5 Past Predictions for the Future of the Ebook

The dream of the electronic library dates back to at least the 1950s — and arguably much earlier! But it wasn't until the 1980s and 90s that our ebook dreams slowly became a high-tech reality.

The electronic book has had quite a steady rise here in the early 21st century. Roughly 50 percent of Americans now own either a tablet or an e-reader (42 percent have a tablet, and 32 percent have an e-reader). But it took quite a bit of tinkering — not to mention marketing — to make them mainstream.

Below we have a handful of predictions from the 1980s and 90s about the future of the ebook and the various readers we'd be using to consume them.

1) Ebooks on CD

From the 1989 book Future Stuff by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein:

Do you love cozying up with a good book? Well, try cozying up with five hundred at a time!

This is the electronic book. The huge storage capacity is brought to you by CD-ROM, the floppy disk with room to spare. A specially designed small computer unit with a detachable display panel makes up the hardware. The software is just plastic, indestructible CDs, with a capacity for five hundred manuscripts on each one. The display panel weighs only 5 pounds, and is roughly the size of a legal notepad (7 inches by 14 inches by 2 inches). A 15-foot cord attaches it to the similarly small base unit, and a touch-sensitive screen makes it work. The viewing area is 10 by 6 inches.

But it wasn't going to be cheap:

If you're thinking of putting your whole library onto disk and using the wall space for a Rembrandt, you're out of luck. The cost of making your own disk could be as much as $1,500 (but to produce a duplicate of it will run only $2.50). You also could have some problems with publishing rights. Think of this more in terms of buying records. They come permanently engraved, are non-erasable, and they'll probably have your favorite author's "greatest hits" by the time you're ready to buy the unit.

2) Imagine holding 10 books in the palm of your hand

From the October 24, 1998 Associated Press:

Imagine holding 10 books in the palm of your hand — and being able to read them in the dark.

That's the idea behind and electronic book unveiled Friday.

Once the stuff of science fiction, Rocket eBook packs 4,000 pages of text and graphics — or about 10 average novels — into a paperback-size, 22-ounce device that sells for $499.

The e-reader was also going to make reading in the dark much easier:

"It's hard to replace getting comfortable on the living room sofa with a paperback," [the CEO of Nuvo Media] said. But when I get into bed, and my wife says, "The light's going off, dude! — I can tun on the electronic book."

3) Ebooks and readers must first be standardized

One concern about the electronic books of the future was the matter of standardization. And arguably, we still haven't figured that one out. In 1993, the Associated Press used the car as an example of a technology that was eventually standardized.

Under the headline "Electronic books could hurt bookstore business," the November 23, 1993 issue of the Hutchinson News:

Just as the introduction of the automobile heralded the end of the buggy whip industry, the advent of electronic books could eventually make a big dent in the bookshelf business.

Electronic books are stored on 3- to 5-inch discs. Some of these discs are capable of storing up to 100,000 pages of text and illustrations. One disc now being sold contains all the Sherlock Holmes stories, the complete works of Shakespeare and the novel "War and Peace." With this kind of capacity, it is easy to envision whole libraries being stored on one shelf no more than a few feet wide.

But the bookshelf makers shouldn't put away their hammers and nails just yet, according to Video Magazine. In the beginning, automobiles were manufactured in a confusing array of types and varieties, and it took awhile for the 400 or so car manufacturers existing at the turn of the century to be whittled down to those manufacturing the four-wheeled, gas-powered buggies we know today.

The sam thing is happening with electronic books. These tomes of the future are now being published in more than 20 incompatible formats, which are "read" by equally incompatible electronic book players.

The problem with the AP's analogy is that it ignores DRM. Back at the turn of the 20th century it didn't matter if your car was electric, a steam engine, or gas-powered — they all could drive on the same roads. This isn't true for books. If I buy a book for my Kindle with Amazon-specific locks I can't then transfer that book to incompatible e-readers and read it there. Seems like we still have a ways to go with this one.

4) Ebooks will be great for the environment

In the early 1990s most people had never touched something approximating an e-reader. But that didn't dampen excitement for what was to come — especially since they predicted it would be great for the environment.

From the May 18, 1992 Paris News in Texas:

In the competitive publishing market, utilizing this new technology would help solve major problems of distribution, printing, storage, inventory control and invoice management. And certainly there would be huge environmental savings in preserving millions of trees.

In today's economic context, the need for public and academic libraries to install Bookbank machines is also obvious. They would save enormous space in book storage, and the shared collection benefits would be infinitely more cost effective and advantageous to participating libraries.

Still, if a a challenge to embrace the electronic book concept when I haven't yet embraced an electronic book! Although I look forward to doing so because there are so many exciting features! My future power book would display the text on clean white pages that replicate the design of a hardback, it would have a backlit screen to permit reading in poor light, and the option to enlarge the type to reduce eyestrain. It could also read to me but loud, play music, provide glorious illustrations in full color, turn, the pages, attach an electronic paper clip to keep my place, search for chapter headings, underscore a passage, and allow me to make notes in the margins. Of course, utilizing adapters, I could also print out individual pages and watch my videos on it.

5) In the future, paper books will merely be art

The December 1, 1998 New York Times predicted that just because ebooks would soon be invading our homes didn't mean that the traditional book was completely disappear:

With futurologists having mistakenly predicted the end of the printed page for several decades now, no one is preparing a eulogy for the traditional book. Television did not doom radio, video did not kill film, and electronic publishing will not likely end print.

But with two electronic book devices on the market and an exponential increase in reference and scholarly material available online, many experts say that the shift from page to screen, once a Jetson-like fantasy, is now approaching reality.

And there are those, like Jeff Rothenberg, a senior computer scientist at the Rand Corp., who say they can see the day when books printed on paper will be viewed "more as objets d'art than things we use all the time."

It remains to be seen whether we're still in a transitional stage for longform media or whether this is simply the new normal — a healthy mix of both print and digital consumption. Until ebook publishers figure out more reasonable DRM restrictions or those most concerned with owning their media simply die out (read: old people like myself) it seems deadtree media will still have a place in the longform landscape.


Image: Jeff Bezos in 2007 introducing the Kindle via the Associated Press