The closest thing to what Nathan wants is probably the iRex Digital Reader, but it goes for $649 to $849 depending on which options you choose. Another substitute would be a tablet PC. The problem with tablets is that most are too heavy too use for reading for prolonged periods, don't work well outdoors, and have very short battery life compared to an eBook reader. Lenovo's X200 is a smaller, somewhat lighter version of my X61 and is going in the right direction with a 50% increase in battery life. Still, they aren't quite the same. The outdoor part is particularly key. Ever since I bought my AlphaSmart Neo and started writing more outdoors, I realized just how constrained I tend to be by my laptop's need for power and to be kept out of sunlight. It's great to be able to read and write outside. The simplicity of my Neo also helps me focus on writing without other distracting programs I can play with. I'd expect the same to be true for an eReader relative to a tablet PC.
I want a handheld e-ink device that reads pdf files, has a long battery, and can be “written on.” I want to be able to carry my (and everyone else’s) library(ies) in the palm of my hand everywhere I go. And the technology already exists.
So why don’t we have it?
Obviously the publishers don’t want this. As soon as an e-reader can easily display pdf’s I will buy a scanner capable of reading two-sided documents, a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional, and commence to feed my entire library into that thing. I will then post (here, possibly) the entire list of books in my library for you to download for free.
And everyone else will do this, too. It will be the mp3 revolution all over again. It is so close we can all taste it. I’ve already cut back my book purchases significantly. It will be more difficult to prevent this kind of file sharing, because there are more vehicles today. With mp3’s all we had was Napster at first.
1. This is the ultimate Green Revolution. Paper consumption could plummet. Transportation costs for books disappear.
(Has anyone estimated the social savings since mp3 killed the CD industry?) Barnes and Noble will disappear. Magazines will become obsolete. Blogs and webzines will dominate. Thousands of bookstores and magazine shops will disappear. We will no longer bother recycling paper.
2. The real scarce commodity becomes INFORMATION. Not content, but which content. Google Reader and Amazon already do this for me. Itunes does it for you. You have a list of what you like, the algorithm tells you what else you might like.
3. Every word of every book becomes instantly searchable. Indexes are obsolete. Search for a word or a phrase or whatever you like. You get it. Research becomes so much easier. The cost of my Ph.D. becomes orders of magnitude less than that of previous generations due to ease of processing information. The really valuable commodity becomes insight into specific situations. Econometrics gets done by droids. Economics gets done by economists. Thinking like an economist becomes precious. I get paid lots and lots of money, as GMU rises to the top tier of Economics programs.
4. Everyone is better off through creative destruction. Read Schumpeter. Read it again. (For free!)
I Want it NOW!
Nathan nails it when he says an eBook reader has to be able to read PDF files (as the iRex can do). I can see all kinds of applications for a successful eBook platform. Things as diverse as what I like to call "pubcasts" -- periodic, subscribable downloads of printed text. A kind of blend of podcasts and blog feeds. What could distinguish this from blogs is that the pubcasts could come in specifically formatted pages, be of longer length than most blog posts, etc. They would also be a great way to periodically update books that keep contemporary information. There's no reason academic journals couldn't be distributed this way.
I also see a great resource for open-source textbooks, travel guides, how-to manuals, etc. Just as blogs have turned everyone into a citizen journalist, and podcasts have turned many into amateur broadcasters, a successful eBook platform could turn anyone with a computer into their own publisher. Certainly anyone who currently owns a computer can write their own book, but what makes eBook readers so powerful is that it would give citizen publishers a platform to broadcast and receive their work. My guess is that this would have the same effect on publishers that blogs have on newspapers. No longer would large publishing firms be the gatekeepers who decide what gets published and what doesn't. Who knows how many novels don't reach a popular audience today because of a lack of access and publicity? A successful eBook platform would allow all of that to get bypassed.
I was thinking a couple days ago that one other area eBooks could have tremendous impact is in the developing world. Rather than trying to make $100 laptops, why isn't someone trying to make a $50 or better yet, a $25 eBook reader? Think about it -- many great works are already in the public domain. If enough open source textbooks were developed, you could load each reader up with a set of textbooks that would last a student from kindergarten through basic undergraduate college levels. Possibly even loading a subset (or entirety) of Wikipedia on as well? The possibilities are both exciting and endless. I've been to many parts of the developing world and can guarantee that books are far more useful in many parts of the world than a computer would be. Why isn't this more of a priority? It can be prohibitively expensive to transport books overseas and many educational establishments lack the libraries they hope for. What if we could just e-mail books overseas instead of ship them?
For this purpose, style and size are not as critical as durability would be and the ability to run off of a variety of power sources. I think a unit that could run off of rechargeable AAA batteries that could be recharged through electrical connections, solar cells, a bicycle powered generator, or simply pop in a set of regular AAA's would be ideal. These batteries are already ubiquitous around the world.
Other eventual applications might include a book subscription service that allows you to electronically download a set number of books at a time -- similar to how Rhapsody works with music or Netflix works with DVDs. Or possibly for $50 a month (or maybe $25 or $100), you get access to any and every book you want? A lot of the business models and contracts would have to be changed, but the underlying technological capability is there. The puzzle is why is no one doing this?
I think Nathan is partially right that there are some large companies that don't want this to happen but that doesn't explain why there's not a start-up to take advantage of the market opportunity? Another partial, but not complete explanation is that the large players (Amazon and Sony) each have pieces of the technology that would make this a run-away hit, but no one player yet holds all the pieces. Maybe there are a series of blocking patents preventing this from happening?
Whenever the floodgates open on this technology, I see great demand and fantastic innovation taking place in ways and at a rate we haven't even begun to imagine.
Like Nathan, I want it now!