There's an old but clever internet parody describing the "Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge device (BOOK)." This device is described as a "revolutionary breakthrough in technology" that is compact and portable, never crashes and supports both sequential and indexed information access.
Though satirical, the article makes excellent points: the printed book is indeed an information technology device, arguably the oldest in widespread use today. (See http://www.zedtoo.demon.co.uk/humour/book.html to read the entire piece.) Printed books are widely available, require no ongoing power supply, are easily operated, and incredibly popular. Is there any rational reason for moving to a new technology?
I count myself as a book lover and-as an author-have a strong affection for the printed book. Nevertheless, over the past few years, I've transitioned from buying maybe a hundred printed books per year to almost none.
I first started transitioning away from the printed book once technical books became widely available in PDF format. I maintain a professional library of several hundred books divided between my home office and my office at Quest Software. However, I was often frustrated when I wanted to refer to a specific book while travelling or when at the "other" office. Having a PDF technical library on my laptop ensured that I would always have access to the relevant book.
I found the advantages of the PDF to be decisive, but only for reference books. For books that deserve a cover-to-cover sequential read - including almost all fiction and certain technical texts-the PDF experience was clearly inferior. The PDF is not suitable for reading in all locations-on public transport or in the living roo-and the experience of reading a PDF on a monitor is simply not as pleasurable as reading a paper book. For those scenarios, the printed book remained a superior technology.
Early attempts to develop a book-reading technology that could match the printed book for casual reading were unsuccessful prior to the introduction of Amazon's Kindle. But in the past 18 months, the Kindle has created a substantial market niche and many enthusiastic adopters-including me.
The first Kindle was an ungainly device with many drawbacks. However, it had some key features that led to healthy adoption. First, "electronic ink" is a passive display technology that provides a display minimizing eye strain and allowing for negligible power consumption. Second, the Kindle is tightly integrated with the Amazon book store in a way similar to the iPod's connectivity with the iTunes music store. Books can be ordered directly from the Kindle and delivered wirelessly within minutes. And, of course, you can store an entire library in a single device-it really is like an iPod for books.
A feature of the Kindle that I have found surprisingly valuable is its ability to change font sizes. Font sizes suitable for younger eyes do not always suit older eyes. In conditions of poor lighting or when you are particularly tired, adjusting the font size is a real advantage. Amazon even allows the Kindle to "read aloud" most texts, resulting in an optimal reading experience for people of varied visual acuity, and even for the blind.
The Kindle is not perfect, nor is it the only device of its type available today. However, the existing product-in my opinion-really does provide an experience superior to the printed book in many respects. With PDFs on my laptop for technical references, and my Kindle for fiction and other books, I now rarely feel motivated to buy a printed book.
It's sad in some respects to abandon the printed book technology, which has provided so much entertainment and education. But the words, stories and ideas are what define the value of the book - not the delivery mechanism. If an electronic device can provide a better reading experience, then I am all for it.