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Will you pack books digitally?

What the iPod did to music, a digital reader can do to books, writes Ajay Jain.

business Updated: Dec 13, 2007 20:40 IST
Ajay Jain

Obituaries for books were being written as far as a decade back, but no device or application has been able to cause so much as a dent in our reading habits. Sony’s Reader launched last year was seen as the first to possibly do so, but is yet to make a significant mark; making the news currently in Amazon’s competing product Kindle, being touted as the one to change the rules of the game in the years to come.

But will it? A 544-year old legacy, going back to the time Johannes Gutenberg printed the Bible as the first book to come out of his invention, the printing press, may not go away easily. For one, the feel and smell of ink and paper may well have become an inseparable part of our DNA. “A book has a ‘hard’ physical form that you can touch, feel and associate with. If I were to replace my entire library of books with their digital equivalents, all stored in a reader, the end result of delivering content may be the same or even better, but the feel would be gone,” says Rakesh Vajpai, Director, Prosares Solutions India.

“One of the big obstacles to digital books is the performance of the display. We still prefer to read a book instead of reading a document from a display; look at how often we print a paper just to read it. However, with the Philips E-ink display this obstacle is gone. It’s just as reading a book.,” says Mark Vorage, Vision Engineer at Philips Technologie GmbH, Germany.

“But isn’t saying that this will kill the printed book like saying McDonalds would kill home cooked food? It’s fast, cheap and easy but we are still going to want ‘gourmet’ books that have the smell of ink, the feel of paper and that have this weight when you hold them in your hand because they contain some heavy thoughts. For all its practical sides, I will never give up reading books the good old way,” says Iceland based Internet marketing consultant Hjörtur Smárason.

Adds Atul Narania, Head of Technology and Consulting Practice at BTI Consultants, “The joy of reading out a nice picture book to kids cannot be replicated. A book is more than just words on paper, especially to a child. The touch, feel and even the smell to a two year old makes a book unique. Can this joy be replicated in the digital formats?”

Will Kindle do a Napster to books?

The music industry changed forever when Napster made free peer-to-peer sharing of music files possible over the internet, affecting the complete dynamics of the music business. Will the same happen to books once their digital versions are available, allowing free copying without royalties going to authors?

Unlikely, feel a lot of people, especially those who love their books in the form we have always known them as. “There are two major differences between music and books to make me believe adoption of digital books will be lower. One, a lot of people listen to music while running or even working; you obviously cannot do so with books. Second, with music, you need to carry a lot of tracks as each averages under three minutes. But with books, people tend to read one at a time; the physical portability is thus not a big advantage. Amazon is trying to play up the key advantage of convenience though,” feels Avneet Jolly, founder and CEO of management consultancy Insightory.com

“I think music is ‘softer’ than books. You can listen to music but there isn’t a physical form that you would strongly associate music to. Replacing the good old LP records with cassettes, then with CDs and now with digital music was thus relatively easy,” adds Vajpai. Higher adoption of the digital medium for music meant higher piracy especially by youngsters with lower disposable incomes.

Says US based media producer Melody Chamlee, “In any case, the music industry did not lose out from Internet distribution, but by making low-quality, high-cost offerings available to young adults.”

The cost and other barriers

Of course, the price of these readers are not something one can overlook. The Kindle costs $399 (Rs. 16,000) while the Sony Reader costs $299 (Rs. 12,000). Add to this the cost of paying for the titles – lower than the paper versions, but not very significantly as yet. There are other cheaper readers too in the market, but they are not really being seen as serious contenders.

“I think Kindle will still need to undergo several version revisions. For starters, the hard lock-in with Amazon is a dampener. A vendor-neutral option is most desirable. I should be able to purchase my digital books from any vendor but store it my device. Also, the price is a tad too high. Hopefully, it will come down with scale and technology upgrades,” Mr. Vajpai.

More than a sliver lining to it though

Digital book readers have opened the door to new opportunities at the same time. Just as technology democratised the music industry, resulting in musicians needing record labels a whole lot less than they used to, authors of books could be the winners here too. They may just be able to beam their e-books directly to readers without the need for intermediaries. Other written forms, such as essays, short stories, and even poetry could find new markets.

“I also believe changes will happen faster with the younger generation. Possibly, they will be less ‘emotionally’ attached to the hard form of books and will be increasingly comfortable using, and showing off, the digital book,” says Vajpai.

And then there are segments where a book reader may be most handy though. Textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, business books and practical books of all sorts may work here. Says Narania, “There would be growing demand for e-books as users get accustomed to interactive and convenient entertainment that allows users immediate access to desired content. User convenience in terms of accessing rare books from libraries and carrying numerous digital versions of classics also makes e-books attractive. Both formats would thrive and help increase the market.”

Paper and ink may not going away in a hurry; the jury could well be out for a long time on this.

The writer publishes a technology blog www.TechGazing.com and may be contacted at ajay@ajayjain.com