Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
Ground-up trees spread thin, bleached, bound and bundled. Once clay tablets, then papyrus, then vellum - now newsprint, books, and the magazine you hold in your hands. (Sorta; if your were reading Ann Arbor Business Monthly instead of reading this online as you are now.) Paper has been the preferred medium for displaying information for centuries. Is that changing?
Shelves for Industry
Me, I'm a paper guy and I have a theory: Civilization Rests on Shelves. The more shelves you have, the more civilized you are. I grew up reading paperback and hardcover books, and have a shelved collection of thousands of volumes. I also have shelves full of LPs and CDs, and my wife Salli has a collection of cultural artifacts (barware and noisemakers) on display. I have a shelf full of my collection of this magazine with my articles in them, and other magazines where my efforts, written and photographed, have appeared. Why? Online versions of most of them exist, but I like to look at physical instances and say: "There - I made that". Somehow pointing to a folder online doesn't have the same impact.
And yet I am also an online meta-multi-media digerati sort of guy. I am writing this in Word 2008 on an 8-core Macintosh Pro and will send it via email to Jan who will edit it in InDesign and send it to the printer as a PDF. But there is one step that is analog and involves paper: the first draft of this gets printed out and goes to Salli for a quick edit with a red pen. I could send her the Word file for markup, but by using paper we have a bit of quality time together arguing about grammar while sitting on the couch.
Remember how computers were going to render paper obsolete? If you look around your office, you will see a refutation of that little theory. If your desk is anything like mine, you have a computer surrounded by mounds of paperwork, most of it generated by computer or ready to be fed into the computer.
And yet, computer manuals are becoming a thing of the past. These days you buy a computer or peripheral, and you get a tiny 2-page setup guide and a CD with the manual in PDF format. Or you have to download the manual from the product's web site. This saves the manufacturer a bundle, as CDs and online PDFs are a lot cheaper to produce than paper manuals. But I (and, I suspect most of the rest of my demographic) miss a nice little book you can grab in a hurry use to look up the troubleshooting guide.
Consider the Kindle, Amazon's electronic book device. This is a 7.5" X 5.3" jobbie that displays its contents in a convenient PDA-like fashion. You download books for around $10 a pop and read them on a crisp, hi-res screen. Over 125,000 books are available, as well as top US and international newspapers, blogs, and magazines. All for $359. No computer required; it talks to Amazon directly via Sprint's EV-DO wireless network. You can plug it into your Mac or PC via USB and see what's in the unit's memory: the books you've downloaded, etc. You can even browse the web and play MP3s with it.
The Kindle has an on-board copy of the Oxford New American Dictionary, with the ability to look up words at the press of a button. The battery is said to last for days, with a quick charge juicing it back up in a 1/2 hour or so.
There have been other attempts at this: the Sony Reader Digital Book and the iRex iLiad. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I think the major advantage of the Kindle is that it is an Amazon product, and books is Amazon's main business.
The Kindle looks like one cool device, and if it were cheaper, say in the $200 range, I would seriously consider it. It seems like a great device for travel (load up on travel guides and language books), work (reference books and such), and for general conservation of bookshelf inches. This last is becoming important as I'm running out of wall space for books at my house.
But...geez...I'm a BOOK guy, dammit. I want to see a lurid spaceship on the cover of the science fiction I'm addicted to, smell the aroma of wood pulped in service of my reading jones, and feel the edges of the pages as I turn them. But: 200 books held in a space smaller than one single paperback. It does give a geezer pause.
And the Kindle is at rev 1.0. It is easy to imagine what this might be like in a few years, combining the functionality of the current version with everything you can do with an iPhone, for instance. Speaking of which, I can foresee a scenario where Amazon is unable to sell enough of these to make it worthwhile, so they partner with Apple to make one twice as easy to use at ½ the price, while Amazon makes money on licensing and providing the content as they do know.
Bridge to Library
So imagine some future day when you have a tablet device like they have on Star Trek: Voyager. You read your morning newspaper with it, catch up on email on the train during your commute to Brighton, read the latest Vanity Fair during your lunch break, and curl up with the latest Dan Brown book in bed after dinner.
But I don't think paper books, magazines, and newspapers are going away any time soon. After all, TV didn't kill radio, radio didn't kill live music, and the Internet hasn't killed TV. Some printed material, like catalogs and computer manuals, are on life-support, but I don't see my shelves emptying out anytime soon.
http://www.amazon.com/ - there is a link from the front page
Kindle review: http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2007/11/amazon-kindle-v.html
http://ebookstore.sony.com/ - click on Portable Reader tab
Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to email@example.com.