I had occasion, finally, to get my hands on one of the new Sony E-Readers, and it set me thinking about the path dependency of innovation in the face of legal obstacles. If you have not seen one of these electronic-pocket-book-platform things, you will have trouble imagining how such a small change could convince many users that the world of reading is about to change. The Sony device sells for about $400 and holds up to 80 books. The one I tested had Freakonomics loaded on it, and so I read and marveled. Only the charts in Freakonomics looked a tad worse than they do on familiar pages. But one look at this device sets the mind and heart to work on the possibilities.
The screen is not backlit, as every reviewer has noted, for it is meant to substitute for the experience of reading a book and not for that of reading a notebook computer. (Competitors may decide that backlighting is more valuable to readers; more likely, a variety of products will appeal to different consumers.) The Sony unit is very small, about the size of a 60 page paperback book, or perhaps 6 iPods fused together (and that's with the leather cover). The "print" is beautiful; one can scroll ahead or back; it is very light. It is very, very good, and I think that many users would find it a perfect substitute for reading a library book, say. It uses a small amount of power when turning pages, but otherwise can stay on and bookmarked for months without a battery charge. But it is a first generation entrant. It aims to be to reading as the iPod is to listening. Students might like it as a substitute for carrying around many heavy coursebooks. It would certainly be great for bringing to class, while one left heavy books at home. But, setting aside the price of downloads compared to the price of books, heft is its only advantage thus far. It will take another generation to introduce a "Find" function, and to allow highlighting or note-taking in the margin, especially in a manner that could then be shifted to a PC. The Find function would make it superior to a conventional book, even for users who did not care about bulk. And then I imagine that a third generation of E-Readers will converge E-Reader technology with PC and wireless connectivity, so that users who seek simplicity (students who go to classrooms for example) will be able to bring just one device with them to class or to the library (if there are still libraries to be visited) or to Starbucks. It will take at least the second generation to wean us from distributing papers and memos. With this third generation, we might see the end of newspapers as we know them. The E-Newspaper will then be superior because it will have that Find function, download the daily paper in an instant (and be constantly updated), allow links, save paper, and more.
But a major hurdle is that many copyright holders have not parted with the right to make digital copies. Think of all those law casebooks that reflect permissions from law reviews and newspapers and photograph owners. It would be nice if everyone who had permission to reproduce something in a book could take that right, without renegotiation, to mean the right to reproduce in an E-book, so long as that E-book was sold in a way that substituted (roughly) 1:1 with traditional book sales. This is unlikely to occur before the digital material is safe from re-copying, and there is significant political pressure to enable the switch to E-reading. But if the law were different, the speed and path of development of these E-Readers would surely be different. Note that the re-copying problem need not be completely solved; current newspaper buyers pass on papers to others, and book buyers or library borrowers do some photocopying, but these "problems" are limited enough to sustain a seemingly good market for print.
Another thing that runs through the mind when handling a beautiful and revolutionary product is the puzzle or question of when a first mover is advantaged and when not. In this case, I suspect that Sony is disadvantaged. It has invested a good deal here, no doubt in the hope of creating a large market for E-books and in setting the standard or format for the material on these Readers. But as with video-recorders and MP3 players, and as with fountain pens and typewriters and PCs, we have seen that the initial format does not generally triumph, and my guess is that these Readers will be adept at reading multiple formats. The Sony, by the way, works with one commercial source for e-books, but claims also to work with PDF files.
I will not be investing in companies that produce paper.