Bookworms Go Digital
Consider the perfection that is a book. It is a product virtually unchanged for more than 600 years: completely random access and searchable; a universal and open format; not copy-protected; forward and backward compatible. It doesn’t have any special storage requirements. It can be bought, leased, or loaned in person or online. It never runs out of power.
Each evolutionary step to the printed volume—from stone to cuneiform to parchment to paper—made perfect sense. So why change an already perfectly realized product, charge 10 times as much, and require it to include batteries?
As it turns out, not only do electronic books improve upon their printed predecessors, but they actually encourage book buying. But for many people, the whole idea of a book running out of power seems too weird.
Even though they seem to have recently materialized out of thin air, the idea behind electronic books is more than 30 years old—Amazon started offering electronic versions 10 years ago. But these e-tomes could be read only on PC screens, and few consumers bought them.
A portable solution was beyond reach; LCD screen technology was too cost-prohibitive and fragile, and battery technology too inefficient, to realize the concept. By the late 1990s, LCD technology had matured and batteries had become powerful enough to make the idea of a portable e-book reader serious. In 1998–99, the SoftBook Reader, the Franklin eBookMan, the Rocket eBook and two models from RCA, the REB 1100 and 1200, all went on sale. But battery longevity measured in hours was hardly conducive to curling up for carefree sessions immersed in a good tale well told, and none of these devices took off.
While Lying on the Beach One Day . . .
One day in the mid-1990s, Joe Jacobson, a newly minted associate physics professor at MIT’s Media Lab, was lying on a beach, only to be frustrated when he finished the book he was reading. He wanted just to push a button and start on another. The more he thought about it, what he really wanted was just one book that could be manipulated to become any book. What was needed was magic paper.
He took his challenge to a group of undergraduates, who brainstormed about what he by now was calling “radio paper.” The solution they arrived at was a process called electrophoresis, in which software directed electronically charged 100-micron-wide globules of inklike titanium dioxide to form letters or images under a plastic or glass screen. Unlike backlit LCD screens requiring constant power, e-ink pixels draw less than 50 millionths of an amp, and electrophoretic screens require energy only to disassemble and reassemble the charged molecules into a new page. Once an e-ink page is formed, it doesn’t fade, and no power is required to keep it there. E-books could now run for days, even weeks, without recharging, overcoming the major obstruction to creating a viable e-book reader.
In 1997 Jacobson and five other entrepreneurs and scientists formed E Ink. Perfecting the electrophoretic screen, dubbed Vizplex, took him and his engineers seven years. In 2004 Sony introduced the first e-book reader with an E Ink Vizplex screen, the Librié EBR-1000EP, in Japan. But Sony hadn’t quite worked out the content business model, and the Librié failed to catch on.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had a better—if borrowed—business model in mind. On November 19, 2007, Amazon started selling the Kindle, which borrowed Apple’s iPod/iTunes-like hardware/content e-book ecosystem. Thanks to a subscription-free built-in wireless connection, consumers could quickly order and download Amazon e-books right from and to the Kindle. Shrewd highlighting of these and other compelling convenience features, such as a memory copious enough to store 3,500 books, sold out Amazon’s entire Kindle stock in a few hours.
By the time Amazon updated Kindle 15 months later, its success had created a strong demand for E Ink screen–based e-books. Kindle’s competition now includes the Reader, a three-model do-over from Sony, and the wireless-equipped Nook from Barnes & Noble.
Also like Apple, Amazon created a proprietary e-book coding format, while all other major publishers promote the open source ePub format, finalized in September 2007. Like MP3 music files, ePub-coded books can be read on any ePub-compatible device.
Considering how briskly this new generation of e-books is selling, it seems consumers aren’t worried about books running out of power.