15 October 2008

Digital versus paper

I've no doubt digital content will displace a lot of paper in the long run in many areas, though paper will remain viable for specialist applications. Digital devices will also be a plaything of the wealthy for many years but, like mobile phones, will eventually find their way into the hands of those who need them.

At Frankfurt bookfair this year, the UN Environment Programme is not handing out the usual printed catalogues, but instead providing a bamboo memory stick with sample publications (all of their publications are now free online). Trade fair visitors love such things. A memory stick is much more portable than a mound of documents. Of course there are trade-offs. Some of the documents on the stick will likely be printed on a myriad of inkjets and laser printers, less efficiently than a central print run. Yet, only those who want them will print - removing the guess work for the publisher.

Digital reading devices - Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, iRex - are fantastic. E-ink screens are easy on the eyes and you can hold dozens of publications for the weight of one paperback. Students rejoice! They are also connected: through WiFi and other options you could foreseably update your reading list on the fly.

These are book-shaped devices. There are also large, flexible screens being developed which are better suited for newspaper and magazine reading. Plastic is not the friendliest material but, being hardy, they benefit from relative longevity.

These gadgets may lack the tactile nature of print publications, but digital natives are unlikely to miss the filthy hands of a newspaper reader. This won't only be an issue for consumers, however. Publishers will need to find a viable way to support the format. I suspect that if Amazon and Sony were to open up their devices, so that people could simply read any content, then we could see mass adoption very quickly. Of course there would be piracy (of the type that has made MP3 players a phenomenal success), but there would also be terrific scope for self-expression; blogs as the new podcasts?!