E-books: It’s All About Timing

When I was a child, I remember skateboards arriving on my street in the mid 1970s as the latest fad. Some kids could ride them, most couldn’t (I didn’t even get close). Then skateboards seemed to fade for a decade or so, only to re-emerge in a much, much bigger way in the early 1990s with – I think – the West Coast surf/mountain bike/ showboard/grunge culture.

I may have got this cultural sequence and referencing wrong, but the point is, as with many things in life, the timing appears to be crucial. It’s the same with e-books.

Nine or ten years ago, Glassbook, MS Reader, Rocket E-book and many others were battling it out for universal acceptance. Poor revenue models (does anyone remember Steven King’s ‘just-leave-a-buck’ system?), a lack of useful content (out-of-copyright material is out of copyright – i.e. free – for a reason, but hats off to the excellent Project Gutenberg nevertheless), the unwillingness of publishers to do anything other than dabble and the dotcom crash all ensured e-books remained peripheral.

But now they’re back. But why will it be different this time around, especially in higher education? I would say that there are at least five good reasons.

First, the largest global online bookseller (see Amazon’s Kindle) and the one of the largest technological manufacturers (see Sony’s Reader) are now key players. Publishers will trust both of these companies. Second, there is an acceptance that all traditional media companies (music, news, publishing) have to produce new revenue models not based on rigid digital rights management (DRM). Third, the increasing willingness (albeit tentative at the moment) of academic publishers to release useful material in digital form. Fourth, the public realisation that the emergence of the e-book in no way signals the death of the printed book. (How can it? The paperback surely is an example, in design terms, of the perfect combination of form and function.) And finally, the technological developments in educational infrastructure and the changing expectations of students.

So what does this mean for the future? Well, I genuinely believe that we are not far away from a situation where a student on a wireless-enabled campus at the end of a lecture is able to connect to that university’s Amazon storefront, check his or her credit balance, buy and download the chapter, section or pages recommended by the lecturer (not the whole book, mind), and then read, annotate and bookmark this in the coffee shop five minutes later. That student may even click on the hyperlinked references in the text’s bibliography and purchase additional ‘knowledge chunks’.

In effect, rather than buying several large printed textbooks, many of whose chapters will never be consulted, a student, during his or her degree, will construct a bought library of many of these high-quality knowledge chunks, each of which is highly specific to the course of study.

The hardware – whether a bespoke device, iPhone or netbook – is fun but, despite the whiz/wow factor, really not that important. Neither is the format of the material (PDF or HTML/XML), although I prefer the latter as it  is far more powerful and long lasting.

But connectivity, mobility and, most crucially of all, content are absolutely key. Excellent standards in the first two are already with us; for the third, it’s time for the academic publishers to climb back on their skateboards. They may tumble once or twice, but they really cannot afford to miss this potential market, DRM or not. In our world of VLEs and PLEs, the gains will be enormous.

Simon Kear

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