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Eebs: A History of Future Publishing

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Few people have noticed, but the competition over e-Book formats between Google-Sony et al, and Kindle-Amazon has introduced two tiers into the emerging market for electronic books. Google is now going to make all of its 1.5 million titles in the public domain available in various formats, establishing it as the premier source of golden oldies. If you want and electronic version of Moby Dick or Leaves of Grass, you know where to go.

But today, as Google "celebrate[s] bygones... I project the history of the future."

In the world of digitized music, the iPod-Apple ecosystem occupies the luxury end of the consumer spectrum. Steve Jobs took the initiative early to guarantee uniformity, quality and sleek design for high-end consumers. Then, he began working assiduously on his back-list, making history when The Beatles songbook became available on iTunes.

Apple makes money on the device, and the songs. Apple's control of the market is obvious. Just as all photocopies are Xeroxes, a podcast is a podcast even if it's recorded in MP3. As the competition drives innovation, Apple brings out newer, cooler models -- like the nearly invisible, Nano Air -- and makes more money. By not competing with its competitors, Apple avoids a race to the bottom line. It competitors cannot do this. Checkmate.

In the emerging world of e-Books, Kindle-Amazon will increasingly occupy a position similar to the iPod while Google (a collector and purveyor of e-Books) together with its partner Sony (a manufacturer of e-Readers) will forever be positioned at the lower end of the e-Book market along with several other manufacturers. This too, resembles the structure of the digitized music industries.

The Sony reader is less imaginative than the Kindle. It's cheaper, uglier, less functional, less popular, and its ecosystem is not as fully developed. While it is true that other applications spread Googles' inventory onto mobile devices, notice the vagueness of the term 'mobile device' itself. The Stanza, eReader and 'iKindle' applications are all add-ons for existing machines that have small screens and are mainly valued for other functions: phoning, messaging or mobile Internet connectivity. While electronics manufacturers constantly dream of designing, building and selling an all-in-one personal electronic doodad to 6 billion people, still no Swiss Army Knife will never replace a good corkscrew, a good screwdriver or a good pair of scissors.

Feature creep harms the quality of any tool, but, most important, it obscures a manufacturer's ability to market it. The Kindle, on the other hand, is what you keep at home or take with you on vacation to relax into. It is for the book-lover who might occasionally buy a first, a signed or a special edition. It is lingerie. It is a box of chocolates or a bottle of double-malt. Especially well-timed for the recession as a luxury item that keeps on giving by allowing you to 'save' on cheaper electronic editions, it's now here to stay. Competition will drive it to adapt and compete, of course. That's only natural. Stanza, for example, has many attractive features that Kindle now needs to copy. It will.

According to the current growth curve, electronic books will dominate world-wide book sales by 2018. (This is the book industry's own prediction, and is extremely 'safe.' It does not anticipate a watershed or 'tipping point'). In any case, Kindle-Amazon and Google will continue to make good money. Traditional print media will continue to lose money as long as they stumble around wondering how to accommodate themselves to what happened yesterday.

In desperation, print news publishers will soon seize back their own material from Google, but Google does not have the financial problems of print news publishers. Its universe is mainly a young generation of screen readers who have little loyalty to Rupert Murdoch (much as I love him) or the Wall Street Journal. When its current news sources dry up, Google will join with online media sources and develop its own instant eReportage. Newspapers will continue to wither and die. Of course, the big winners will be the Taiwanese device makers themselves.

Freescale Semiconductor, for example, makes processors for many e-readers including the Kindle and Sony. Another Taiwanese eBook powerhouse is Netronix, a contract device manufacturer, partly owned by display-maker Prime View International (PVI). A conglomerate of print publishers could probably still guarantee themselves survival and success by investing heavily in the manufacturing-end of ePublishing. But this presents enormous logistical challenges. A entire generation of news and publishing executives would have to reeducate themselves and then work out a massive compromise. The Klingons would have to join the Federation and then buy out the Borg. I do not anticipate this happening.

Netronix now owns the worldwide patents for e-ink/e-paper. They manufacture several models of an eReader called Mentor in much the same way that Sandisk (and many others) make good, usable MP3 players that nonetheless do not compete with Apple's iPod. In the future, no matter which brand of e-Reader you choose, your device will undoubtedly contain many components manufactured by PVI-Netronix as well as a processor made by Freescale.

What I am eager to see, however, is not the dominance of any one format, device or publisher, but a qualitative change in the actual use of the technology. From the history of technology we know that early on, every device or tool imitates the technology it replaces. The earliest pottery has beautiful geometric designs that are derived from patterns of the woven baskets that pottery supplemented and replaced. The creation of early movies too, was described by its practitioners as a 'camera-stylo' [a fluid camera-pen] which made writing a model for a bold new technology that quickly surpassed the printed word.

What I want to see is an e-Book that is no longer a simulacrum of a printed work. Soon, when people begin writing exclusively for eBooks, book metaphors like pagination will lose their functionality and fall away. But I also want the new medium to develop brand new possibilities. Maybe then, we will stop calling them e-Books and simply call them 'eebs.'

The Kindle feature of reading itself aloud is a good beginning in expanding this new medium. In the future, I foresee hyperlinks that will break the reader out of the printed page and take him or her on a roller-coaster ride across the Internet during an accelerated and compressed 'knowledge-journey' [nahjer?] that would be impossible in a printed work. I don't know how long this will take, but I know it has to come.

Describing an unknowable future he would never experience, Pablo Neruda once wrote:

Other days will come, the silence

of plants and planets will be understood,

and so many pure things will happen.

Violins will have the fragrance of the moon.