Thursday, December 16, 2004

A library of one book

Google recently announced plans to digitally scan books in the libraries of many major universities. While the immediate significance of this is that, it will give people access to books that are out of print or too expensive, it got me thinking as to how it could be fused with another emerging technology to truly revolutionize one of the experiences cherished by mankind since the times of Gutenberg.
E-books have never really become popular because reading off the screen is not very comfortable. The essence of the experience of reading a book is lost. But, technology more often than not always has an answer, and, in this case that is the electronic paper.
Electronic paper is actually a piece of plastic which thinks it is paper. The main advantage it has over its ancestor is that, its content need not be static or frozen. This immediately brings about a world of possibilities. With advances in technology, e-paper is now at stage where display of, let alone text or images, even video is possible. Miniaturization of hardware components with time is natural and we are at a stage where an entire computer can be crammed behind a monitor, as Apple has shown us. This means that sufficiently high amount of processing power is available in a small footprint. We are also witnessing an exponential growth in the tendency of electronic devices to lose their wired connection to the internet. This brings me to how projects like the one Google is currently undertaking can bring about a sea change in how we access information.
An e-book, in the true sense of the term would consist of a few pages of e-paper and some hardware embedded in the spine of the book. With the emergence of new high speed wireless access technologies like WiMax, such an e-book will not need to be isolated from the vast information resource that is the internet. This will provide people instant access to all kinds of information in the blink of an eye. With all books being available online in digital format, it’ll simply be a matter of downloading it onto your e-book, and of course preferably reading it. The question is, can the e-book provide the same kind of experience a normal book does? This I believe can never happen. But, the e-book will have so much going for it that it cannot be ignored. A normal book can never compete with the flexibility and instant gratification offered by an e-book. And so, as always feared, the very concept of a book will be under threat. The proposition of being able to access any and all information in one place instantly will prove too irresistible. People will no longer need to have huge libraries of their favourite books. Just their digitized versions on a hard drive will do. Feel like reading a technical treatise on the way to work, or rather, some Calvin & Hobbes? No problem. Throw in the latest news as its happening for good measure. If pen input capabilities are also provided, then that would be the definition of a ‘killer app’. In the future, rather than the number of books, we just might find braggarts claiming they have X gigabytes of library!
The picture I’m trying to paint is one of complete freedom with respect to the books one can carry around with them. If Google is successful, then unfortunately the wonderful Gutenberg project will no longer be necessary and people will be able access any book they want anytime. Of course, questions of copyright will arise for newer books, but that is not something that can’t be taken care of by payment. But, the best part is, information and knowledge will no longer be sequestered in the grand libraries of the world.
That is what I like to call 'a library of one book'. That is all it should take for anybody to read any book they want. One book. If there is a hindrance to the realization of such a future, then technology will definitely not be the culprit.
Of course, such a drastic change would lead to many grumpy publishers, but, certainly many happy trees.
Alfred Hitchcock had once said “The paperback is very interesting but I find it will never replace the hardcover book -- it makes a very poor doorstop”. Well Mr. Hitchcock, sadly, that would be the only use for all books in the future.


Blogger Yasho said...

Brilliant! However, there are several business issues that need to be resolved. In many cases, just because something is technologically feasible or elegant does not mean that it would be a commercial success - and usually that is what most people see; the bottom line. Such a world would need the cooperation of the powers that be in the publishing industry, something that was sorely lacking in the initial e-book initiative.

12/29/2004 12:03:00 AM  

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