The EBook Revolution Cometh

As personal computers, mobile phones and personal music players approach ubiquity, we are about to witness the next technological revolution with the emergence of the eBook.

eBooks are based on the use of eInks technology. eInks can display white or black pixel at very high resolution and can retain its color even without active power supply. It is probably the biggest revolution in publishing after the printing press and the Internet. Just as the printing press was the catalyst for a scientific revolution and the Internet paved the way for a business revolution, now eBooks will pave the way for large-scale change in education and knowledge delivery.

It is easy to understand why eBooks are going to change the way content is produced, delivered and used. eBook readers are comparable in size with the printed book, but can store more than 1000 books (much more than the typical book collection of a single family). eBooks are much easier to produce, store and distribute. There are also significant environmental benefits. They don’t need paper and unlike LCD screens and other display technologies, eBooks do not dissipate power while displaying a page, only when switching from one page to the next. Hence eBooks are energy efficient. In terms of resolution and color, eBooks are still catching up to printed books, but they are improving. All these factors will give huge technological advantage for eBooks versus conventional technologies.

It would be very interesting to imagine how this new technology is going change in the coming years. Soon we may be able to have amazingly colorful eBooks with better resolution and quality than paper. All eBook readers may have a pre-installed set of 500,000 books that are in the public domain (thanks to Google and partnering universities like UCI and its libraries). All eBooks may be impressively augmented with audio commentaries, video commentaries, richly presented animations and interactive questionnaires in every page much like the newspapers in the Harry Potter movies. In schools, each class/course will have its own customized books prepared by the teacher and delivered to its students for a nominal fee. Also, a significant number of technical books will be based on free contents similar to the Connexions project (http://cnx.org/).

For the first time, poor people all over the world will be able to access a huge amount of quality books in the coming years. Good quality and cheap eBook readers costing less than $25 will be developed, giving education to underprivileged people. In short, every person will have a mobile library in his or her pocket.

It is also very critical to examine the impact of the eBook revolution. Looking into the past, the strong similarities between digital books and digital music make the music industry an interesting test case. Music downloading has uprooted the deeply established optical disk standards. Earlier, when faced with a similar seismic technological shift, the music industry tried to suppress and hamper content distribution mechanisms instead of embracing the new technology. This caused immense headaches for the music industry, mainly because of successful illegal downloading.

With this in mind, it is extremely crucial that a sincere and open system is established when we embrace the eBook technology. Even though a reasonably fair policy is being formulated for the consumer paperback market, the educational book industry has not yet formulated a reasonable plan. This is a real danger because the vacuum created due to the uncertainty and price imbalance between eBooks and printed text books is going to create a wave of eBook piracy that will be very harmful for the growth of the educational industry. Given the fact that students and youth are masters of new technology, it becomes increasingly important to come out with a fair strategy as early as possible. Otherwise, we can expect the emergence of new Napsters for eBooks.

Teachers, university staff and students need to come together and discuss this issue openly. Only jointly it is possible to convenience leading book publishers to come out with a proper strategy that passes the benefit of the new technology to the student community.

Personally, I want to pay and encourage excellent writers, professors and teachers to take the time and effort to publish good books that enhance my knowledge and give me enjoyment. Without good writers and quality publishers, knowledge and creativity stagnate. It is definitely justified when author and screenwriter Harlan Ellison said “I don’t ask to get rich off this stuff, I just ask to be paid.”

At the same time, it is important that book publishers realize the dramatic changes eBook technology is causing in the educational industry and muster the courage to formulate a suitable plan that is going to harness the wave of knowledge and awareness the eBook revolution will set off. It is important to remember the words of Carl Sagan, who said, “I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries/books”.

Jayram Moorkanikara is a graduate student in computer science. He can be reached at jmoorkan@uci.edu.