market niches.
This will, I believe, sort itself out in the marketplace. The real issues are more fundamental: how do we think of books in the digital world, and how will books behave? How will we be able to use them, to share them, and to refer to them? In particular, what are our expectations about the persistence and permanence of human communication as embodied in books as we enter the brave new digital world? Will our thinking be dominated by the conventions and business models of print publishing and the current power relationships among publishers, readers, and authors , and by our cultural practices, consumer expectations, legal frameworks and social norms related to books, or will we discard these traditions, perhaps in favor of evolving practices from industries such as music?
These are questions about which I believe we need to think explicitly and deeply, and not just answer by default, as mere by-products of shifting trends in the consumer marketplace. Concurrent with the rise of the e-book into the broad public consciousness has been the emergence of another series of controversies surrounding a technology called Napster and its use in the dissemination of digital music.
The "content" industries have gone absolutely berserk over Napster, and have filed a number of lawsuits against it, as well as conducting a major public relations campaign to paint Napster and similar systems e. Gnutella as instruments of the devil.
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Jack Vallenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hillary Rosen of the Recording Industry Assocation of America, and Pat Schroeder of the Association of American Publishers have been busy working our nation's capital to marshal opposition to these developments, and promoting a set of technologies called "digital rights management systems" otherwise known as "technical protection systems".
Legal tools such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act DMCA , which was passed largely unnoticed by the public in are being exploited to support lawsuits against new technologies and against consumers who employ them. The DMCA represents a massive change in the balance of control over content in digital form when compared to historical traditions surrounding the sale and use of intellectual works in the United States. A series of arcane and stunningly disingenuous legal assaults against a program called DeCSS, which permits legally purchased and paid-for DVD disks to be played on unsanctioned devices, are being used to attempt to establish new and unprecedented rights of control over consumer use of all types of digital content.
If these activities are in one sense rear-guard actions against the implications of digital distribution for music and video, they are equally significant as activities to establish the legal framework that may well govern digital books, with e-book readers as the technology of choice for enforcing control. In the public mind ideas like copyright are arcane and fuzzy; legislation like the DMCA mostly unknown and esoteric; and furthermore, there's a feeling that somehow books are different from ephemeral entertainment products like the movies and music that are the subject of so many current lawsuits.
Books are serious, they capture our knowledge, our intellectual heritage, our cultural discourse. Books have signifigance that transcends quarrels about who gets paid, and when, and how often, for playing popular tunes. But under the law they aren't that different, and what's happening in the music industry may well be establishing an important part of the future of the book - though that connection hasn't been sufficiently emphasized.
Indeed, one might argue that the content industries don't want to stress it because it might well alarm the public about the broader agenda of technological control of intellectual property. Books are important, they should be different, but in a world of digital convergence where everything is reduced to sets of sequences of bits the precedents are being established in other spheres.
And completely left behind in the focus on reading technologies, control of intellectual property, and the economics of publishing and all of their broader social implications is the deep, important, and exciting question of how the digital medium may permit authors and readers to reconceptualize the acts of communication and documentation that have been embodied in the printed book for some or all of the purposes that the book has historically served. This may be the area with the greatest promise of truly transformative changes. There are, then, at least three major though sometimes subterranean agendas implicated in all the hype over e-books:.
The purpose of this paper is to expose and explain the issues involved in these three agendas, and to connect them to related developments in other so-called "content" industries. After establishing these agendas and making these connections, I'll take a critical look at e-book readers and digital books, and also consider some of the crucial broad social and cultural issues at stake in the transition to the digital world, such as the preservation of our intellectual heritage, the role of libraries, and an assessment of what consumers can reasonably expect as they come to grips with digital books.
Imprecise and inconsistent terminology has been a major source of confusion in the hype over e-books, and an obstacle to disentangling the issues involved. It is essential to distinguish between the idea of a digital book and a book-reading appliance. A digital book is just a large structured collection of bits that can be transported on CD-ROM or other storage media or delivered over a network connection, and which is designed to be viewed on some combination of hardware and software ranging from dumb terminals to Web browsers on personal computers to the new book reading appliances [ 2 ].
Digital books cover a wide spectrum of material, ranging from literal translations of printed books, created by scanning pages or generating a PDF file, to complex digital works that are the intellectual successors of certain genres of book-length works, but which cannot be reasonably converted back into printed form.
To a large extent, digital books exist or at least should exist independent of the devices that may be used to access, render and view them. A key role of standards to be discussed later is to make this independence formal, and to ensure that a digital book can be used with a wide range of viewing environments that may change over time. Not every digital book can be viewed using every viewing technology. Some are highly targeted to specific viewing technologies, while others are versatile and can be easily delivered to many diverse viewing environments.
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Also, recognize that while it may be technically straightforward to deliver a book to a wide range of viewing environments, the publisher may deliberately choose to limit the environments a digital book can be delivered to. And of course, viewing technologies can be thought of as defining markets. Authors may choose to author for markets that they believe are large or easily reached or profitable, and as a consequence may choose to create works that deliver well to particular viewing technologies.
A book-reading appliance like the Rocket eBook is a new addition to the spectrum of devices that can be used to view digital books. It's typically a portable consumer electronics product priced at a few hundred dollars that includes a high-quality display, has a form and weight factor somewhere between a hardcover book and a laptop, runs for a long time on batteries, stores perhaps books worth of content, and doesn't include a keyboard. There's considerable variation among different brands in the way digital books are loaded into the appliance.
Some use connections to personal computers mainly Windows machines, though there is some Macintosh support that have previously downloaded books from the Internet; your "library" resides on your computer, but often isn't viewable there because the books are encrypted. Other book reader appliances use modems to download works directly from bookselling services over phone lines, or have Ethernet ports that allow them to be connected to the Internet for direct downloading of books. These connections, which eliminate dependence on a personal computer, seem to be the trend in more recent devices such as the REB and REB The appearance of wireless connections in e-book reader appliances seems to be only a matter of time, and only await improvements in wireless standards and infrastructure.
To make matters more confusing, at the same time that we've seen the emergence of book-reading appliances, we've also seen the introduction of general purpose software book readers that run on general purpose computers and that address the same functions of downloading and displaying books - products like Microsoft Reader and the newest Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader. One can think of these as software products that turn a general purpose desktop or laptop computer into a book-reading appliance.
They emulate the functions of the specialized consumer electronics devices, though they can offer extra amenities because of the presence of the keyboard on a general purpose computer. While only a few tens of thousands of appliance book readers have been sold to date, the installed base for software book readers if one includes Adobe Acrobat probably numbers in the hundreds of millions.
Personal digital assistants PDA like the Palm Pilot are also being pressed into service as software-enabled book readers much like general purpose computers, though these represent a particularly constrained compromise because of their small displays and lack of a built-in keyboard or disk storage. While appliances are relatively new as real commercial products, the idea of portable book reading appliances has been around for a long time. Alan Kay's vision of the Dynabook goes back to the s [ 3 ]. Not long after the introduction of the first personal computers, various companies began to package content and software together to turn them into book readers.
These are in some ways precursors to both today's appliances and software book readers. But the establishment publishing industry was not much engaged with these efforts except through "electronic information" or "new media" divisions or subsidiaries that were very much outside the mainline of traditional publishing.
It's not until very recently that digital books have seemed poised to become a real industry competing with consumer books sales. There have been many barriers: the fragmentary nature of the market for reading environments and the lack of standards; the limited size of the installed base of reading environments; and, concerns about controlling intellectual property. All of these barriers are beginning to fall. In this paper, I'll use the term appliances for specialized hardware devices, software book readers for products that run on general purpose computers or general purpose PDAs, and the more generic e-book reader to cover both, but not general purpose software like a Web browser that can also be used to view some types of digital books.
While I'll try to be consistent here, be warned that this terminology is far from standardized in the industry or the media. I want to highlight two important misconceptions that have been fostered by the rhetoric about e-book readers to date. First, an e-book reader isn't good just for reading books. It's for any kind of content that's moving from print to electronic form.
Some of the most popular content being read on e-book readers today includes newspapers like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or popular general-circulation weekly magazines. Second, there's a misperception based on a notion of substitutability.
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Many think of an appliance reader or a more general e-book reader, loaded with the appropriate content, as a substitute for a specific book that might also be available in print form. They talk about it and evaluate it, in that way, recognizing only that it has the marvelous chameleon-like quality that it can very quickly be made to substitute for a different printed work by simply loading different content. This is wrong. Even today's relatively primitive appliances can hold 10 or 20 books; a software book reader mounted on a high-end laptop can already store hundreds of books easily. Given the historic price-performance trajectories for storage, in a few years at least some high-end appliances will house hundreds, if not thousands, of books simultaneously, and certainly laptops with software book readers will house thousands or tends of thousands of books at once.
Think of portable personal digital libraries, not portable electronic books, as the future role of these appliances.
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And when we think about personal digital libraries, it's clear that the stakes are much higher; the capabilities and constraints of a reading appliance start to take on a powerful influence. And maybe this gets us thinking in some new directions. Imagine you have a portable device that can hold 5, books. You perhaps stop just purchasing individual books to read; instead, you think about selecting the best supplier of a reference library of books to have available to consult should you need to.
You think about choosing a subscription service; in which case the choices that the service makes about which new books to add every week or every month begin to have a major influence on shaping the information and the views available to you. Issues of searching and selecting the right books and the right passages in the books becomes a important function that none of the current reader manufacturers seem to be thinking much about.
We can think about purchasing books from multiple publishers when we think about an e-book reader as a surrogate for individual books. Is it equally reasonable and realistic to think about having it integrate subscriptions for reference libraries from multiple sources, or combing a reference library subscription with random purchases from specific publishers? These are all unexplored questions, and they have implications for standards, for digital rights management, and for issues such as individual privacy.
Consider a few other implications: losing access to a single book may be a problem; losing access to an entire personal library built up over years is a problem of a different magnitude altogether. Can books be withdrawn from a digital library subscription, and if so under what terms and with what notification? Another mental picture is one of continually adding books to a personal digital library housed on a portable device.
But can external events cause books that we have purchased or probably, more precisely, licensed to be withdrawn from our collection without our notification and consent? Such events are largely inconceivable with personal collections of print books. This is simultaneously provocative, asinine, and inspiring. Perhaps the idea was that digital books would somehow create hypertext linkages among each other; this is reasonable and useful.
Perhaps there was a perception that books would become active knowledge structures, and would somehow enhance each other through some technique deeper than simply making links; this is a powerful and important idea, but the necessary knowledge representation structures have proved hard to develop and to populate.
But as I think about personal digital libraries populated by publishers, I now find myself thinking about another memorable talk by Bob Lucky of Bell Labs [ 5 ]. Lucky described an imminent future where he discovers that his personal computer is swapping e-mail, expense reports, and other digital gossip with other corporate computers over the network; the computers know who is getting fired and promoted before the people involved.