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David A. Wimsett
Providing Technological Solutions

David's interest in technology extends back to his teen years with science fairs and amateur radio. He is fascinated with hardware, but his real interest is how people use technology. David's goal in providing technological solutions has always been to listen to the end users.


Snap of a Twig

When I was young, my science teachers told me that evolution was a slow process that took thousands, if not millions of years to see a change occur. This was a very comforting 19 th century sensibility that gave the world order and consistency. Things just weren't meant to change quickly, at least not in that world view.

This notion was shattered in the latter part of the 20 th century when the fossil record showed evidence that once an advantageous adaptation appeared, it only took a few generations for it to become dominant. Rather than a slow and steady process, evolution was revealed to be like the snap of a twig.

I saw such a snap in the 1990's at a big name record store. I went in one day and the racks were filled with vinyl LP's, cassette tapes and a few compact disks. I went back a week later and found both the vinyl records and the cassettes gone. Vanished. Replaced entirely by CD's. When I asked the clerk what had happened to the records, he showed me drawer filled with LP's, all marked at 99 cents each, even boxed sets of operas that had sold for $60 a few days before.

The twig had bent for only a short time before snapping and the CD was suddenly king. A decade later, MP3 players are sending the CD down the same road as the LP and the dinosaur (although, among a devoted group of audiophiles, the LP is making a limited comeback). That iconic record store that made the switch from LP to CD could not make the shift to the Internet with its digital media and delivery. It is now out of business.

One of the architects of this movement to downloaded music was Apple with its iPod. They did not invent the MP3 player. They packaged the entire experience and make it easily accessible. The iPod fits into the Apple Store and lets people search for music, purchase and download it in a clean, simple stream. Just as importantly, they created a buzz of chic sophistication and the sense of belonging to the in crowd that made iPod synonymous with downloaded music.

Now, Apple intends to enter the eBook market with its latest device, the iPad. Again, they did not invent the eBook, and the product hasn't even been released as of this writing, but it is evident from press releases and announcements that Apple intends to bring to literature with the iPad what it did to music with the iPod, popularizing eBooks like nothing before it.

It is being touted as a general purpose device, not an eBook reader, but Apple has already announced an eBook store that will compete with that of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Personal Reader System. There are also online stores that sell eBook versions for traditional novels and for several devices. With its advanced layout and graphic capability, the iPad could also impact the text book market.

What this means for consumers depends on several factors. One is the way in which publishers embrace the new format. Books sold by Amazon and Sony contain encryption schemes called Digital Rights Management, or DMR. This locks a music or book file to a specific, serialized device so that you cannot buy a book on one reader and give it to someone to use on another reader. It is intended to combat digital piracy. Apple will also secure its eBooks with DRM.

Many people have condemned DRM saying that it restricts the flow of knowledge and it does not allow people to freely trade or resell eBooks as can be done with a traditional book. However, without DRM, publishers would be reluctant to release their books in digital form. A digital copy that is pirated or shared makes no money for the publisher or the author.

This was the rationale that was originally used to create DRM for music files and so get the record labels on board. Yet, many small, independent bands who could not get a record deal found that, by posting their songs online for free and without DRM encoding, they were able to create a following of people who would buy and download their albums and come to live concerts. These Indy bands soon drew a large audience while completely circumventing the traditional record labels.

It is possible that a similar movement could occur with authors shut out of the traditional publishing path. Already, writers have posted their works online for free. Some ask for a donation of whatever the reader feels is appropriate. One writer in Australia makes a modest living from donations at his free site. The iPad may increase awareness and popularity of eBooks to a point where Indy authors abound with new ideas and voices that traditional publishing houses would ignore.

The iPad, like most other Apple products, will influence designers to modify their products and move from utilitarian to cool. The buzz in the press pits Apple and Amazon as the only contestants in a life and death battle. That may not be the case. The Sony reader has a very large following and is tied into the Google library. Google itself has the goal of digitizing every book ever written and is well on its way. As well, there are other players who are offering readers and, while the Amazon Kindle only works with Amazon's proprietary book format, an international format called EPUB can be read on many devices including the Sony PRS and the Apple iPad.

We are approaching the snap of a twig. The new adaptation has appeared and it seems to be advantageous, though it could have disastrous consequences for some. Will Chapters go the way of Sam the Record Man? It's unlikely in the near future. Printed books will remain for years to come and many of the large chains have fashioned themselves into destinations and social hubs with events and coffee.

It is the independent book stores that could see revenues dry up if paperback book sales disappear. The eBook stands the best chance of replacing these in the near term. This would be a blow to authors who find support and much needed exposure from the smaller stores. It is an ironic trade off, for we are likely to see new voices expressing new views in a format that is strangely familiar and shockingly new.

 

 

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