Friday, February 27, 2009

Is The Writing On The Wall For Print?

Two of my recent entries--Can Newspapers Survive? and Can Comics Survive?--as well as my previous links on the same subject, and my posts about The Kindle and e-reading, have given me much food-for-thought.

Science-fiction has been the harbinger for some of mankind's technological advancements: Jules Verne foretold the submarine in his story, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Isaac Asimov did the same with the Internet via his Multivac creation. There were numerous stories about cloning even before Dolly the Sheep came to be. Arthur Clarke talked about satellites way before mankind launched all those space stations orbiting the Earth, floating above our heads. Through their stories and their characters, these authors explored how their concepts and ideas affected mankind.

But with the speed of technological advancement, we don't need science-fiction stories to see how and where things go, and how we're affected. Within our lifetimes, we can identify the movement of technology in the different fields that play a part in our daily lives.

Music: Believe it or not I still remember 8-tracks, the precursor of the cassette tape (there, I've gone and dated myself again). My father had an 8-track player in his blue, 2-door Chevy, a huge car whose backseat was as big as a hotel bed for one person. Its partner was not the vinyl record, but spool players (one disc of rolled up tape about the size of a frisbee rolling into another, with the reader inbetween, sort of like a massive cassette tape); my father still owns one--and it still works--as does my father-in-law, who tried to pass his on to me when they were cleaning their house out last January, and which I politely declined. These were replaced by the cassette tape and the Walkman, and we know where these inventions are now: In museums. The vinyl record is making a comeback, thanks to the popularity of DJ's, but for a while people were sounding its death knell. And now, these same people are playing taps for the compact disc, thanks to downloadable digital music files like mp3's.

Video: Betamax vs. VHS is so old news, right? VHS won, right? And their greatest contribution to mankind is not just the comfort of watching movies in our own homes and at our own times, but easy-to-watch porn, right? Well, where's the VHS player now? I still own one, but I think I'm in the minority. Many of my friends my age or older don't have theirs anymore. The VHS was replaced by the VCD. And where is the VCD today? Same place as the Walkman, in the museum (though some places still sell them, I believe). Its popular life lasted much shorter than cassette tapes did. DVD's may still be in use today, but can you see a time when they'll be replaced by digital video files, or smaller discs encoded with new technology? I can. And porn? Just use a search engine and get your fill.

Communication: I remember being so amazed by my family's first push-button telephone. It beeped musically whenever you pressed the numbers, and had a cute electronic ring, much more fun to use than our old, black, rotary-dial phone that was as heavy as a bowling ball (the lighter ones, of course, but still, a bowling ball). Where are these push button phones now? (You know where). Heck, where are landlines now? True, they're still in use, but landline revenues have either declined or plateaued, replaced by mobile technology, VOIP, and internet communication programs. Do you still remember when owning a cellphone, those that were as large as a schoolkid's lunchbox, was a luxury? The cheapest cellphone today outperforms those lunchboxes, have personalized ringtones, and can take pictures, to boot. And let's not get into pagers. I threw mine away a long time ago, and the product has gone back to being a niche product for doctors, the segment for which it was originally meant for.

Given all this, and this latest bit of news about a 150-year-old newspaper closing down, it's easy to see where printed material may be heading.

I can foresee a time when The Kindle and other e-readers will go from being black-and-white to full color, and when that time comes, they will be able to serve up not only text, but full color images. Magazines and comics can then be sold digitally, just like music and video files are right now. Currently, e-Readers are an early-adapter's product, but remember, lunchbox cellphones were the same too; now, candy-bar and clamshell cells are everywhere. Laptops used to be rare, yet today their sales (and that of Netbooks) are growing while desktop sales have evened out. Even the first generation iPod, the one that was just 5 gig in capacity, was also an early-adapter's product. Today, mp3 players are more common than discarded candy wrappers in a big city.

Once a certain measure of popularity, ease of use, and economies of scale are reached, e-Readers may become quite the common item. Let me put it this way: If Apple starts making e-Readers (the iRead?), and they do so with the same elegance of design and simplicity of use that defines the iPod, don't you think this product will sell? Amazon's Kindle, for example, already has backorders, and for an early-adapter product, that's pretty good.

Maybe saying "the writing's on the wall" for print is too harsh. After all, there is something to be said for holding the actual physical product and flipping pages while reading. Perhaps, like landlines, physically printed material such as books will still exist, but just within a steady and stable plateau. Nonetheless, I still believe technology is bit-by-bit making its mark on the printed word.

Hey, I like actual books as much as the next bibliophile, thank you very much; but the idea of being able to carry hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, in a small device that can be conveniently brought anywhere, certainly has its appeal.


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