Ebooks kinda, sorta took off when I wasn’t looking

Reading an article in New Scientist this morning sparked my dormant interest in ebooks and I decided to take a moment to poke around a bit and get a sense of what was happening in this space.

There’s alot going on…more than I’d imagined.

Ebook reading on-screen has failed due to the low resolution of computer displays (72-130 pixels per inch (ppi)) while even a cheap laser printer can output 600 dots per inch (dpi) on a printed page (dpi and ppi are not roughly equivalent, but you probably know intuitively that it’s damn tough to read on a computer even when you have a high quality, digitally driven LCD display).

Ebook readers have attempted to address that shortcoming with ambitious technologies and devices. Take a peek at e-books.org, a group dedicated to being a resource for reading appliance research, and view the “Products” tab or the submenus of handheld devices, tablets, webpads and software. This list is certainly NOT comprehensive and complete as I can see at-a-glance that many device-types are missing (like my Treo 700p, MIT’s $100 One Laptop Per Child or Microsoft’s Ultra-Mobile PC).

But the lack of ebook success goes much deeper.

Readers are nothing without ebook content and some examples include:

Standards bodies are wrestling with formats, copyright and other issues. According to the OpenReader Consortium, this entire ebook space is still in disarray and flux:

Right now, the digital publication industry is in a state of disarray. A format war, worth billions to the “victor,” continues with more than 20 major and minor formats vying to become “The Standard.” Yearly e-book sales are far under $100 million globally and probably less than $30 million in the United States. That is a miniscule fraction of the tens of billions of dollars in sales of paper books. But what if there were a free, open-standard format and everybody won? Suppose it met the broadest needs of both publishers and readers. That is what the nonproprietary OpenReader format standard is all about.

Standards are inevitable if history repeats itself. The most successful industries have long agreed on the need for the quality and efficiency that properly-crafted standards help foster. Among notable examples are audio CDs, railroad track gauges, electric and light bulb sockets, and radio and TV broadcast standards. PC computers are largely built on agreed-to standards for nearly all the components and adapters. In fact, the list of standards-based industries is almost endless.

Successful ebook adoption is a complex issue with technology being one of easiest to resolve (especially display resolution and open formats). The difficult one is copyright, economic incentives of intellectual capital holders and how that is manifested in Digital Rights Management (DRM). The result is that a viable ebook business is in a relative holding pattern since content-is-king.

What will undoubtedly ensue in this space — and God knows how long it will take — is what has already happened to the music industry and now the movie business: the formats and devices were established and the content then got released into the wild (because it could) and these industries could no longer control it (and even the best DRM can get hacked as evidenced by both Apple’s and Microsoft’s DRM schemes being circumvented).

Lost in all this ebook milieu is the world’s benefit by the “release into the wild” of knowledge. What if anyone could access knowledge about anything? You have a question and the best possible available answers were at your fingertips from around the world? How quickly could each of us, paraphrasing Sir Isaac Newton, “stand on the shoulder’s of giants” and accelerate solving the world’s problems or innovate in amazing ways?

That’s the promise of ebooks.

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  1. Holder Lamp on December 28, 2006 at 10:28 am

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  2. Honor on May 6, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    This certainly makes a good point. I’d like to see the response of others on this topic. Makes interesting reading.
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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.