The e-book may be a hot news topic, with Amazon taking the Kindle overseas for the first time, but some other information that's surfacing has us wondering: Is the electronic book concept doomed before it even takes off?
"Print is dead" opines Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, and with the rise of the internet, portable computing, smartphones and the electronic book, you could take that to be a reference to the end of traditional ink-and-paper printing. But perhaps you could also read it in anther way, where the implications are bigger for static printed media in any form. In fact, the e-reader version of e-books—essentially a high-tech recreation of paper books, with media in digital form but with slow-turning pages and essentially unchangeable content—may be an evolutionary dead-end...and in the short term too.
Publishing giant Simon and Schuster just announced that it's working on a video book format—not a particularly new topic, but given that everyone's used to DVD extras and web pages jam-packed with Flash interactivity it's possibly the right time for the idea to come of age. The idea is to embed video directly into the text of a book, with the specific aim of enhancing the work with added content and insight, while minimizing disruption to the flow of the text.
An instructional book could incorporate demonstration clips, a cookbook could demo a technique, and novel could use a clip to establish a setting for the next piece of action. The first four Vooks are already written and available—and, as you may expect, they're available online with built-in social networking to share ideas with other readers. There's also an app available for the iPhone.
Disney's Interactive Kids Books
Meanwhile, Disney has launched it's own enhanced children's books initiative—a new online bookstore called DisneyDigitalBooks.com which is a subscription-access to "500+ new and Classic" Disney-owned book titles. The texts will incorporate differing degrees of interactivity, with digital read-along versions actually reading the text as a highlight moves along onscreen. Texts for older kids will help with tricky word pronounciation at a click, with extra trivia pages and so on.
Apple's Tablet to Redefine Publishing
Over at Gizmodo, alongside revelations about Microsoft's smart journal-type tablet PC the Courier, they've also been looking at the swelling rumors concerning Apple's tablet offering. According to Giz's sources, Apple's been embroiled in extended discussions with publishers of newspapers, textbooks, and magazines with the aim of developing content for its long-rumored iTablet. The goal is nothing less lofty than a redefinition of print.
Apple's reported to have repeatedly dealt with the New York Times concerning an iTablet format for the newspaper, and even to have chased executives of "one of the largest magazine groups" with a presentation to see how they think the digital future of their creations might proceed. The key point is that ultimately these publications would fit naturally onto a web-enabled tablet platform when they've received an injection of interactivity that transforms them from dry text to a more dynamic experience.
The key point from these three examples is that the current electronic book format is nothing smarter than a digital makeover of ink and paper. It's one that borrows too much from a long-established genre, and ignores the amazing technological innovations of computing, real-time information sharing, and screen technology that have propelled the internet forward. Both the Disney and Vook solutions are clearly designed to be consumed on devices that are far more powerful graphically and computationally than an e-reader can manage, with their slow-reacting e-ink screens, lack of GPUs, and limited controls for interactivity. Apple's aim for its tablet machine is to create a natural home for what you might dub the "Magazine 2.0," and if it really surfaces and delivers on such a high-faluting promise, then you can expect it to sell like hotcakes. And it's the same for the other upcoming tablet machines—incorporating the archive of existing dead printed material is easy for such devices, in a way that expensive single-purpose e-readers just can't match.
Sure, more advanced color e-ink display tech will find a use in other devices—but maybe the stand-alone e-reader is really just a passing fad.