After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Is this the final chapter for books?

Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle spell the demise of the printed word...

Written in my garden on a warm summer's day and dispatched to silicon.com via my aggregated wi-fi system at 10Mbps.

Books have been an increasingly inconvenient luxury and soon they will be one we can no longer afford.

I have purchased, published, given and received thousands of books during my life. These works have spanned art, engineering, general interest, reference, science, technology and novels of all kinds. But about 15 years ago I started to reverse my pattern of acquisition. And then five years ago I had a real blitz and gave away many volumes.

Having had a family of four children, I realised I had to address the physical clutter as a matter of urgency. And having written books, book chapters, made other contributions to even more, and having acted as an editor and referee, I had received many free copies.

My mission is now to be rid of all the books that clutter my life. As a result universities, colleges, schools, Oxfam and friends have all been the recipients of everything from rare copies to trivial novels purchased in error. Why my zest for clear shelves? An economy of space and a new overpowering paradigm.

amazon kindle and Apple ipad taking over from traditional books

Is time running out for traditional books
due to devices such as Amazon's Kindle ebook reader, pictured above, and Apple's iPad?
(Photo credit: Amazon)

Of course there are a few books I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to part with. But the reality is that I can now get all I need online. And interestingly, all my American friends are now Kindle or iPad readers. They just don't buy books as once they did, and nor do I.

Today Amazon sells nearly twice as many Kindle copies as hardbacks, and the softbacks are the next target. Why is this? Kindle sales are accelerating as the price is lowered to counter the iPad threat. What's more, every PC and laptop maker on the planet is rushing an iPad-type device towards the production line. Add to these developments the availability of well over two million - a figure that is growing fast - ebook titles and we have quite a force for change.

Downloads are snuffing out CDs. PCs and electronic cameras did for the old wet process, and high-end mobiles are effectively wiping out newspapers. Books look like being next.

But there is an even more fundamental mechanism at work. Just as tape and CD technology could not support today's world market for the breadth and depth of music we now all enjoy, paper books cannot support humanity's future requirements.

Today the vast majority of books are published for an audience of around one billion in the first world. But another one billion readers are coming up fast in the emerging economies, and with more than five billion people now on mobile phones, half of which have browsers, it really is game over.

Ecologically, printing books is a non-sustainable technology now, let alone in the long term.

Then of course there is the format, which is fixed and always out of date, with no updates, no searching. These weighty tomes are space hungry and prone to physical degradation that turns them to dust in a matter of decades. So for most of us a book is about as useful as, well, a newspaper.

Finally, youngsters don't buy books. They increasingly come from a culture that thinks if something isn't online it doesn't exist. Furthermore, bibliophiles are getting old fast and will soon be gone.

So, in 20 to 30 years' time where will we be? Books will probably have become treasured curios from a recent past, and used to adorn shelves as pottery does today - just a thing of aesthetic pleasure for the owner - but absurdly expensive compared with an ebook costing pence.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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