Why will e-book readers succeed? Not because e-books are good replacements for paper books — but because they’re good complements to paper books and documents, especially for work-related reading rather than pure pleasure.
Time and again we see that technology doesn’t have to mean an end to the old ways of doing things. Tech tools allow us to do things in different ways or to do things we couldn’t possibly do before, adding new value to our lives, not just reproducing value we could already access. The computer never made offices paperless; in fact, it led to more paper output. Online personal information management apps don’t make paper to do lists obsolete. Sticky notes still have value in a digital world.
ComputerWorld argues that e-books are bound to fail because they “are not, and cannot be, superior to what they are designed to replace.”
People who care enough about books to spend $25 billion on them each year tend to love books and everything about them. They love the look and feel of books. They like touching the paper, and looking at words and illustrations at a resolution no e-book will ever match. They view “curling up with a good book” as an escape from the electronic screens they look at all day. They love to carry them, annotate them, and give them as gifts. Book collecting is one of the biggest hobbies in the world.
We won’t stop doing that. But paper books and electronic books and book readers can exist alongside each other, with overlapping but not identical use cases. E-books don’t have to succeed on the criteria defined by paper books.
I love to own books because I find the best way to really absorb their content is to mark them up, write notes in the margins, fold over pages, then refer back to them when I recall something interesting or useful from them. I wish, though, that I could easily get information out of them and into my electronic store of ideas, my “memex.”
Right now, to get interesting ideas out of paper books into an electronic searchable format requires scanning with OCR or typing it in. If you’re willing to take on that labor, there are ways of making these snippets searchable. It’d be so much nicer if we would get an electronic version of a book when we purchase the paper copy and then could easily transfer our favorite chunks into our personal idea stores.
There are other reasons e-books and e-book readers may have value even in a world where paper books don’t become obsolete. Students could benefit from electronic textbooks, carrying the equivalent of a backpack full of books in a small tablet. Knowledge workers might prefer to read technical articles or lengthy professional documents on an easy to read, lightweight reader rather than printing them out and carrying them. Imagine taking hundred-page spec documents onto a plane with you just by carrying a reader loaded with them, and being able to search them electronically instead of using a table of contents or index. Service people could carry readers loaded with installation and repair manuals.
You can’t take an e-book reader into the bath tub with you, but so what? There’s room in the world for electronic and paper books.