Ghost Underfoot

Book reviews and general reading

The E-Book Revolution

Changes To The Way That We Used To Read Books

gutenberg printing pressJohannes Gutenberg is generally credited with inventing moveable type. He unveiled his system early in the fifteenth century, sometime around 1436 – although the exact date is not certain.

It was, without a doubt, the biggest change in reading and publishing up to that point. It allowed the man in the street to (quite literally) get his hands on affordable books, pamphlets newspapers and other reading materials for the first time.

It allowed authors, philosophers and seditionists to have their thoughts committed to print and made available to a much wider audience than ever before. It raised the literacy rate in Europe and helped to drive cultural, industrial and scientific advances, paving the way to the modern information age in which we currently find ourselves.

In short, it was a bit of a big deal – and then things went quiet for a few centuries. Although there were plenty of efficiency improvements in the production/publishing process – e.g. typewriters, computer controlled printing presses, word-processors etc. – the end product stayed pretty much the same.

Johannes Gutenberg would probably recognize “modern day” books, newspapers and magazines without any difficulty at all. He might find some of the content a bit mind blowing, but the packaging would be very familiar.

Changes To The Way We Read Books Today

original kindle readerWhat may cause a time travelling Herr Gutenberg a little more consternation would be e-readers. Early forms, such as the Franklin eBookman, first appeared in 1999, but the more modern versions, complete with e-ink technology displays, started to become available in 2006 (Sony PRS) and 2007 (Amazon Kindle).

E-books had been around for quite some time before that of course, but they required a computer to access them. Even the laptops of the time weren’t that convenient, and battery life was short. The advent of the dedicated e-reader was what was required to produce the next big step change in reading.

The e-ink technology displays used in dedicated e-readers offers users a reading experience which is every bit as good as reading text printed on paper – and considerably better than reading on a back-lit, color LCD computer screen. The fact that e-ink displays use a tiny amount of power means that e-readers will last for weeks between battery charges, rather than the few hours that you might expect from a tablet computer.

Amazon’s original Kindle launched in November of 2007 and, despite the fact that it was something of an ugly duckling, with odd angles and a funky QWERTY keyboard, it sold out in just five and a half hours. It remained out of stock for several months.

kindle 2Despite the popularity of the Kindle and the Sony PRS, there was no absolute guarantee that users would be able to get the book that they wanted in an electronic format suitable for their reader. Some of the big publishing houses dragged their heels when it came to getting e-book versions of popular titles out. After a few spats and the occasional hissy fit, most publishers came to realize just what side their bread was buttered on.

By the time the Kindle 2.0 was released in February of 2009, it was pretty much unthinkable for there to be no e-book version of any major book. Whether or not you agree that the Amazon Kindle is/was the best e-reader, the fact that Amazon’s credentials as a bookseller, combined with good reader hardware and a huge selection of e-books has made the Kindle the most popular e-reader (based on the number of units shipped) is indisputable.

A Kindle In Every BackpackStephen King wrote a short novella – “Ur” – on the subject of e-readers. Oprah Winfrey declared that her Kindle was her “new favorite thing”. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his capacity as governor of California rather than in Terminator mode, gave a speech on how to make the best use of e-readers in education. Hilary Clinton was part of a senatorial think tank that produced a white paper titled “A Kindle In Every Backpack” – again, looking at how to use e-readers in education. E-readers were the hot gadget of 2009 and reading was fashionable again.

2010 – The Year Of The Tablet

Things change very quickly in the world of personal electronics – and e-reader’s time in the sun came to an abrupt end in 2010 when Apple released the first iPad tablet computer. Industry watchers predicted the demise of e-readers, expecting tablets to oust them.

ipad tablet computerTablet computers are certainly very popular. Their touch screen user interface is extremely intuitive to use and many people who wouldn’t dream of sitting down at a desktop or laptop are quite happy to pick up a tablet computer. However, as good as tablets are, as versatile as they are and as user friendly as they are, they just aren’t as good for reading as an e-reader.

Text is formed using a combination of red, green and blue pixels – so it isn’t as crisp and sharp as when reading on an e-ink display. Tablet displays, like most computer displays, are back-lit. It’s like having someone shine a light in your eyes when you’re trying to read. Tablets’ lovely color displays are also power hungry – a few hours between charges is the best you can hope for right now.

In summary, whilst tablet computers can certainly be used for reading e-books, if you’re going to read for more than a few minutes, you will probably be better off with an e-reader. Tablets have not killed off e-readers, not yet at any rate, any more than e-books have killed off printed books. There’s a place for both devices – and many people do have one of each.

Changes To The Way That We Read Books In Future

It’s probably worth pointing out that, while some people do feel that reading on a tablet is a less than pleasant experience, and one likely to result in eye strain or even headaches, other individuals don’t seem to mind. Some studies suggest that it might be age dependent, but there are some people who are quite happy to read e-books on an e-reader, a tablet computer or even a smart-phone.

The fact is that, whereas before the advent of e-readers, e-books were confined to desktops and laptops, devices which aren’t ideally suited for reading books (although it can be done of course). E-readers effectively liberated e-books and made them a truly portable experience which could be enjoyed anywhere you like. Since then, tablet computers and highly specified smart-phones have offered even more options to users.

phablet phones and tablet computers

Whether tablets kill e-readers or not, or maybe whether “phablets” (big fancy phones) kill tablets or not, is not really all that important. In all probability, technology will continue to evolve and the devices may merge functionality in the not too distant future. It doesn’t matter too much however.

It was the symbiosis between e-readers and tablets that freed the e-book genie from the bottle. Today there are even more access options available – which is great. The future will see new technologies and even more available choices when it comes to accessing e-books. What does seem certain is that the e-books themselves are here to stay and are now a key part of the reading and publishing landscape – with all that that entails.

Here’s one possible future for mobile technology. It’s still in development, but it’s an interesting possibility: