On my train ride home last Friday the man seated next to me remained hunched over his iPhone for the entire ride as he read long articles on the Web. As the train approached his stop, he slipped the iPhone into his pocket, but in the fifteen seconds it took for the train to fully pull into the station, he had to check the phone again. As it happened, that same day I'd dropped by the Michigan Avenue Apple Store during my lunch hour to check out the iPhone. I must have appeared a little too interested because the store security guard stood next to me for a while. Apparently he was worried I was going to chew through the steel cable bolted to the iPhone and walk out with the unit.
My point isn't that Apple's new touch screen technology is irresistible--it is--but that it could develop into something that ebook technologies (Sony's and, soon, Amazon's) so far have failed to accomplish: become a true convergence device for reading. Ben Vershbow at if:book isn't especially impressed with Amazon's forthcoming Kindle. He focuses instead on Google's less splashy but potentially more important announcement that they will sell access to a selection of books. Vershbow looks ahead a few years to when Google sells access to every book in its collection. Then things get really interesting:
By then a good reading device will almost certainly exist (more likely a next generation iPhone than a Kindle) and people may actually be reading books through this system, directly on the network. Google and Amazon will then in effect be the digital infrastructure for the publishing industry, perhaps even taking on what remains of the print market through on-demand services purveyed through their digital stores. What will publishers then be? Disembodied imprints, free-floating editorial organs, publicity directors...?
While I like the idea of ebooks, like a lot of people I doubt they'll ever completely replace books as physical objects. Everyone knows publishing houses have to adapt to the new conditions of the public sphere, including, I would imagine, people who work for book publishers. Some publishers have already been aggressively courting online communities for both producers and consumers of literature.
Perhaps we should be paying less attention to the impending end of the printed page and pay more attention to the impending end of the PC. The iPod didn't just kill off the CD and opened up a whole new decentered distribution system; it also killed off the giant stationary stereo system. Similarly, the desktop computer is still tied to its origins as a corporate workstation. Laptops aren't the answer, either. Even my ultraportable Fujitsu laptop is too bulky for spontaneous use--not to mention a backbreaker on my bike commute to the Purple Line station. Portable devices like the iPhone and the iPod Touch represent plausible alternatives to laptops and desktops as conduits to the Internet and as aggregators of reading, viewing, and listening material. The "nascent online communities" that Vershbow predicts will be the "new imprints" will depend not only on the infrastructure of Google and Amazon, but also on highly portable wireless devices. A fully decentered means of distribution won't really happen until the mode of consumption becomes fully integrated into the ways people actually read. Desktops and laptops (which are mostly used as desktops) not only lack the portability of a printed book, but also the intimacy of the paperback—or the iPod. Once reading on a wireless device becomes as engrossing and as personalized as writing in a book you own or listening to your idiosyncratic music collection, then a truly post-industrial publishing model will be possible. From the looks of that guy with the iPhone on the Purple Line, that moment may be closer than we think.