Forget the Kindle and iPad: Paper remains a superior technology

From my archive - originally published on 14 January 2010

Apple are about to unveil their tablet computer after months of speculation. Predictions that this will be a game-changer to match the iPod and iTunes may be a bit premature as I wouldn't be writing off paper-based media for a while yet.

Electronic readers have a long way to go before they become a necessary consumer durable. After all, if paper was invented today it would be regarded as revolutionary. With paper you have a medium that is portable, convenient, relatively cheap to produce, easy to use and doesn't require any batteries. It's light, water-proof (and yes, I have seen the waterproof Kindle) and can be used to publish pretty much any content in any language.

If you consider the humble book or magazine as a device, then paper-based media still provides a superior experience for reading large quantities of text. There's no illuminated screen to deal with, the "page turning" user interface is easy to learn, the device can fit into your pocket, it has limitless battery life and it is pretty robust, being unlikely to suffer any kind of  system failure. The low unit cost also means that you will not have to be too concerned about loss and theft as you can always replace it cheaply if you have to.

Publishers, most of whom are suffering from falling sales and squeezed margins, are champing at the bit at the prospect of Apple repeating the success of iTunes for the written word. They have failed so far to monetarise online content, relying on unreliable advertising-based revenue and fighting against consumer reluctance to subscribe to web-based content. The hope appears to be that Apple's new device will help to lead the industry away from the desert of non-paying customers.

We may have to wait for this revolution though, as publishers have a way to go before they can leverage the technology. Ben Hammersley of Wired UK recently pointed out on his blog that present workflow and production techniques for magazines do not currently take into account hyper-linked, rich media content. There's a lot of change required in production methods before a jump can be usefully made from print-based to e-enabled media.

Ultimately, it's down to the consumer to decide and they may take a while to warm to eReaders. The iPod and iPhone were successes that built upon established technology and did not require any major changes in consumer behaviour.  Mobile phones had been around for more than a decade when the iPod appeared, and portable music players had been with us since the early 1980s.

Electronic readers, on the other hand, may require a more profound change in the habits of both content consumers and content providers. Music downloads are overtaking sales of physical media, but the core product has remained the same - i.e. it's still music - and consumers still regard it as valuable even if it has been virtualised.

However, consumers have become accustomed to getting their digital text for free. Would they regard an electronic version of a book or magazine, stripped of the physical artefact of paper, as a valuable item worth paying for?