The Future of Ebooks and New Forms of Knowledge Production

» Posted by on Mar 18, 2013 in Spring 2013 | 0 comments

The Future of Ebooks and New Forms of Knowledge Production

March 18th, 2013

The book market is rapidly changing, defying initial expectations. As digital objects, ebooks bring with them affordances that were previously unavailable in printed books. For example an open ebook using a Creative Commons license (CC-BY) can be easily remixed, reused, revised and redistributed by anyone online ( Digital books can also be dynamic and interactive. While ebooks are different in that they require an electrical device to be used and cannot yet be easily traded between readers, ebooks are increasingly adding new features and it is a technology that is yet to reach its plateau of productivity. What we think of ebooks today, is different, at least at the high end, from what an ebook will be in the second half of the 21st century. What an ebook can be will increasingly be defined by  publishers’ and authors’ imaginations.

How Far Into The Future – Gartner’s Technology Hype Cycle

While in their current stage, ebooks are primarily accessed via ereaders and tablets, they will also be accessible through other devices in the near future, such as Google Glasses, among others. Some interesting functionalities are already in use. Amazon Whispersync technology allows for ebooks to be synced with their audiobook equivalent from allowing users to seamlessly transition between reading a book’s written copy at home to listening a different chapter while running on the treadmill. According to Gartner’s Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle, media tablets are less than 2 years away from reaching the plateau of productivity, but other technologies that are important to the future to ebook formatting such as BYOD (2- 5 year away) or HTML 5 (5 to 10 years away) are multiple years away from reaching their maximum potential.#

Despite many readers continued preference for printed books, arguments that most individuals will continue to prefer to read in paper overtime seems to be skewed towards tradition and may not withstand the test of time. Our current societal preference may be linked more to people who grew up reading in print as it is only recently that ebooks have started to become more popular, that the future preferences of those born in Generation Z or in the early 2000s and later.# This generational shift is similar to the differences in desktop use between digital natives and digital immigrants (Pre-1984 and Post-1984).# The change in book preferences is more recent, as it is only in the past few years that ebooks are available in devices that compete in terms of mobility and flexibility with printed books. To someone born in the 21st century, interacting with a touchscreen is second nature.

Relativity of Time and Impending Change

Time is relative and the technologies that we grow up using tend to become invisible over time.# When brainstorming the potential of ebooks, it is important that when we think of technology we remember that printed books are relatively a modern invention and that for thousands of years information was written on clay tablets, and scrolls, or passed on orally within cultures. In a broader sense, while homosapiens sapiens have existed in this planet for over 200,000 years, movable type was only created in China in 1040 A.D. and popularized by Gutenberg after 1454 A.D.# Most of what we think of today as “tradition” is a relatively modern invention that is likely to change over time.

In addition, the impact of exponential improvement rates are transforming our world into a constantly innovating society (CIS), approaching rates of unpredictable growth.# What a book will be 50 years from now is difficult if not impossible to predict as books in the future will take many shapes and forms. Instead of looking that far into the future, this essay brainstorms possibilities within the next 5 to 15 years. The use of visioning tools such as storytech, dramatech, and the futures wheel can help us to think of different possibilities.# It is important to envision the future as a plurality, where there are multiple possible futures and that our collective actions can help shape that future. The future is but a series of possibilities that are shaped by our daily actions.  As other technologies have improved and diversified themselves over the years, so too will ebooks and the technologies surrounding them. In the short term, there is already an increased acceptance of ebooks over printed books. From 2011 and 2012 alone, ebook reading increased from 16% to 23% of all Americans, while reading of printed books fell from 72% to 67%.# It will be interesting to see how these trends hold over time.

Advent of Tablets and Other Portable Powerful Mobile Devices

In 1968 Alan Kay envisioned the Dynabook and in 2001 Microsoft coined the term Microsoft Tablet PC, yet it was not until later that decade that tablets and smartphones became an influential force in the personal computer market. In 2010 and 2011, the iPad became the most successful tablet and represented in itself most of the tablet market.# Tablets are currently the technology that is most directly impacting the consumption of ebooks as tablets and other advanced mobile devices have a competitive advantage in facilitating leisure reading. These recent technological developments have transformed the personal computing device market. Following the release of the first iPhone on June 2007 and the first tablet in August 2010, similar devices are now owned by over 33% of adult Americans and their adoption is growing at a rapid rate.#

While laptops or desktop computers allow users to open multiple applications simultaneously among other work-oriented affordances, desktops and laptop computers have disadvantages in comparison to books that have limited their adoption as a primary ereading device. Laptops are helpful within the workplace for reading emails and in office work but are uncomfortable for leisure reading.  While laptops may reach processing speeds that are higher than any tablet, they include a fixed keyboards which limits their usability. In terms of thoughtful design elements, tablets have a greater usability, utility, and aesthetic value over desktop or laptop computers.# Their community of users is comparable. Many laptops or desktop computers are also more costly than most tablets and smartphones. While this is rapidly changing as high end tablets, in particular Windows 8 Surface Pro, dual as tablets and office computers, tablets tend to be more affordable than mid-range laptops.

In addition, whereas a laptop currently may take a few minutes to boot up and have a battery that lasts less than two hours, a tablet or an ereader allows for a longer battery life which can last six hours or more. Having a less powerful processor tablets have emphasized having a longer battery life. To reach some of the most remote locations, solar powered tablets such as the OLPC Tablet XO 3.0 are also in development, further decreasing energy requirements.# When discussing ereading for the 21st century, and the growing adoption of ebooks, is important to consider the impact brought by these devices in addition to the development of the Kindle reader (Nov, 2007), as it is through these and similar devices that users can read an ebook with the same ease as they can read a paper book.

If we take into account their portability and the ability to carry thousands of book on a single device, mobile devices are much more portable than a set of printed book. For anyone with a large library that has ever changed houses, or for someone taking a large number of books on a trip, we quickly come to the realization that while a single book is portable, a library of book is difficult to transfer. One of greatest benefit of ebook is their mobility as these books occupy only a small number of kilobytes or megabytes allowing users to take them anywhere.

Rates of Adoption and Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations

While every technology may grow to be adopted by a majority of people, most technologies are unable to reach a critical mass. In terms of adoptions, individuals can be classified as innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.# Many technologies fail to extend beyond early adopter to an early majority, failing to reach the majority of the population. Five key factors that contribute to the rate of adoption of a technology are its relative advantage, compatibility, complexity or simplicity, trialability and observability. Rogers technology adoption model has been used extensively to explain or project the rate of adoption of a technology.

For ebooks, the rates of adoption were initially marginal, but have since increased rapidly following improvements in the battery life and usability of mobile devices. Apple has lead the way in improving touch user interfaces, followed closely by Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and other companies. In addition, the rates of adoption of tablets and smartphones are greater than those of desktop and laptop computers. Having a lower cost, greater simplicity, greater compatibility and a higher level of observability, these devices meet various of the criterias which can benefit the rate of adoption of a new technology. While feature or basic cell phones are likely the most rapidly diffused technology in history having reached over 6 billion mobile subscription worldwide in a short timespan, overtime many feature phones will be replaced by smartphones and phablets.#

According to Pew Research 45% of American adults own a smartphone, 26% of American adults own an ereader, and 31% of American adults own a tablet computer as of January 2013.# While only 25% of students currently prefer reading on a digital device, teenagers are increasingly accessing the internet primarily through their mobile devices.# As of March 2013, 95% of teens in the United States frequently use the internet.# This rapid rate of adoption of mobile devices helps explains the recent increase in ebook sales. In 2012, Amazon sold close to 383 million ebooks, a number much greater than the initial estimate of 252 million.# In total, Scott Devitt estimates that there were 859 million ebook sales in 2012 a number which was 45% higher than expected.  As explained through Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Model the growing use of mobile devices and ebooks is likely to continue.

Increasing Functionalities, Decreasing Costs and Portability

The functionalities of tablet and ereader devices are also improving as the Kindle software along with the software of its main competitors now allow for multiple color highlighting, margin annotations, and cross-platform access to one’s ebook collection. One of the most useful functionalities are ebooks ability to collect notes and allow for social networking. Through users are able to access their highlights and notes, as well as learn what are the most popular highlights in a book and what others are currently reading. While Kindle’s social elements are limited, they are improving.  Amazon has integrated Facebook and Twitter features.

Similar improvements are also taking place in the iPad and iOS which now links to users Twitter and Facebook accounts via the settings of the device.  Other sites such as have also tried to capitalize on social reading elements, allowing readers to share their book collections and reviews of literary works. Within iOS devices, Mac users can now use iBooks Author at no cost to create media enhanced ebooks. Other powerful EPUB3 and HTML5 editors are also available. By creating ebooks with EPUB3 and HTML5 authors can include unique formatting elements and powerful features.

In terms of portability, tablets and mobile phones provide a new level of portability. Tablets and smartphones have also increasingly gone down in prices and many tablets and ereaders can now be purchased for less than a hundred dollars, a cost which is lower than the cost of a single textbook! New gadgets such as the Arduinos and Raspberry PIs illustrate the impact of Moore’s Law in personal computing. A barebone computer, the Raspberry PI, can be purchased for $35 whose video processor is as powerful as an iPhone 4S.# In 2011 India developed a low-end tablet for $50, a cost for which hopefully future individuals can obtain a mid-level tablet or smartphone.#

Overtime, ereaders and tablets are also likely to decrease the weight of students’ backpacks and the total cost of a student’s school resources. Students will be less likely to tell the teacher they forgot their books unless they forgot to charge their device. In addition, ebooks tend to be lower in cost than printed books which can help students and others parties to save hundreds of dollars. This is particularly true of textbooks. At the University of Minnesota, the College of Education and Human Development has provided iPads for every student since 2010.# The project has since emphasized the adoption of course packets and contributed to the creation of the UMN Open Textbook Catalog through which textbook can be rated and faculty are encouraged to try a free and open textbook reducing total cost of learning for students. So far, particularly within formal schooling, one of the greatest benefits of tablets has been their potential as high quality ereading devices. Many schools have since followed suit and implemented 1 to 1 iPad or tablet initiatives.

Operating Systems, Diversity and Convergence

One of the advantages of tablets over ereaders is that they allow for multiple programs to be installed within an operating system. iOS Appstore and Google Play allow users to access ebooks in many different formats and from different publishers from Inkling, to CourseSmart, to Kobo, to many other applications. Both stores now offer over 700,000 applications to their users.# The ability to access these programs in multiple devices will facilitate the implementation of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies within workplaces and classrooms. While currently we can publish books on EPUB3, AZW, KF8, IBA, PDF, DOC, XML, HTML, among other formats allowing for extensive design and formatting possibilities, some of these file types are not accessible on all devices. iBooks for example are only available on Apple devices. In the short term future, there is strong need for these different file types to be accessible through different devices that may be used by students in the classroom. While unlikely, as some of these formats already contain extensive catalogs with hundreds of titles, perhaps overtime there will be a dominant format for publishing ebooks as the World Wide Web consolidated over HTML and CSS.

Yet for now, a move towards convergence and BYOD policies is organically taking place as more devices are able to read different file type. iBooks for example is able to read both PDFs and EPUBs, while Kindle can also read PDF files. Another way in which there is greater convergence is by viewers being accessible across operating systems. While Kindle began offering ebooks only through their ereaders, they have since allowed ebook owners to read and mark their ebooks on most devices including their cloud reader, PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows 8, Linux, and more. Not only are file types accessible through multiple devices but ebook readers are also available in multiple devices.

In terms of books that are customized applications or mobile apps, the highly creative and engaging works of Touch Press, Push Pop Press, and Game Collage are currently only available via the iPad.# Unfortunately, while these companies illustrate what is possible in ebooks that integrate multiple types of media and interaction, they also show how for now, this is a process that will only be available for unique / special titles.

Increased Openness and Interesting Projects

Another important project that will transform ereading will be the Google Book Library Project. Having scanned over 20 millions of books and continuing to work with libraries to scan millions many more despite having slowed down due to lawsuits, Google Books can provide access to a large database of resources that would otherwise be underutilized.# Some of these books were before only available in a single library and can now be access by anyone over the internet. Google estimated that there were 180 million original works in libraries many of which are out of copyright and could be shared with anyone in the world once scanned.

Unlike a paper copy of the book which can only be used by one person at the time, through the internet there is no tragedy of commons and a copy can be multiplied indefinitely. Even more, by digitalizing these books comparisons between books over time are now possible through Google’s Ngram viewer ( Through the Ngram viewer we can analyze how certain words increase or decreased their appearance in published works. Other sites such as the Project Guntherberg also allow for access to over 42,000 books that can be downloaded by anyone with an internet connection.# With their affiliate libraries there are over 100,000 free ebooks available. These ebooks can be downloaded in multiple formats.

Other open book projects include Wikibooks, Wikipedia, Curriki, OpenStacks, Wikieducators, Saylor, Connexions, Siyavula, Boundless, along with many others. These and other projects allow for multiple individuals or anyone over the internet to contribute in the creation of a book. These books are shared openly and can be modified by anyone who has a copy of it. The ability for anyone to contribute to the creation process has led to the organization of booksprints and other events that attempt to create books in a short period of time.# A booksprint, is a process that borrows heavily from the hackathon process where experts get together, divide their responsibilities, and create a product in a short period of time. These new creative processes are possible due to technologies such as Github, Google Docs, and other collaborative platforms that include versioning control systems. Openness and increased collaboration has increased due to increased connectivity. Greater connectivity provides us access to a greater amount of information than ever available before, and also allows us to join in the creative process. These are changes that are now possible that will only improve overtime. With greater total production, perhaps a greater emphasis in collaboration will also lead to an increase in quality in addition to quantity.

Anyone Can Publish, Anyone Can Contribute

Another benefit of the impact of technology in book publishing is the new ability for writers to publish their books independently. Hundreds of thousands of books are increasingly being shared as through websites that have not been formally published but are impacting the education of those who read them. While a published book obtains an ISBN number and can be easily located, many internet works lack these numbers. In addition, the boundary between some reports, children books, workbooks, and other shared digital files can be blurry. Books that are distributed as applications through the Apple App Store can also lack ISBN numbers despite being ebooks with unique features.

It is difficult to tell how many works are being produced and share online. From recent publishing figures it is estimated that 328,259 books were published in the United States in 2010 and approximately 2.2 million books were published worldwide that year, however that number is even greater when we account for all of the ebooks that were shared through the internet.# The internet is growing rapidly partly due to user generated content. The blogosphere is one way in which news stories and experts share information. Some books are created using WordPress and are very similar to blogs, and a series of best blog articles could potentially be collected and shared as a book instead. Books about twitter messages have also been published.

To have a better idea of the growing extensiveness of internet content, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt mentioned in 2010 that while there were close to 5 exabytes of information created from the beginning of time to 2003, that quantity of information was now being produced every two days.# The rate of production has only increased since. EMC estimated in 2011 that the internet would reach 1.8 zettabytes by the end of the year having grown by a factor of 9 in five years.# A similar growth is true of every media as a result of improved communication systems. Uploads to YouTube total more than 72 hours of video every minute.# As the internet has grown, so has the ease through which an author can create a book. Displacing the publisher, many ebooks enter the market independently. It is increasingly simple for a writer to publish their own ebook through Amazon, iBook Author, or various other authoring programs.

What Else Is Possible?

Having been born in 1984, the year Apple introduced the personal computer, I consider myself a digital native, a person who has never had to clearly outline a paper or worry about typing the right word the during a first draft with fear of being unable to fix a typo or a poor word choice. Being both a second language learner and moderately dyslexic, the personal computer allowed me to produce written works whereas before 1984, I would have been too error prone to work or maintain a high level of productivity as an author. The diverse benefits of technology for people with disabilities are well documented, but some of these changes affect us all, affecting how most of us now interact with a particular tool. In the case of ebooks, it is a media that is increasingly but not necessarily multimedia rich, and one that anyone with good content and time can create for.

While our ability to type in word processor and reformat any part of a paper has been available to individuals writing a draft since 1984 and for some before, published works have remained static, printed works in particular were only modified with each edition. With static text there is a need for publishing new edition of books, or for a newspaper to publish a correction in the following edition. As we move into a digital landscape, correction can also be made to the virtual editions, and new editions of ebooks can be pushed to individuals through their Kindle, iBooks, Kobo or other ebook management system. Similarly to how we receive updates to mobile apps, so too can ebooks be improved, enhanced and updated overtime. By never being printed, an ebook can potentially remain open as a perpetual final draft.

These and other changes are likely to take place in the near future. While predicting the future is difficult and point us into multiple possibilities, books are likely to increasing their flexibility and connectivity over time. Increasingly, everyone will also have access to tools that allow for the creation of high quality ebooks. Rather than emphasizing the importance of access to the tools of production, having or producing high quality content and having an effective marketing structure will be an author’s main limitation in producing ebooks and other types of media for a living.

High quality tools are currently available but as a fragmented market authors currently most choose between the benefits of one system over another. Overall, ebooks are likely to gain flexibility in terms of the types of media that they integrate and allow for greater for modifications and transferable between devices and individuals. Increasingly, there will be more tools available but not every book will require every tool, rather selecting the right tools for the right audience will be a part of an author’s challenge.

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century we are able to already experience books that include games, interactive infographics, hyperlinks, movies and images that react to the user who is navigating through the ebook and also explain a subject in multiple ways to the reader. Touch Press and Push Pop Press have pushed the limits in iOS publishing by creating highly interactive books. These books allow users to rotate 3D objects and to modify variables in infographics. They are very original but also difficult to produce. For example, In Al Gore’s Our Choice a person can blow through the microphone to simulate wind and activate a virtual windmill.

Media rich books are great, and may be increasingly important for engaging students, but with greater production of media, we must emphasize diversity. Not all books should integrate multimedia but it may be useful for many. The future of the book and the ebook is a future of greater diversity, and a future where authors need to learn about the different licensing and distributing tools available. This greater flexibility and plethora of possibilities is likely to increase diversity and further personalize and improve an individual’s learning experience!

Hope you found this article interesting. If there are particular changes that are taking place that you feel should be added to this article please add them below in the comment section!

Thanks. Alfonso