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Digital paper won’t replace books any time soon :

This morning I was hanging around the computer lab talking to my friend John and we were talking about the digital paper/electronic ink announcement from earlier in the week. His position is that once digital paper really takes off we won’t have to carry around books any more.

My position is that books have inherent qualities built-in to the user interface that digital paper will not be able to emulate without taking on the form of books.

A digital paper book will most likely be a single page, perhaps two pages side by side eventually once the technology matures.

Books have been around a long time and the user interface is tried and tested. There may be a better way to interact with a book but we haven’t found it yet.

Back to the inherent beneficial qualities that constitute a book.

A book has multiple pages. When you are reading a regular paperback novel this matters little, but when you need to read a computer manual or reference book you often need to flip back and forth between multiple pages. Often when browsing for a subject you will look in the index or table of contents and mark with two or three fingers interesting places that may contain the information you want.

A book can be quickly closed without fear of loss of information.

You can quickly mark up any page in a book, with highlighters, pens, pencils and such as you please. You can quickly and easily bookmark multiple pages by dog-earing the page or slipping in some marker such as a Post-It note or other identifying mark. Most of my computer programming books are festooned with Post-Its marking important pages, each Post It containing a little scribbled note indicating why I think the page was important.

When I’m out and about I can carry a small paperback to read with me and if I’m done with it, I can give it to a friend or leave it somewhere public for someone else to find. I’m not in constant fear of losing a single, cheap book.

So I misplaced my paperback novel.

No big deal. I’ll just get another copy.

Also, if the book is lost or stolen, it is just a single book, with a digital book I could stand to lose hundreds of books all at once.

I can read it in the bath without fear (too much) of dropping it in the water. I can take it out at a bus shelter when it is bucketing down with rain and not be too concerned with it ceasing to function or shorting out due to the damp in the air.

For a reference book I can copy individual pages on a photocopier and just carry those with me rather than the entire book, I just carry the pages I need for the class that day, this is especially useful if I need to carry five or six books.

I don’t need a power source to be able to read my book. The batteries don’t ever run out.

Should I take it in my mind to, I can tear out individual pages to use them in a different way.

I can also make small flipbook animations in the corner of really boring reference books or those pocket dictionaries with the thin pages when I have a mind to.

When I need to have several reference books open in front of me at once, I can, without having to have multiple expensive digital paper books.

And you can easily borrow someone’s book, keep it for a day, then return it to them, they probably won’t get annoyed too much at that, but they would if you borrowed an expensive digital book that contains their entire library.

There is also a visceral quality to books.

The feel of the paper, the smell of the pages.

And anybody who loves books loves them not just for reading or holding but also having them on endless shelves around their house or flat. They want to be able to see rows upon rows of books they purchased and read and have yet to read.

Book cases of books make a statement about who you are. Even if you could afford multiple digital paper devices, who wants to see a short shelf of digital books containing your entire collection?

I think this is also why video on demand will never really supplant owning of VHS tapes, because people want to own them all, it’s the stamp collector syndrome.

Hmmm… that gives me an idea for a video game where you have to collect all items or even a card game like Trumps where you can collect cards and trade them with other people. Not thinking of football cards, but something with a fantasy theme like D&D or Warhammer.

But what about digital books that use digital paper?

Now let’s assume that digital paper can carry a lot of digital books on some sort of non-volatile memory such as EEPROM, what inherent beneficial qualities will I get from a digital book?

Well, I can carry dozens or even hundreds of books on a digital paper book.

If the information is digital I can perform a keyword search to find all occurrences of a reference to a particular subject.

Perhaps if they have some sort of touch screen I can make annotations, though I wouldn’t hold out for that feature as I can’t imagine book publishers wanting readers to be able to “mess up” their pristine book.

I should be able to easily give a copy of the book to another person if there is no copy protection on it — again, unlikely, once books become digital they will be treated just like anything else on the computer and be wrapped in copy protection.

I can imagine that eventually books would be downloadable from a publisher’s BBS so you could obtain them instantly. Maybe they would even let you read a few pages for free, like you can at a book shop, before you decide to buy it.

If there is a book loan feature built in to the device public libraries could loan out digital books (assuming I didn’t forget my digital device) with no more late fees, the digital book could erase itself from your digital paper after a specified time, though I don’t like that idea.

You could edit a digital book on the digital paper if you could attach a keyboard.

So regular books and digital paper each have some unique qualities about them and I really believe that when digital paper approaches the functionality of a book, and more importantly, the price point so we can all afford to have dozens of digital paper books, that digital paper will really take off.

The other thing is that the announcement this week was really just about a prototype display. I don’t see these devices coming to market any time soon. It is going to be at least five years before any sort of digital paper devices start appearing, ten years before the general public will want one, and I suspect twenty years (sad but true) before they really take off and can compete with traditional books and other paper based products.

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