There's no doubt about it: 2010 was the Year of the e-Book, the year when devices like the Kindle and Nook stopped being luxuries or oddities and started being the norm. But 2010 was an inflection point--not a starting point, and not an endpoint--in the journey of the electronic books. The dream of reading books electronically dates back decades, and, as this slideshow illustrates, the many forms that electronic reading might take are still gleams in a few visionary designers' eyes.
One of the earliest moments of e-reading--its primordial ooze--occurred back in 1971, with the birth of Project Gutenberg. The date is surprisingly early--well before book scanning technology took off, and before the Internet as we know it. But that was the year Project Gutenberg's founder, Michael Hart, then a University of Illinois student, was granted access to a Xerox Sigma V mainframe--a node in the predecessor of the Internet. Hart reportedly typed up the "Declaration of Independence"--the first e-text--and attempted later to send it to everyone on the network.
The history of the e-book and the laptop are curiously intertwined--and not surprisingly, since the quest for a laptop was ultimately the quest for a book-sized computer. Alan Kay, pictured here, envisioned something called the DynaBook back in the late '60s. It was a dual vision, looking ahead both to an era when books were more like computers, and computers were more like books.
DynaBook-like devices--hefty laptop/e-reader hybrids--endure in the form shown here. One Laptop Per Child declares as its mission to provide children everywhere with "a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning."
What was it about the Kindle that transformed the e-reading market? Somehow, readers who had been squeamish about e-readers suddenly climbed aboard. The first generation of the Kindle debuted in 2007 and sold out within hours, remaining out of stock for months. It's now in its third iteration.
Though Sony introduced its Reader a year before Amazon's Kindle, it soon fell behind in the e-reader race. In 2009, it implemented a software, rather than a hardware, innovation, in an effort to close the gap. It abandoned the proprietary trend so common in the industry and announced it would sell all books in the ePub format, which works across devices. “If people are going to this e-book shopping mall, they are going to want to shop at all the stores, and not just be required to shop at one store,” Sony's Steve Haber told the New York Times.
Will "i" come before "e"? Apple's iPad could be a game changer for the e-book. Apple launched a major push for illustrated e-book in its iBookstore this week, debuting 100 illustrated titles, including many for children. The market for picture books is considerable, and few e-readers share the iPad's visual capacity.
E-readers are famous for shrinking libraries--collapsing many books into one object. Also noteworthy, though, is the fact that e-readers are physically shrinking books, in some cases. At 150 grams, the Cybook Opus has bragging rights as the lightest e-reader on the market. It fits in the palm of your hand, and can hold up to 1,000 books.
As the e-reader market has matured, it has also, at times, taken strange steps back. The novelty of e-readers is their ability to download countless titles. The WikiReader limits itself to one title, though admittedly an enormous one: "three million Wikipedia articles in a simple $99 handheld device." But the era of the handheld, offline Franklin device is over, and it's hard to imagine these becoming wildly popular.
You know when a technology has become a cultural icon when design students are chiming in with ideas of their own. This exciting design for a retractable "eRoll," something like an e-reader Torah, comes from Macedonian undergraduate Dragan Trenchevski.
And what does the future hold? There is a compromise inherent in e-reading: we get ease and levity, but we lose some of the tactile and sensory pleasures of books, ink, and paper. A major frontier in e-reading remains to develop e-books that feel like the old books we know and love--and flexible screens, which simulate paper, will be a central part of that. The Skiff reader, pictured here, was promised vaguely within the year in January of 2010; News Corp. purchased Skiff in July, though, and we haven't heard anything since. Plastic Logic's similar Que device was killed in protoype back in August. The road to electronic books may be a circular one, leading back where we began, and the company that takes us there stands to greatly benefit. [Additional research by Andrew Hur]

The Journey of the e-Book [Slideshow]

There's no doubt about it: 2010 was the Year of the e-Book, the year when devices like the Kindle and Nook stopped being luxuries or oddities and started becoming the norm. But 2010 was an inflection point—not a starting point, and not an endpoint—in the journey of the electronic books. The dream of reading books electronically dates back decades, and, as this slideshow illustrates, the many forms that electronic reading might take are still gleams in a few visionary designers' eyes.

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