What are Electronic Books?


Now that they are firmly established in the consumer sector, electronic books are beginning to demonstrate capabilities that challenge the very definition of reading. Audiovisual, interactive, and social elements enhance the informational content of books and magazines. Social tools extend the reader’s experience into the larger world, connecting readers with one another and enabling deeper, collaborative explorations of the text. The content of electronic books and the social activities they enable, rather than the device used to access them, are the keys to their popularity; nearly everyone carries some device that can function as an electronic reader, and more people are engaging with electronic books than ever before.

Electronic books have continued to rise in popularity since their appearance on the mid-term horizon in the 2010 Horizon Report and that popularity has won them a place on the near term horizon for 2011. The variety of content available — and the range of readers that cater to individual preferences — has grown over that time to the point that electronic books are a viable and easy alternative to printed ones. In addition to dedicated electronic readers, multifunction devices like the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy represent a new class of tools that merges the utility of electronic book readers with web browsing, a wide variety of applications, and an expanding set of entertainment options. The ready availability of both reading devices and digital content makes it very easy to integrate electronic books into everyday portable computing.

The most interesting aspect of electronic books, however, is not the devices they are accessed with; it is not even the texts themselves. What makes electronic books a potentially transformative technology is the new kinds of reading experiences that they make possible. Publishers are beginning to explore richly visual interfaces that include multimedia and collaborative elements. The social magazine format used by Flipboard, for example, turns the browsing of RSS-enabled web content into a serendipitous experience, a dynamic journey that changes every time it is opened. Magazines like Time, Wired, and others include interactive graphs, links that extend the reader’s experience, video, and more. Epicurious for the iPad is a rich media cookbook complete with reviews, tips, recommendations, and the ability to add recipes.

As the electronic book moves further from a digital reproduction of a printed piece, some writers are seeing it become something far richer, allowing journeys through worlds real and imagined, undertaken not alone but in company with other readers. The gestural interfaces of new electronic devices enhance the intellectual experience of reading with tactile interactions. Electronic books have the potential to transform the way we interact with reading material of all kinds, from popular titles to scholarly works. For three compelling visions of the future promised by the electronic book, see the five-minute video The Future of the Book produced by design firm IDEO (http://vimeo.com/15142335).

Standards for the creation of electronic publications are still in development, and those that exist often focus on the text and do not include guidelines for the kinds of interactivity that is possible in electronic books. As more of its media morphs into digital forms, the publishing industry is undergoing a shift very similar to the one that took place in the music industry in the last decade. New business models and methods of distribution are appearing as older ones begin to falter. While there is no clear winner among the many available and emerging formats, the acceptance and widespread use of electronic books has enabled the industry to see a potential path through the times ahead.


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