Will Print Books Disappear, Like The Typewriter?

Do you remember Polaroid cameras, manual typewriters, or maybe the slide rule? Those technologic marvels flourished within our lives, yet a significant portion of our children and grandchildren has never held one in their hands. My point: An adoption of new technologies may easily happen within a person’s life span.

Of the many destructive technological changes taking place today, perhaps one of the fastest moving is the replacement of print-books with the multimedia enhanced e-book and e-reader.

It may surprise you that Wikipedia lists the first e-book in Project Gutenberg in 1971. Designed for use on a business computer, those early e-books were little more than an electronic presentation of a print-book. They predate the Microsoft personal computer (1980) making the e-book 40-years old!

How old is the e-book reader? Wikipedia lists the Rocket e-book reader, at 22-ounces and capable of holding ten e-books, as a 1998 invention. The Rocket failed in the market and the first warmly received e-book reader was the $299 Sony Reader, a 6-inch e-ink reader launched in 2006. The first mass market e-reader was the Amazon Kindle in 2007.

Although the tablet e-reader is more than a dozen years old, the modern e-reader has been used by a significant portion of the population for only five years!

Now back to destructive technological change. Those Polaroid cameras, manual typewriters, and slide rules were replaced with faster, easier solutions and ceased to exist. It seems that a destructive change is so complete that the old technology ceases to exist within a few years. Institutions representing these obsolete technologies must also change or cease to exist.

What makes the e-book and e-reader destructive to the print book? An e-book weighs nothing. It has no physical existence except as a digital file on an electronic device. You can carry around hundreds of them in a small e-reader. Retail stores selling e-books require no shelf space and you can buy an e-book within seconds from the comfort of your couch via the Internet.

Searching, linking, highlighting, annotating, and copying of an e-book is easily accomplished with an e-reader. You could do the same on a print-book; however those notes are lost on that shelf of seldom used books. Electronic notes and e-book quotes are easily available on your tablet computer – copied there by apps like Instapaper.

In May, 2011, Amazon reported that e-book sales surpassed sales of printed books.

Does this mean that print-books are suddenly obsolete? Yes! Does this mean that print-books will cease to exist? Yes! How soon? Significantly less than a generation is the experience provided by examples of other destructive technologies.

How about libraries and retail bookstores? Will they cease to exist?

Just as other institutions affected by destructive change, libraries and bookstores will have to morph to accommodate the e-book. Since e-books do not require shelf space, book stacks will shrink and only quality books will fill the remaining shelves or become museum pieces. The vacated floor space should become gathering and meeting spaces, coffee shops, and other amenities for gathering of the community.

Book stores are already changing to become gathering spots. They will continue to supply quality and children’s print-books but their major retail will be in e-books distributed through their web sites and book clubs.

So, I’m predicting that e-books and e-readers will replace print-books within a short span of time. Surrounding institutions will change or parish.

How quick will this change take place? Your guess is as good as mine. However history of destructive change predicts a short 10-30 years before the change is complete. Print books will join the rank of dimly remembered objects like the typewriter.


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