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The New Technology Timetable

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The explosive arrival and, three years later, the explosive demise of “e-books” (leaving aside, for the moment, what the phrase specifically means) has left all of us in the industry with an understandable sense of discomfort. “Once burned, twice shy” rings in the mind, and anything positive about e-publishing now seems suspect.

Yet it’s important to keep a thought in mind of which historians of science are well aware…. The adoption of any new technology takes several decades. And the overriding issue is not technology per se. Instead it’s human nature.

 

Helloooooo

For example, video phones have been a technological possibility for some 40 years, and they are periodically offered to the public. For personal–not technological–reasons, the public has regularly said “No thanks.” We apparently prize visual privacy while speaking on the phone over the opportunity to see whoever is on the other end of the line (perhaps because we prefer to talk in our underwear, wash the dishes, or do other things while we’re talking).

But even the basic telephone met with resistance at first. For example, the then-Mayor of New York was, reportedly, not impressed when he was able to reach his assistant in the City Hall office next to his own by phone. The apocrypha goes that Hizzoner noted the young man in question was strong and healthy and could stand up and walk into the Mayor’s office whenever he was called. When it was pointed out that the Mayor could use this device to reach someone in Albany, he replied, “I don’t know anybody in Albany.”

 

The Power Perplex

 

Responses to electricity were equally fluky. It didn’t take people long to see that electric light bulbs had real benefits over candles and gaslight (with some loss of romance, to be sure), even though there were ferocious battles over AC versus DC. (Edison himself was a proponent of Direct Current, and the “dangers” of Alternating Current were illustrated by a “dead dog campaign” in which the poor beasts, who had supposedly been shocked to death by AC, were left lying on urban streets with much fanfare.)

However the notion of using electricity for “power,” rather than just light, was much slower to take hold. Business leaders who were dedicated to a huge infrastructure of factories with steam and water power (where individual workplaces were linked by belts to the main engine) looked at the idea of placing small electric motors on individual workbenches as absurd and unnecessary. (This explains why some electric companies were–and often still are–called things like Dayton Light and Power.)

 

Thinking Inside the Box

The human problem, whenever we are confronted with a radical new technology, is that none of us “knows anybody in Albany.” It takes a few years to change our ways. And by and large, we are not thrilled at being required to change them.

Professor Bobby G. Stevenson at Texas Tech summarized the problem as follows: “The biggest obstacle to innovation is thinking that it can be done the old way.” Confronted by the telegraph, the Pony Express Company located in St. Joseph, Missouri, decided they could remain competitive by just buying faster horses. Inevitably, the inertia created by the considerable investment in the “old paradigm” begins to fade only when the ease of use and advantages of the new product are overwhelming evident and desirable, and the product becomes affordable for a sufficient number of people.

 

E-Books Re-examined

 

In terms of e-books, today’s situation is the result of several different currents. All things considered, there was a remarkable willingness to try a new paradigm–i.e., the e-book on hand-held readers–on the part of many in the general public and even the industry. This desire was stoked by certain reports that were not quite as balanced as they might have been.

Problems quickly arose, though–specifically:

• an appalling lack of standards for hardware and software;

• the attempt by some of the players–Gemstar, Microsoft, Adobe–to gain early market dominance through proprietary systems;

• panic on the part of publishers about losing their content, which led to unmanageable protection and DRM systems on the one hand, and a “smile for the camera but don’t put anything valuable online” policy on the other; and finally…

• the current received wisdom–”E-books are dead. There’s no market so let’s just forget the whole thing.”

For all of the reasons cited at the beginning of this article, it takes time for a market to develop. Those institutions, like libraries and universities, where systematic investigation and piloting has taken place have discovered that once initial resistance is put to rest, the public’s willingness to try e-books is impressive. According to one researcher, if you can get people to use an e-book reader just once, it significantly changes their attitudes. Another academic found students very receptive to using e-books again after they used them for a semester in a course.

Is anyone surprised?

 

2020 Vision

Actually, given that we are barely five years into this period of innovation, e-publishing and even e-books are doing quite nicely, thank you. Ask RosettaBooks, fictionwise.com, or Palm (the leading e-book reader platform). And in the next five years–as soon as reliable interoperable standards are put in place for file formats, reader software, and hardware platforms; and screen brightness and flexibility start to rival that of paper–the uptake

will be even more striking.

Therefore, if history is a reliable predictor, it can be said with some assurance that at some point between 2015 and 2020, hand-held e-book readers are going to be as familiar as toasters.

 

You read it here.

James Lichtenberg is a frequent contributor to publications like “Publishers Weekly” and the “Journal of Electronic Publishing.” He is President of Lightspeed, LLC, an e-business strategy and communications consulting firm in New York City.

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