As ‘video killed the radio star’, it has been said that the Internet killed the printed word. 2008 and 2009 have seen a serious reduction in overall newspaper circulation with the latest numbers showing an increase from 7% to 10% decline in just the last 6 months of 2009. A recent report from Amazon.com stated that on Christmas Day 2009, for the first time, they sold more eBooks than physical books and that the Kindle was the most gifted item from the site this holiday season. Looking at these numbers, some analysts have started asking questions as to whether eBooks will completely replace printed texts in the future. Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, during an interview with the Washington Post in 2008 guessed it would be in the next ten years:
“There will be no media consumption left in ten years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.” – Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft
Regardless of whether eBooks will completely replace printed text, their use and availability are growing. Similar to when digital cameras became popular (film vs. digital), growing along with their use are the numbers of people taking sides for the use of physical books or the use of eBooks. I, myself have been thrust into this battle as my master’s degree program has switched over to ‘eBook only’. As I have been trying to decide how I feel about them and their use, I have been creating a list of pros and cons. Here are some of the points I have come up with:
eBooks – The Good
One device, Hundreds or Thousands of Books, Magazines, and Articles
I frequently travel for work and trying to figure out what I’m going to take on my carry-on bag always turns into such a big debate. Having one device that weighs less than a pound, is smaller than a laptop, and has several different books, articles, magazines on it would make things like flying or even reading in downtime so much easier.
Much in the same way that hopping onto iTunes, downloading a song, and listening to it less than a minute later has changed many people’s purchasing habits for music; being able to purchase a text and have it minutes later for use will change how people will approach getting information… especially if priced right.
eBooks are less $$$
Face it, the quickest way to get the general populous to adapt to something new is to bring it down to cost savings. With eBooks saving users $5+ per book, depending on how avid the reader, the cost for the eReader is quickly covered and the savings begin. This also has huge implications for schools where budgets are major concerns. Instead of having to order thousands of books each year, being able to distribute an updated electronic file to all students on the first day of class cuts down a lot of costs even above the cost of the books themselves.
Technical Features and Integration with a Digital Lifestyle
I currently have my iMac, Macbook Pro, and Palm Pre perfectly syncing with each other. Why not have another device that can sync with all the others? Any time I write papers for my master’s program, its on one of my computers, so why not have my textbooks available for review or citation on my computer as well? Some eReaders and eBook software programs even have the ability to bookmark, highlight, and take notes that can be synced later. Also, when writing papers or articles, it makes it much faster to put in search terms than flipping through pages.
eBooks – The Bad
My Eyes Are Burning
This is the biggest drawback that I see to eBooks. For my job and master’s degree, I already spend something to the tune of 15-16 hours a day already staring at a computer screen. This has actually, over time, caused me some irritating issues that are symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome. I actually ended up needed glasses for computer work to help. So having to look at a computer to read text books or leisure books is just too much. Having a physical book in hand is actually a welcome alternative to sitting in front of a computer. Now, that said, as eReaders have become more user friendly, they are starting to incorporate more technology like E Ink® Vizplex™ which is supposed to make the screens resemble printed text more. Whether or not this would help in my case, though, remains to be seen.
You Don’t have to Charge or Upgrade a Book
Of course the nice thing about a book is that as long as you have some sort of light source, you can read it. There is no need to find a wall outlet to charge it. Also, as long as you understand how to read, you can pick up that book now or 50 years from now and still be able to use it the same way. With eBooks, you need some sort of electronic media to video them whether it is a laptop or a eReader like the Nook or Kindle. Since these are electronic devices, they need to be plugged in or charged. There is also currently not a set format for this sort of media. This means that there is zero guarantee that the eBook that you buy today will work 5, 10, or 15+ years down the road on whatever the new electronic device is. It also means that as time goes by there is no guarantee that the eReader or device you purchase to view the eBook on will be able to read eBooks in whatever format they come in 5, 10, or 15+ years down the road.
You Can Drop a Book
Have you ever had that stomach sinking feeling as you watch a laptop fall in slow motion to the ground? No matter which way you look at it, consumer electronics can be fairly delicate items. You drop your laptop, chances are something is broken. Drop your cell phone hard enough, its toast. A book, though, is pretty resilienet. We stand on them, sit on them, throw them, drop them, bend them, put them in the cold, leave them in the sun, and they work just as good as if nothing had happened. Outside of direct physical damage like ripping them apart or exposure to fire or water, books can take a decent beating without issue. Electronics though, unless specifically designed to, can’t usually take the same.
Digital Rights Management
Similar to music purchased through the iTunes store, most eBooks purchased through outlets like Amazon.com, have digital rights management (DRM) restrictions placed on them to prevent users from doing different things. Depending on the restrictions, a user may not be able to print any pages off, and many do not allow things like sharing or borrowing the books to friends. Technically speaking, even though a user may be ‘buying’ the book, really all they are doing is purchasing a license to use the digital file of the book for an indefinite amount of time. They never actually own the book. Another headache that can develop with DRM is moving the eBook from device to device owned by the same user. For example, for DRM restrictions only authorize a book to be used on one device at a time. So for me to go from my desktop down to my laptop or future eReader, I would have to go through the process of signing it off of one device and on to another.
eBooks – The ‘Meh’
eBooks are ‘eco-friendly’
The reason this falls into the indifference category is that I’m not really sure whether it is true or not (I welcome insight on this). Yes, at the end of the day, eBooks are not created by cutting down trees or using resources like water for their creation. So in a sense it is somewhat easy to see that they are eco-friendly. This said, though, I think people often times forget that electronic devices need electricity. Similar to why I think that electric cars are not the end all answer to auto emission pollution, devices like eReaders and laptops need electricity to be used. In 2008 only about 7% of all electricity in the US was created using a renewable resource like wind. This means that we’re still burning coal or other fossil fuel to create the electricity needed to power the computer or eReader. Also, since they are electronic devices that can contain batteries, some of the elements inside can be toxic unless disposed of properly. So, in the end, I’m not sure if eBooks are actually any more eco-friendly than physical books.
Well those are just some of my thoughts on the good, the bad, and the indifferent for eBooks. I welcome your comments on these points or input from your own experiences. Do you like them? Do you hate them? Will they replace print?