The long awaited maturation of e-ink technologies has sparked an uptick in e-book sales. As I have discussed elsewhere, while there is an uptick in sales of electronic books, paper still dominates our world in terms of published and consumed books. While the growth of e-books is exponential, rising from 1.5% to 5% of the book market in 2010, it is still small. To date disposable publications, such as newspapers, have suffered much greater incursion in the digital environment, and are not as dependent on specialized e-ink technology. That is, websites and smartphone applications give us access to news stories and events in digest form with supplements via color photos and videos.
E-books are a more specialized technology. To understand on the pros and cons of e-books, it is important to understand the particular uses from the point of view of the user. Two illustrations help to clarify what I mean. If you read history, romance or mystery novels on airplanes to pass time, e-books present tremendous advantages over paper novels or books loaded on your PC. You can load more books than you might read in a month, read them in any level of ambient light, easily manipulate them in an airplane seat, or hotel pool deck, and have a very long battery life and low luggage weight. If, on the other hand, you are writing a research article in which you need to copy passages from a number of relevant articles, they are less useful. In this latter situation, you need to quickly compare passages in multiple documents or write a passage as you read. It may be very important to be able to scan lots of material simultaneously. E-books have been targeted toward casual readers who are focused on one document at a time and focused on reading more than annotating. With this overall determinant in hand, we can look more specifically at the pros and cons of e-books.
Data density: Because an e-book can hold the equivalent of hundreds of paper books, the data density of e-books, both in terms of volume and weight is much greater than paper equivalents.
Marginal cost: The cost of e-books is significantly lower than the cost of paper books. Even when the cost of power and infrastructure are considered, there is a reasonable cost trade-off for e-books versus paper books.
Green sensitivity: While there is growing awareness about the environmental cost of the materials, batteries and electronic circuitry used in digital devices, it appears that overall e-books will be more environmentally sensitive than paper books.
Display and power: Under normal conditions, resolutions of more than 480dpi are lost on most humans. In this respect, e-books, with a screen resolution of about 170dpi still lag behind paper, but not far. What is important is that the display is passive, like paper, not active like a PC, and thus provides more comfortable reading behavior in almost all light levels. The power consumption, compared to PC’s, is miniscule allowing for long battery life from minimal battery weight.
Digital Services: Like all digital devices, e-books provide a plethora of free add on services that can make reading much more pleasurable. These include access to a dictionary to find word definitions, bookmarking, linking one section to another, searching entire books for words or phrases, translation to other languages, and internet access for all sorts of lookups. These services will only increase with time.
Hardware Dependence: E-books are one more piece of specialized hardware on which we are dependent. For all practical purposed they are dedicated to reading and not only must we purchase the device and amortize the cost, but we have to remember to charge it, replace it if it breaks, and make sure we don’t forget to carry it whenever we might want to use it. Hardware dependence is further complicated by data dependence.
Data dependence: Each of the major hardware platforms supports one or more data formats. This situation is most complicated by a concern with digital rights management (DRM). In order to protect illegal copying or distribution various encryption methods are used – such as Kindles AZW format. The Sony reader does not support AZW but does support Broadband e-book and the Nook by Barnes and Nobel support neither of these but does support eReader. All of the readers, and most others support Adobe PDF and plain text, but there are various restrictions and caveats. While these restrictions and limitations will eventually disappear, right now the user may be limited in what they can read by the data format limitations of the e-book they choose.
Limited Screen Territory: There are times when it is desirable to see a large amount of test or graphics at once, or to see multiple screen images at the same time. Obviously this is the converse of the small size and simplicity of the interface for reading novels. E-books offer more territory than smart phones but nowhere near as much as a PC.
Limited Functionality: At our phones are emerging as multi-functional devices, e-books are emerging as focused function devices. While I am sure the makers of e-books would argue that the advantages far outweigh this limitation, an argument to which I am sympathetic, it remains the case that a user who needs a platform to read and write on at the same time, or that needs to read and calculate while looking at several documents, will not be overly impressed with what an e-book can do for them.
Color and Motion: While we are already seeing development that will move e-ink technology from black and white to color, it is likely that color will come at significant additional cost. IN addition the slow screen reprint limitations of e-ink will keep this technology from including the display of color videos with low power reflective display technologies. While human invention and creativity will surely overcome these limitations, it appears that high speed display repainting is several years down the road at low cost and low power.
All technologies follow an S-curve of adoption. That is, the early use of technology is limited to a few adventurous users. With time, the rate of adoption increases and then begins to level off as the few remaining users are slowly convinced to adopt it. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “S” curve of technology adoption. The curve may be gradual or steep. But there are always early adopters and reluctant adopters with the majority of the users coming in a shorter period of time – the steep slope part of the curve. It is clear to most observers that we have begun the steep slope part of the curve.
When all is said and done, we can conclude a few things. There are enough good things to say about e-books to say that they are here to stay. Most of the limitations and disadvantages will eventually go away. It will remain true that like cellphones, e-books will become more generalized and powerful devices. Whether they will become a part of the three screen world is not yet clear. (Microsoft and others have established “three screen” strategies – TV, PC, Smartphone. It would seem reasonable to suggest that it is likely we will find ourselves in a 3.5 screen world. To the big three we will add e-books and all of the other very specialized screens with which we interact – i.e. ATM machines, car radio screen, microwave ovens, thermostats, watches, cameras, etc. etc. etc.