Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (3 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Convenient, yes, but also prone to failure. The average hard drive has a 25 percent chance of dying after three years, so there are employees at Google’s and Amazon’s data centers who do nothing all day long but trundle down corridors with carts of replacement drives. Hard drives are convenient as long as you have anything that resembles a computer or cell phone or e-reader, but with the consequence that any content on them is likely to disappear fast as once-hot electrons grow cool, as magnetic fields flicker and fade.

At least clay tablets were given the dignity of turning into dust, but when ebooks die, it’s without a sigh. We can still archaeologically excavate former libraries and palaces in the Middle East and turn up tablets and parchment, but no one will be able to take a shovel to Apple’s data center in North Carolina thousands of years in the future and unearth all of these servers, power them up again, and recover all the ebooks they once held.

Indeed, book technology has reversed itself. Clay tablets, once durable but inconvenient, have been replaced by hard drives, which are highly convenient but very fragile. And though our words are now more widespread than ever, they barely have the lifespan of a hamster or a gerbil. They’re short-lived unless they’re constantly restored and backed up to new hard drives, to new computers. Ours is a culture that dances on the edge of ephemerality.

If our servers slept for too long or if we left our iPads unplugged for too long, we’d wake up like Rip Van Winkle to find all of our book culture erased. And in the ultimate progression, if you look at this curve of decaying durability and increasing convenience over time, the inevitable trajectory is for our words to last as long as the twenty-four-hour life of the mayfly, to be as ephemeral as a June bug’s jitter. Someday, our ephemeral but instant thoughts themselves will be beamed in a quickenth of a second from brain to brain in some ultimate evolution of print technology. But will they last beyond that fraction of an instant?

I think we’ve made a proverbial pact with the devil in digitizing our words. And digitization raises questions: since we’ve traded durability for culture, what happens if there are massive failures in our culture’s data centers? What happens if ebooks are one day wiped out? Viruses can now target nuclear power plants, so is it not conceivable that viruses could be developed to destroy ebooks?

Bookmark: Reading in Bed

All of our brains are alike in some fundamental ways. We can all get into a book, whether it’s in print or digital format. We can all zone out and ignore the fact that the book is on an eInk screen or is bound into pages with glue that smells like fish vomit. We can ignore these things if it’s a really entrancing book.

One of the times I enjoy reading the most is at night. I love reading in that golden hour before bed, where you’re able to put away your computer, your cell phone, anything distracting that keeps your mind unduly alert. And instead, you allow yourself to relax into a damn fine book. It doesn’t need to be a printed book; an ebook works just as well. Because as far as the brain’s concerned, the experience of reading an ebook can be the same as reading in print, in that you’re no longer aware of the medium itself—most of the time, anyway.

At night, though, when you’re trying to sleep, using LCD screens or backlit e-readers can actually zap the production of melatonin in your body, keeping you awake longer and degrading the quality of the sleep you do eventually get. Thus, I rarely read a tablet before bed, preferring an eInk reader instead.

If you’re using a glare-free e-reader that doesn’t zap you with light, reading in bed is even more of a pleasure than before. E-readers are lighter than most books, and you can annotate them without having to fumble in the dark for a pen. You’re absorbed into the book, and you can fall asleep with the ebook in your hands.

In fact, this is my test of how well a new e-reader is built. If I can fall asleep with it while I’m reading at night—feeling my eyelids growing heavy and closing with that gluey cotton-candy sensation of sleep overcoming me, feeling the e-reader slip out of my hands and onto my bed—then it worked. The ebook was able to transport me into that stuporous yet sublimely sensible state of pre-sleep, the state in which I have my best ideas, when I’m able to let go of the rational and uninhibit the intuitive. I don’t care whether you’re reading in bed or on an airplane or on a train; you can still fall asleep with a really good digital book, if you allow yourself the leisure to do so.

But that’s just me; I like reading in bed. Some people love to read with cigarettes and endless cups of coffee in a Manhattan diner. Some people love to read on their computers, endlessly following one link to the next, one website to another. Some people like to read at work between bites of their sandwiches or salads, their office doors closed during their lunch breaks, indulging in some downtime, some time for their mind, time for a book. Some people don’t like to read, but there’s no room for them in this book.

Perhaps my favorite kind of reading happens at palmy beach resorts. There’s always a stack of used paperbacks at a beach resort. With dog-eared and salt-encrusted pages brittle from exposure to the sun and scores of readers, these books are left out at night in a makeshift library, home perhaps to hermit crabs and wasps. But as e-reader costs come down, I actually expect that we’ll start seeing a bunch of left-behind e-readers instead of paperbacks at beach resorts.

Five or so years from now, you’ll be using someone’s discarded Nook or Kindle to read in a hammock in the lilac-scented wind, swinging in late-afternoon sunlight to a gentle breeze with a gentle book. Their eInk screens will be sun stained, and the saltwater won’t do them any good. The power chargers will go missing, and the wires will get frazzled and frayed. But on the plus side, you’ll be able to surf the web—albeit more slowly than you’d like on your laptop—while listening to tiki music, your stomach rumbling in anticipation of dinner and a frozen margarita.

How about you? Do you have a favorite sunny nook or diner where you prefer to read? Do you prefer reading in train stations, on airplanes, or sitting cross-legged in the aisles of an expansive, book-filled library?


The Origin of Ebooks

The ebook revolution started in 2003 when the vice president of research for Sony spent a week trapped in an ice cave after a skiing accident. He had a broken leg and was forced to drink his own urine until he was rescued. As he stared at his cell phone, hoping for a signal, he thought, “If only I had a book about wilderness survival on a cell phone or some other device that I could pull up right away.” And that’s when the idea for Sony’s first e-reader hit him…

That’s not what happened, of course.

The origin of ebooks has more to do with technological inevitability. It’s like the story of printing itself—Johannes Gutenberg was in the right place at the right time and knew enough about minting and metallurgy to make it happen. The founders of the ebook revolution were also each in the right place at the right time.

And because the creation of ebooks involved technology, there’s no one origin story, no pat answer for how they came to be. Like all stories, that of the ebook revolution has as many twisted roots and beginnings as there are people who were part of the story.

You could, for example, trace the roots to the invention of electrophoretic ink. Xerox discovered eInk in the late 1970s but then mothballed their invention when they couldn’t figure out how to sell it. In the late 1990s, pioneers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rediscovered eInk and improved it, and it’s partly due to their efforts that we have ebooks now.

Even before the dot-com boom got underway, there were predictions that eInk would be commercially ready as early as 2003, and anyone could have been the first to launch an e-reader. But Sony was in the right place at the right time.

Like most companies that sell consumer electronics, Sony has to invent a major new product every year to stay competitive, and eInk technology had matured to such a point by 2003 that Sony decided to use it to manufacture an e-reader. Insiders at Sony have told me that the ebook team’s budget was tiny compared to the budget for Sony’s TV division. In fact, the ebook team had to salvage parts from the Sony Walkman to make the first Sony e-reader. So even if the eInk technology was mature, the Sony e-reader was expensive and only available to the top echelon of the reading population in Japan, where it was first released.

Of course, if an e-reader were to launch anywhere first, it would have to be Japan! The Japanese are among the most techno-literate of all cultures. I’ve traveled to Japan a lot, and I always smile when I encounter new tech marvels there, feeling rather like a bearded German in a fur cap from Gutenberg’s time transplanted to modern-day Tokyo.

I’ve gone to the Sony showroom to see the display of next year’s toys and gadgets, the talking dogs and robot servants, things that you won’t see on shelves in the United States for months or maybe years. I remember once standing outside a Tokyo convenience store for five minutes, trying to figure out the way inside, before noticing a subtle hand-plate recessed into the wall to touch and open the door. Even Japanese toilet technology is extreme—the Japanese are truly techno-obsessed.

But they weren’t obsessed enough for ebooks to take off when the Sony e-reader launched in 2004. The Japanese language is a challenging one, and the Sony device didn’t do a great job of rendering content in that language. Plus, there simply weren’t many ebooks to buy. So Sony took the product to the United States in 2006 and launched a revamped e-reader here.

Now, Amazon had time to watch Sony and learn from its mistakes. Amazon followed what its competitor did best by using eInk displays and basic metaphors like bookmarking and page turns. But Amazon had also accumulated ten years of book knowledge and was sitting on millions of books in its fulfillment centers.

Almost half of all the books bought in North America are sold through Amazon.com. It represents the single biggest chunk of the bookselling pie. Unlike Sony, Amazon had customer brand loyalty for its books, because it had started by selling books online and had worked hard to build its brand. Any early adopter of Amazon.com in the 1990s was given all sorts of freebies with every order, like T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Amazon succeeded at ebooks in part because Kindle was a new business line and capitalized on the company’s success in the bookselling market. Kindle also didn’t have to worry about turning an immediate profit, unlike the Sony eReader. The Kindle organization was in some ways a startup within Amazon and benefited from Jeff Bezos’s venture capital infusions, long-range vision, and full support. Amazon was in digital media for the long haul. Since nearly all of its sales still came from physical media when the Kindle project started, Amazon clearly knew it would have to take a long-term view of digital media, like ebooks, to keep growing.

The other reason Amazon succeeded was because it focused on creating an easy, seamless customer experience. Consider trying to use Sony’s e-reader when it was first launched in the United States. To read a book, you had to:

Download an application to your PC.

Find a book you wanted.

Log in.

Purchase the book.

Authorize your computer to use the Sony device.

Download more software from Adobe.

Authorize yourself with Adobe.

Go back to your library and try to download the book.

Synchronize the book with the device (assuming you have the right cable to plug into your computer).

Wait a few minutes for it to (hopefully) finish copying.

Disconnect the device from your PC. Now you could read the book.

Whew! In comparison, the Kindle is simple: you go to the online store; you find a book you want; you buy it with one click; and then it downloads immediately and you start reading. No hassle; nothing to it. Delivering content to Kindles is that easy because each device has a built-in cell phone that is always on and connected to the national network.

There have been two great inventions so far in the twenty-first century. The iPhone is one of them. And even if I didn’t work for Amazon, I’d say that the Kindle is the second. Ebooks as we know them finally took off because of the Kindle’s embedded cell phone and free data plan. Without a connection to the cloud, I don’t think ebooks would have become mainstream.

A network connection goes beyond making it easier to get content onto an e-reader. It also makes it possible for you to instantly read an ebook loaned to you by a friend or to freely sample the first chapter of millions of ebooks. In addition, the network lets you easily redownload books you’ve previously purchased. You can even accidentally break an e-reader and redownload all your old books onto a new e-reader with no hassle or technical wizardry. The network acts like a safety net for all of a Kindle’s content.

Technically speaking, we could have had ebooks as early as the 1970s. That’s when people started digitizing the first ebooks. In fact, I can imagine librarians in their bell-bottom jeans and with their “Whip Inflation Now” pins archiving books onto microfiche. I can imagine a digital revolution for ebooks starting back then. As I mentioned earlier, scientists at Xerox discovered eInk in the 1970s. They could have developed e-reader hardware using electro-phosphorescent displays. Instead of Amazon digitizing the world’s content, the Library of Congress could have been doing it. They could have started digitizing their holdings in the late 1970s, Xerox could have made the device, and the teletype network could have been used to distribute content. Though the process would be considered slow by today’s standards, an average ebook could be transmitted over teletype in about ninety minutes.

But that’s a future that never was.

Sony started the ebook revolution. But if Kindle was to do for reading what the iPod did for music and what TiVo did for digital television, Amazon needed to make a device that not only used the cell phone network, but also took advantage of new game-changing technologies such as eInk, which is touchy and temperamental.

I’m not going to try to fully explain how eInk works, with its vocabulary of ghosting and quantum mechanical waveforms. You see, eInk is actually based on quantum mechanics. I studied quantum mechanics at MIT, and I still don’t fully understand eInk!

Perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for something like eInk, which is at once scientific and magical, is that of the Magic 8 Ball. You shake it up and ask a question, and a ghostly white answer mysteriously floats to the surface. That’s similar to how eInk works. A bright-white particle, usually made from titanium rust, is electrically charged and floats in black ink. But instead of shaking the ball to get the white to rise to the surface, you apply an electrical charge.

If you do this enough times, with hundreds of thousands of tiny bits of titanium rust, you basically get the modern eInk screen. The ink is black, and the charged particles are white, producing the two simplest colors on an eInk screen. To get shades of gray, you apply a quick pulse of electricity, just enough to attract some of the particles, but not all of them.

Arthur C. Clarke could have been describing eInk when he said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” True, eInk is complex, but it requires very little power. In fact, an eInk-based device can function on as little as one charge a month. This was the game-changing technological leap that allowed the ebook revolution to start.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Fangs of Bloodhaven by Cheree Alsop
Next World Novella by Politycki, Matthias
Tracy Tam: Santa Command by Drown, Krystalyn
Last Second Chance by Caisey Quinn
The Third Bear by Jeff Vandermeer
The Parkerstown Delegate by Grace Livingston Hill
French Kiss (Novella) by Duncan, Abbie
Night in Shanghai by Mones, Nicole
Corpse in a Gilded Cage by Robert Barnard