Run for your lives! The Devices are coming!

eReader_

Cyberman: Daleks and Cybermen; together we can upgrade the universe.

Dalek: You propose an alliance?

Cyberman: That is correct.

Dalek: Request denied! (Dr. Who TV Series, Doomsday)

So, here is my no-brainer statement for (rest of) the year. The devices are becoming omnipresent. First it was mobiles, now eReaders and wearable-tech are threatening to take over. With Google, Facebook and other companies working on means to track everything you search, type, say and do, the devices will soon be omniscient. And if some of the people are to be believed, they will be omnipotent without much delay.

Such dreadful depressing thoughts on Christmas Eve!

Actually, its Christmas that got me thinking about devices in the first place. Last week it struck me that gifts had to be bought! I head to the local mall (buying Christmas gifts from eCommerce sites is just plain wrong even if it would save me a fortune), ignore the marketing masterstroke of the soft-drink company that has rendered Santa and everything about Christmas Red and turn to the store of my favourite gizmo peddler.

This year, the display case was covered with eReaders and tablets. Even mobile phones and SLR cameras (last years top sellers) were hidden somewhere in the corner. All I could see was Kindle, Nook and iPads of all sizes and shapes (and prices). It was hard to see how much longer the dead-tree publishing industry could fend off the onslaught.

As eReaders (and wearable tech) are becoming mainstream, studies into their effect on people are being conducted with gusto. The latest buzz is the one by Harvard Medical School found that eReaders have an adverse effect on the sleep hormone melatonin. There are concerns about radiation from wearable tech like pedometers and smart watches too.

A friend of mine (eReader hater) told me in a fit of anger during a much-protracted discussion on the future of books – “It’s (devices are) the work of the Devil. It’s right there in the name. De-Vice – Vice of the Devil”

Ridiculous Dan-Brown style theories aside, I must admit on the topic of eReaders versus Print, I have been ambivalent. Yes I have a few favourite old books (the Fountainhead copy I mentioned in my previous post) but I have never been averse to reading eInk instead of actual ink. There are those who swear by the printed version. In fact an author posted the following on GoodReads:

“Though I enjoy the occasional eBook from time to time, I will only stop reading books printed on paper when they pry them from my cold, dead, withered hands, and even then, they will be hard pressed to take them from me.” – H.L.Stephens

Wow! That’s categorical. I have often wondered what people really love so much about books in the print form. Is there really something special or is it just a result of conditioning – most of the people who swear by the printed version are ones who really haven’t seen any other version till quite recently.

My personal poll (of people I know prefer printed books to eReaders, and can pester to answer such silly questions) revealed the following. 12% said they preferred printed books because they were easier to read when lying down, 17% said they liked printed books for the “touch”, eReaders were well…eReaders, and the overwhelming majority said they liked the “smell” of a new book and then the smell when they reopen it (if ever) years later. (One person actually said she likes printed books because they look nice in the bookshelf, eReaders wouldn’t)

Now I was hooked. I did some searching about the source of the book “smell” and quickly realized that it is a grossly under researched topic. Well long story and many dead ends later it boils down to the fact that the “intoxicating” smell of a new book is largely a function of the paper and the chemicals used in its preparation, the ink used for printing and the glue used in the binding. That smell might actually be intoxicating without people realizing it (Glue-and Bleach- sniffing anyone?) – of course the quantity is too small to do any permanent damage.

And the old book smell? Well it seems that acid hydrolysis (due to the breakdown of cellulose in the paper) and sometimes moss (if stored in moist conditions) contribute to that effect.

If you are now thinking (like I was) that all eReader manufacturers need to do is somehow add the “smell” to the reader to convert all the fence sitters – aha! There is a company that already does it! (And I don’t think it has worked like it does with cookies and biscuits)

So, the biggest barrier to eReaders taking over seems to be more psychological than actual problems with the technology. You can lend eBooks now on Kindle, you can sell eBooks, you can carry thousands of books in one small device (try lugging your bookcase onto a flight!), you can order books at your whim at 2 in the morning (Amazon and others sure hope you do a lot of it), you can read reviews before you order the book, you can read snippets, you can browse endlessly. In short there is no plausible reason for printed books to continue ruling the roost.

Except that they do!

Well people can’t explain why oil prices are suddenly tanking. But they are. That’s the problem with people – they seem to have a mind of their own!

Cyber Leader: This broadcast is for humankind. Cybermen now occupy every land mass on this planet. But you need not fear. Cybermen will remove fear. Cybermen will remove sex and class and colour and creed. You will become identical, you will become like us. (Dr. Who TV Series, Doomsday)

Bottom Line: eReaders are here to stay. They represent a paradigm shift in the way publishing and consumption of content works. Printed books are here for some more time (at least) but at some time they will have to give way. Technology will eventually improve to the point that all the psychological barriers (touch, smell) and medical concerns (eye strain, sleep patterns) will be overcome. Then other than the vested interests of the incumbents (Publishers, Printing press owners, Book Distributers) there will be no other reason to maintain status quo. Printed books (like clay tablets and papyrus) will become collectibles, but chances are I won’t be around to see that day (which is a pity, because that’s a tale I would love to tell my grandchildren.)

As Douglas Adams puts it succinctly

“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food”

Come on, the man knows the answer to the ultimate question, surely the future of eReaders is no big deal to predict.

Oh and by the way: Merry Christmas!

References and Acknowledgements: 

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Medical Experts Warn About Health Risks Of Wearable Tech, Inigo Monzon , Design & Trend, Oct, 23, 2014

What Causes the Smell of New & Old Books?, CompoundChem.com

smellofbooks.com/aromas/

E-books ‘damage sleep and health,’ doctors warn,James Gallagher
Health editor, BBC News website