E-Books and the Future of Reading

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Information Appliances

E-Books and the
Future of Reading
M

any of us who work in both the research
and the design communities try to
assess future directions for technology as part of our
day-to-day occupation (or perhaps preoccupation).
With the new millennium here it seems particularly
appropriate to take a moment to consider where we’ve
been and to speculate on what lies ahead. One key area
of potential innovation is information appliances. My own interest, previously at Xerox PARC and most
E-books serve the needs of
recently at SoftBook Press, has
focused on trying to understand the
people reading text
future of reading and what role ebooks might play in that arena. I am information in digital
involved in this as both a research
scientist and as a product designer.
formats. This article looks at
You might well ask what is behind
recent e-book media releases and
technology trends, current
what indicators suggest this as a
promising area. A number of trends
design issues, and future
in information dissemination, ecommerce, secure electronic distriprospects for e-books. bution, and technology suggest that
publishers, corporations, governments, and readers
alike strongly support this movement. People of all ages
commonly browse the Web for information and products. However, the costs of delivery and of warehousing physical products are significant. The associated—
annoying—delays don’t fit a world now operating on
“Internet time.”
Documents, books, magazines, and newspapers
almost all start their lives as electronic material subsequently printed and distributed. Publishers, booksellers, and retailers (or e-tailers) are strongly motivated to look
for ways to expedite their sales and delivery using Webcommerce-based systems while still honoring readers’ expectations of a comfortable and convenient reading
experience. Such a reading experience isn’t likely to take place sitting in front of a computer, typing at a keyboard.
Many of the critical elements of a reading experience
are missing from such a scenario and thus require new
technologies better designed to fit the task.

32

May/June 2000

Beverly L. Harrison
SoftBook Press

Readers want timely delivery of the items they have
ordered, access to a wide selection of material, and
lower costs, while preserving the flexibility of where
they read and when. They wish to preserve the convenience, clarity, and simplicity of the physical reading experience. Furthermore, corporations and governments want faster, more effective ways to manage documents and put information to work. And thus the e-book concept is born . . . .

An evolution in reading
Reading and paper-based documents have a long tradition. As we now recognize, dissemination of information can be vastly transformed by technological innovation—from the Gutenberg press to the World

Wide Web. A key part of this transformation relies upon
the extent to which the innovative new tools are usable
and globally available. In their earliest form, “documents” tracked accumulated wealth and records of trade goods between agriculturally based communities.
They also detailed the lives, events, and accomplishments of key people and leaders in the community. Later, documents evolved still further, from a restricted form of communication controlled by religious communities, painstakingly (and fantastically) drafted by hand, to printed matter mass-produced and available

to a wider community. These communities needed to
acquire certain skills, namely reading and writing (and
perhaps the financial ability to purchase paper documents). The tools needed to be widely deployable, readily available, and usable. This included the technologies necessary to mass-produce paper, to design printing

presses, and to consistently typeset and create printed
documents.
Distribution and billing mechanisms evolved to manage this form of information dissemination. The information produced...
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