postheadericon ECS: Rise of the E-Book


Surprisingly enough, the rise of the electronic or digital book (e-book) began just around the time that the Internet was being hatched in US universities. Michael S. Hart, a grad student at the time, founded Project Gutenberg in 1971, with a goal of distributing 10,000 of the most consulted books in this new format, and to do so by the turn of that century.

The very first e-book was America’s Declaration of Independence, and like most of the early models was distributed in plain text, which made them look no more exciting to read then most emails of the past decade. Today, e-books rival the look and feel of the modern paperback, and have been enhanced to include interactive illustrations, inline hyperlinking, and social networking features (think “I Like This” while reading).

But what exactly is an e-book these days, how do they work, and why the change you might be wondering...

The modern e-book of the 21st century is much more then the book of the 16th century, which for hundreds of years was simply typography applied to paper and bound together with an attractive front and back cover, usually printed at much expense and distributed via publishers, booksellers, and shops. This soon-to-be-arcane format has filled uncountable shelves in millions of brick and mortar libraries around the globe, and it’s probably safe to say that most of the human species has at least held one, if not read several.

Since reading is akin to eating or working or playing as an aspect of what it means to be human, it’s no wonder that any change in the format of the traditional book would raise eyebrows and make us take note. The e-book has done just that by replacing the traditional format of paper and ink with digital bits and bytes, and introducing a new device called the e-book reader.

Now while Michael S. Hart and the folks behind the Gutenberg Project had no such device (just huge super computer to view the new format), with every advance in computer miniaturization, new ideas for the perfect e-book reader have sprouted.

Personal computers were essentially the first mass-produced e-book readers, as e-books could then be read by simply getting a library of books loaded onto a CD. One CD could hold about 600 titles in the older format of the e-book, which was just text and few pictures if you were lucky. Not very exciting, and nothing that would make you drop your favorite paperback and run to your computer whenever you wanted to read.

But then something magical happened. Computers became small enough to place on your lap - comfortably - and now computers can be comfortably held in your hand (just glance down at your new smartphone, for example). This was the game-changer for e-book popularity.

With the invention of the PDA (personal digital assistant) and then smart phones, a near perfect device had been created that could replicate the look and feel of the common book, and could then be filled with e-text books, e-magazines, and entire e-libraries of reading material. Interfaces were devised that simulated how people traditionally read a book: by flipping one page at a time, and placing a bookmark between the pages when it was time to go to bed.

Advances of late in screen resolution has made it possible to make reading small text on small screens comfortable to the eye, as many of us can spend all day flipping pages while studying for exams or getting through a riveting mystery yarn.

In the past few years, dedicated reading devices like the Nook and the Kindle have sold in the millions, as these special tablet PCs have one goal in mind – to provide the reader with a traditional book-reading experience, albeit dependent on battery life instead of ambient light. And these devices also sport e-ink, which is a technology that makes it hard to tell the difference between the device’s screen and a real sheet of paper.

Websites like Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com now sell more e-books then printed books, and at an ever-increasing ratio. Mobile manufactures are fast getting into the e-book frenzy. For example, Apple opened it’s own e-book store and started selling their own flavor, the iBook, to anyone with one of their widely popular iPhones. In just 28 days they sold 1 million copies. E-book sales in the USA now account for 5% of the book selling market, and that figure is growing by leaps and bounds each and every quarter.

Personally, as an avid reader and writer living in Nepal, I have not bought a “physical” book in years...as residents of Nepal know, we don’t have large corner bookstores occupying huge chunks of space in our shopping malls. But most readers in the country do have access to the internet, meaning that with the purchase of a smartphone, dedicated e-book reader or tablet device, we can now download any of the millions of e-book titles online and then read, for example, Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken, or if feeling nostalgic, the complete works of William Shakespeare – all while holding our battery operated Wi-Fi “paperback.”

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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